AUSTIN, Texas -- Two maestros collide here and, no, I'm not talking about maestros of basketball, although each surely qualifies. I'm talking about maestros of the art of Responding When Some Fans Have Commenced Grousing About Your Coaching.
It's a rare, peculiar art, but in a society in which some fans often commence grumbling about the coaching -- which covers just about all societies, by the way -- it can help to hone the knack.
Plop down in enough press conferences through the years, and you know when you've heard a virtuoso.
In Austin, we've heard two, and while that doesn't compensate for South by Southwest leaving town, the coaches in the NCAA tournament's alleged hot-seat match have given us a pristine tour of the keys to RWSFHCGAYC:
Accept reality. Don't complain.
"That's the profession we chose," Tubby Smith told reporters in Minneapolis before his Minnesota enigma came to Austin to face UCLA, and that made a fine start. By Thursday, he and Ben Howland made melodies in separate appearances.
Howland went with the inarguable reminder: "Real adversity is someone out there who doesn't have a job," he said. "Real adversity is someone who's trying to feed their kids and struggling to make it. Real adversity is having your mortgage under water. And there's so many things that are so much tougher than what we deal with in our world of athletics."
UCLA got to 25-9 and a Pac-12 title from a skittish 5-3 start, but missed the tournament two of the previous three years. Minnesota got to 20-12 with a 5-11 finish piled messily atop a 15-1 start. "It's there, it's real, it's out there," said Smith, who coached 10 years at Kentucky, where fans have stated opinions on occasion. "So, as coaches, though, we deal with that as part of the job."
Well after telling the story of how John Wooden almost coached Minnesota, Howland concluded, "I'm very lucky, very blessed, and just feel really fortunate to be here today with you guys and looking forward to our opportunity tomorrow."
Complimenting the company of reporters isn't mandatory to the art, but it's a deft touch nonetheless.
Confess your human fallibility; you've earned the right.
Asked whether he'd located a preference for how many players to use, Smith said, "I've tried a little bit of everything, haven't I? I mean, it's been up-and-down. We have tried to go with a deep bench, we haven't been productive. We have gone with a short bench and haven't been productive. But then we have been productive, too. It's been inconsistent. We have played a lot of guys and it's paid. And we played a few guys in some games and it's paid off and vice versa. So just maybe if I would answer your question, have I found it? No."
Then, because he knows he has won a national title (1998, Kentucky) and had 17 straight 20-win seasons and reached 17 NCAA tournaments in 20 seasons, he added this: "A hell of a thing to be saying right now, isn't it?"
Compliment the players.
To hear the staggered duet of Howland and Smith in their separate appearances was to gather even more respect for the generation just reaching adulthood.
Howland, who apparently has pinned the work of media doubters in the UCLA locker room to inspire the players -- thank goodness for media doubters! -- said, "I'm just really proud of our kids, and I think that kids today in general handle adversity so much better than any time before. Because it's constant."
Smith went further. After noting accurately that college coaches deal with "very fragile people that aren't fully developed mentally, emotionally, physically," and serve as "surrogate parents," he said, "And then all the other psychological things that go along with growing up in the environment we're in. I'm talking about media scrutiny, social network. I mean, it's just remarkable. I'm amazed at how young people handle it today. I mean, I really am. I'm the biggest fan of the young people, especially athletes, and the ones that I have the good fortune to coach and what they have to handle on a regular basis. And the choices that they have to make constantly. I mean constantly."
Compliment each other.
Coaches often do this such that if you listened for years, you'd think no coach ever deserved dismissal, but this mutual admiration is unmistakably heartfelt.
Smith: "We all have our ways of dealing with anything, whether it's stress or pressure, and I know Coach Howland has done a remarkable job of it."
And then Howland: "It's just a real honor to compete against him as a fellow coach. And it doesn't get any harder, because there's just nobody better. I mean, he's so good. I was reading, for example, Minnesota's been to 12 tournaments in the history of the program, and over the last six years he's responsible for one-fourth of those 12. And he does it with class and integrity. And he's a great example for his players."
Combing through Smith's run through Tulsa, Georgia, Kentucky and Minnesota, Howland called Smith "a hall of fame coach."
Artfully spill out your accomplishments en route to something else.
On his way to saying he's trying to "grow the program" and that it still has "a long way to go," Smith said, "Well, let's see. UCLA's been here, what? Forty-five times or something? (Correct.) We have been here 12. It means an awful lot. Fortunately, we have been here three times, three of the 12 times, so we feel pretty good what we have been doing."
Tonight in the Frank Erwin Events Center, one of these coaches and his team will make it just a bit harder for the other of these coaches. UCLA will exit to a fan base disinterested in first-round exits and remove itself one more year from Howland's three straight Final Fours (2006-08). Or Minnesota will exit in a third first round across Smith's six years. It's there. It's real. It's out there.
After all, at 61 (Smith) and 55 (Howland), these two long since know they occupy a zany business rife with untold variables. Ten years ago next week, they coached the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds at the Midwest Regional in Minneapolis. The No. 2 seed had gone 28-4 and 13-3 in the Big East. The No. 1 seed had won a staggering 26 consecutive games and gone 19-0 in the SEC if you count the conference tournament.
The No. 2 seed lost to the No. 3 seed in the Sweet Sixteen by 77-74 largely because one player scored 20 points in the second half.
The No. 1 seed then lost to the No. 3 seed in the final eight by 83-69 largely because one player soared to 29 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists.
The No. 2 seed was Howland's Pittsburgh.
The No. 1 seed was Smith's Kentucky.
The player, introducing himself to much of the country, was Marquette's Dwyane Wade.