SALT LAKE CITY — Jim Boylen is the new head coach of the Chicago Bulls, and after two weeks on the job, things aren’t going well. Picture Captain Queeg and the crew and you’ll get the picture.
Wait a minute. You don’t mean THAT Jim Boylen, do you?
The very same.
The guy who got run out of town by the University of Utah after several of his players abandoned ship because of him?
The guy who got into silly, embarrassing confrontations with reporters — that guy?!
After Fred Hoiberg was fired as head coach, the Bulls promoted Boylen, an assistant, to replace him. That was on Dec. 3. By Dec. 10, the New York Times was publishing a story headlined, “If Jim Boylen Doesn’t Soften on Bulls, Expect Another Change in Chicago.”
In his first week on the job, Boylen ordered a Sunday practice after back-to-back games; held three 2½-hour practices, including extra conditioning work such as wind sprints and pushups; ordered his players to watch videos immediately after a loss instead of the next day; and subbed out all five players twice during a loss.
The latter occurred during a humiliating 56-point loss — the worst in franchise history — to the Celtics. One player complained that Boylen’s substitutions were embarrassing. When a reporter brought this up, Boylen didn’t back down. He said he was embarrassed by the players’ effort and that, by removing them from the floor, he had saved them.
The players were so upset by Boylen’s demands that they reportedly contacted the players union and organized a boycott of the next day’s practice. The players showed up at the area the next day, but refused to practice; instead, they held a players-only meeting, followed by a meeting with coaches.
None of Boylen’s demands would raise an eyebrow in high school or even college, but the NBA is another matter. The players’ exorbitant salaries make them more valuable and hence more powerful than a coach, which means they often decide how much coaching they’ll tolerate. Put millennials in the mix and, voila, the mess in Chicago.
Boylen says it’s his job to push players out of their comfort zone, but that doesn’t fly with today’s players. The New York Times’ Mark Stein got it right when he wrote that the Bulls’ problems are part of the “evolution in the millennial NBA,” in which “the reality is that nobody these days coaches exclusively from the old-school, push-em-hard playbook. Not even (Spurs coach) Gregg Popovich … a lighter hand is the preferred touch in the modern game. Practices are becoming less and less frequent as teams increasingly prioritize player health and rest over tactical instruction. I’ve heard numerous coaches share stories about the great caution they are forced to exercise when it comes to assembling film clips of player mistakes — less anyone feel singled out or, worse, picked on.”
Boylen, who is more Mister Lombardi than Mister Rogers, is not a good fit with today’s NBA snowflakes. A week after Boylen’s promotion, the Bulls made a public declaration of support for the coach, but how long will that continue if the players don’t buy into his methods?
It’s shaping up as a showdown between generations. On one side, players who can’t be coached, have to be handled gently and think they’ve earned a day off the day after a 133-77 loss; on the other side, the demanding coach.
Boylen's style certainly didn’t work at Utah, so how is it going to work in the NBA? Several Utah players transferred elsewhere to escape the coach (he also created an adversarial relationship with media that reached its nadir in 2010 after a 20-point loss to BYU when he openly bickered with reporters and provided sarcastic answers to innocuous questions).16 comments on this story
Boylen started well his first two years, but they were followed by two losing seasons and he was fired in 2011. The following season, Deseret News beat writer Mike Sorensen lamented what might have been for the Utes, noting that seven of 10 players who should have been with the program in 2012 had transferred elsewhere, and that under Boylen a dozen players played just two seasons or less for the Utes.
Apparently, none of this did much to tarnish his reputation. He immediately was hired as an NBA assistant, first for the Indiana Pacers and then the San Antonio Spurs and Bulls.
Rightly or wrongly, college and pro players have not responded well to Boylen. It’s difficult to say whether that’s a mark against the coach or a new generation of players.