March Madness is perhaps the most emotionally destructive annual event in America. Across the country, thousands of people stake their money and their happiness to 18-20-year-old amateurs. They will pretend to know which sets of amateurs are better at basketball than other sets of amateurs, then fall apart when those amateurs do unpredictable things like blow a 12-point lead with 35 seconds left.
For a team to win in March, players have to be able to suppress the raw feelings that wreak havoc on us all. Whereas players stand out for keeping their cool, coaches stand out for losing it.
Coaches are the most nakedly emotional people in the NCAA tournament. They need to keep track of the odds, they need to yell at the referees for every injustice, and they need to understand the ebb and flow of momentum. They need to make themselves vulnerable, and when the stakes are as high as they are during the NCAA tournament, we get to watch these men enact the most extreme ends of human joy and agony.
All of this is to say that coaches are our barometers as fans. They are our signal that it’s OK to freak the hell out. They are our beacons, our guiding lights, our surrogates on the court. We want them to act in our interests. We want them to scream when we want them to scream, calm the players down when we need them be calm, call timeouts exactly when their opponent seems to be taking the upper hand.
It isn’t hard to relate to a college basketball coach. Look around the sidelines and you’ll probably recognize these bench-minders’ personalities in the people you’re watching the games with. Or worse, in yourself.
1. THE SO EXCITED
Virginia Tech head coach Buzz Williams doesn’t even attempt to contain his emotion. His body is an overstoked furnace. He is constantly expelling energy, by clapping his hands, and moving his mouth, and flailing his limbs.
He’ll dance. Oh, he’ll dance.
And it’s not even clear he knows he is dancing. No one consciously moves like that. He is absolutely, and mostly wonderfully out of control.
Buzz Williams is all of those who can’t sit still — the pacers, worriers, shriekers, jumpers, and dancers. Anyone for whom March Madness is a workout. These people are wonderful to be around in the good times, and awful in the bad.
2. THE CHRONICALLY INCREDULOUS
Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo is aggrieved. I don’t know where he is or what he is doing right now, but somebody isn’t doing their job as well as they should be, and Izzo is so disappointed in them. Their burden is now his, and he believes this is so unfair. Poor little lamb:
Tom Izzo doesn’t much like taking responsibility for his team’s struggles. Some external force is always acting against his team to try to keep it down, whether it’s the announcers, or injuries, or the referees — actually, it’s probably the referees.
There is no better coach at perceiving slights, and it has worked incredibly well for the Spartans — Michigan State has been to seven Final Fours and won one national championship in Izzo’s 19 seasons as head coach. He is absolutely the type of person who would write out a long, conspiratorial message board post when his team loses by two in the Sweet Sixteen. It’s probably fortunate, then, that Michigan State doesn’t lose all that often (all-time upset notwithstanding).
3. THE PERSON WHO REMINDS EVERYONE THAT ACTUALLY THIS IS ALL MEANINGLESS
Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari is incredible at recruiting, and pretty good at winning basketball games. The fact that the Wildcats aren’t also incredible at winning basketball games — and only have one national championship and two Final Four appearances in Calipari’s eight seasons — has been a weird source of criticism against the coach.
Or at least it was. Then Calipari proclaimed in 2015, after the Wildcats won 38 straight games before losing to Wisconsin in the Final Four, that his goal has never been to win national championships, anyway.
I hate to drive you traditionalists crazy, but I'll say it again: our goal at the beginning of the season was to have eight players drafted.
— John Calipari (@UKCoachCalipari) May 21, 2015
And boy did that make people angry. Just as it might when that friend whose title pick gets eliminated in the second round doubles back and reminds you that amateur sports athletics are a modern form of indentured servitude.
Which — you’re not wrong, man, but killing our buzz.
4. THE PROFUSE SWEATER
Arizona’s Sean Miller will look like this at some point during the tournament.
And there’s nothing wrong with that, but know yourself, please. For everyone’s sake. From everybody’s pal Ryan Nanni:
That's ABSURD. If you know you are prone to this level of perspiration, you can't just decide to get frisky and not wear an undershirt. "But one layer fewer will help me stay cool!" Sean, it obviously didn't, and now we're a camera operator's whim away from learning entirely too much about your nipples. Your miscalculation was thinking you could avoid being a sweaty-ass mess. The reality is you just have to manage it.
5. THE PERSON WHO MAY OR MAY NOT UNDERSTAND BASKETBALL BUT KNOOOOOOOWS HUMAN NATURE
Villanova delivered one of the most dominant NCAA Tournament runs ever last season, capped by a buzzer-beater in the national title game that will go down as one of the greatest shots in the sport’s history. Head coach Jay Wright saw it happen, and he didn’t even flinch.
Wright doesn’t play by anyone else’s rules. He helped turn a pretty good program with pretty good talent into a powerhouse by eschewing coaching mores. A recent GQ profile described how Wright struggled at Hofstra when he “obsessed over the game strategy.” Then Wright got to Villanova, put a zen master on his bench, and stopped sweating the small stuff.
On the court, Wright is interested in how his players relate to one another, which means practicing things you might not expect. If a Wildcat takes an offensive foul or dives for a loose ball, the other four players are expected to run to him and help him up. Similarly, if a player hits a big shot in a game and gestures in celebration to the crowd, he'll incur the wrath of Wright, who spends as much time policing his kids' public displays as Duke's Coach K might spend diagramming backdoor picks.
Wright is exactly the same as the person who will be winning your bracket pool this year — cool, calm, and focused on the important things: Anything but basketball itself.
6. THE BUSTED BALLOON
Nobody seethes like Rick Pitino seethes. The Louisville head coach may seem calm on the sideline, immaculately coiffed and composed in pinstripes. The pressure is building beneath that facade, however. And every once in a while, the facade breaks.
It’s kind of scary, to be honest. Don’t be like Rick Pitino.
7. THE MID-MAJOR COACH WHOSE PLAYERS ADORE HIM
Every year, America falls in love with Cinderella’s head coach. In 2013 it was Andy Enfield, the multi-millionaire tech entrepreneur/architect of Florida Gulf Coast’s “Dunk City” basketball team that upset Georgetown and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen. In 2014, a then-35-year-old Archie Miller, younger brother of noted PROFUSE SWEATER Sean, took the 11-seed Dayton Flyers to the Elite Eight. Georgia State’s Ron Hunter wore a cast and had to coach from a stool while the Panthers upset 3-seed Baylor in the opening round of the 2015 NCAA tournament. His son, R.J., hit the game-winner, and Ron fell out off his stool and into our hearts.
There are plenty of candidates to be that beloved person this year. Miller is back, and so is Kevin Keatts, head coach of trendy upset pick UNC-Wilmington and potential hot commodity after the tournament. There is also Pat Kelsey, head coach of a Winthrop team that won 22 of its last 25 games and has made a habit of challenging all comers.
Every year, these coaches and their teams represent what’s best about the NCAA tournament, and how much fun it is when we’re not invested in the outcomes. There are people in this world who are just happy about the thing itself, to be a part of it for the first time or once again, and for whom anything that happens after the first Thursday or Friday is a gift beyond the supreme joy of being there.
These people are thoroughly wonderful to associate with and you should surround yourself with as many as you can.
8. THE DUKE FAN
Mike Krzyzewski and Duke are perfect for each other, and they can both go kick rocks.