Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Don Horwood Profile

The fine career of one of the most successful coaches in CIS history is proof that humble beginnings and a lack of a traditional basketball pedigree can easily be overcome with an insatiable appetite to successfully compete at the highest levels, an ability to translate learnings into teachings, an innate ability to make players out of those ignored by others and an unbridled enthusiasm for the game. For long-time Alberta Golden Bears’ mentor Don Horwood, who in a 12 year period between 1993 and 2005 led his team to 9 CIAU/CIS National tournaments, 5 championship game appearances and 3 National titles, there were many barriers to becoming one of the most successful coaches in CIS history this side of Ken Shields and Dave Smart. Born in Carbonear, Newfoundland (population 3500 - the "Hub of the Bay"), Horwood went to a high school that did not even have a physical education teacher or a basketball program until his final year and in that year, his high school team played only 2 games! Still, Horwood was able to walk-on the junior varsity team (in those days, the third level team with varsity, followed by intermediate, then junior varsity) at Memorial University of Newfoundland. By the end of his career he was captain of the varsity team and in one career-altering moment, Horwood caught the coaching bug and started a tremendous career that has spanned 40 years of coaching. CISHOOPS.CA was able to spend some time with Coach Horwood and get his takes on a fine career and other matters related to basketball.

CISHOOPS.CA: Maybe the biggest surprise I've heard in our discussion is the fact that you only played two games in your entire high school career

Coach Horwood: Well most people who saw me play thought that was enough (laughs) but I was able to keep learning the game at Memorial under Coach Ed Browne (Note: Horwood played 5 years at MUN - 1 yr JV, 2 yr Intermediate, 2 yr Varsity as co-captain in his final year in what was then the equivalent of the CCAA). Coach Browne was a very enthusiastic teacher as a coach and a professor and it was during his coaching class in my final year at MUN that he flew two of us to Antigonish, NS to watch the 1967-68 CIAU won by Waterloo Lutheran (now Laurier). In the semi-finals, I witnessed what is still one of the most dramatic comebacks I can ever remember as UBC had a 7 point lead and the ball with 30 seconds left against Waterloo Lutheran and WLU made a dramatic comeback to win. I remember having goose bumps watching that game and right there and then thought that I would love to be in a situation like that.

How did your career evolve from there?

I was already excited about the game and was coaching Brother Rice H.S. in St. John's, which I did for one season (1968-69). However, watching that CIAU final in Antigonish gave me the itch to find where the most exciting basketball was being played. I happened to read an article in a publication put out by Simon Fraser University and Jon-Lee Kotnikoff about how the British Columbia High School Basketball Tournament was the most exciting event in Canadian basketball and I wanted to be where the action was. So, I answered an ad to coach at Oak Bay H.S. in Victoria and not having ever been west of Ontario in my life, I knew little else about B.C. basketball other than that article I had read. Little did I know until after I got there that I was replacing Gary Taylor, a coaching legend in B.C. high school basketball who was taking over the UVic job. Gary had moved on to become a vice-principal at a junior high school and to coach the Vikes. The program was a power house and I later found out that no one else had even applied given the pressure and profile of the job. I was 22 years old and was literally shaking when I arrived because I didn’t know anyone. As it turns out, I was too naive to know what the job was and got lucky, walking into a program that was already established. Every Friday and Saturday the gym was packed to the rafters like Hoosiers. I ended up staying at Oak Bay for nine years and in five of the last six years (final season being 1977-78), our teams participated in B.C. Provincial championship game, winning three and losing two including in 1978 to future All-Canadian and Canadian National team star, Gerald Kazanowski and Nanaimo District H.S.

How much did Gary Taylor help in the early part of your career?

Even though he had moved on to UVic, we got to spend time together at clinics and before and after games. He was one of the most enthusiastic coaches I've ever been around - always happy and electric - and his energy was infectious. Gary had high demands on his players, pushing his kids hard and his very competitive nature was something I think rubbed off on me and further brought out the competitor in me.

You also had a four year high school stint in B.C. in the early '80's which, from what I understand, had a much different beginning than your time at Oak Bay.

Yes; after taking a year to complete a Master's degree, I went back to coaching in B.C. at Spectrum Community School in Victoria, a small high school with virtually no basketball tradition. In fact, in my first season, only five kids wanted to play. I had just returned from the University of Alberta where I had done my Masters in Sport Psychology because I wanted to be a better coach. I was now faced with the decision—do I quit coaching. With only 5 kids interested in playing I was pretty discouraged. But I decided I still loved to coach so I had to pull raw athletes out of my grade 10 and 11 phys. ed. classes to get a roster. We went 3-33 that first year and I probably learned more about coaching that year than any other year I can remember. I really had to teach basic fundamentals and learned how to set reasonable, appropriate goals for the team and each player. I found that any kids will work hard if they care about what they are doing and the demands put on them are fair. We did some novel things for that time like cross-country running and weightlifting and others told me that the kids would quit. However, everyone bought in to the program and played hard. By the end of my fourth year, the program had progressed to point where we were on verge of the B.C. provincials.

Talk about how you may have ended up coaching Steve Nash.

In the summer of 1983 I was about to transfer to Mount Douglas High School which is where Steve ended up attending later. It would have been a few years after my arrival but it could have happened. As fate would have it, there was a coaching vacancy in the CIAU and I was interested.

How did you get involved with the University of Alberta?

After a decade coaching high school basketball, I had the confidence that I could take on the challenge of a University program. During the school year 1978-79, I did a Master's degree in Sports Psychology at the U of A and was fortunate enough to assist Bears Head Coach Gary Smith. Gary resigned the following year and I applied for the job but Brian Heaney (now Acadia Athletic Director), who was coming off two consecutive CIAU national championships at St. Mary's, got the job ahead of me in 1979. I went back to B.C. to coach at Spectrum but was better for the early experience at U of A. Later, in the summer of 1983, I got a phone call advising me that Brian had left U of A to take the head coaching job at the University of Toronto. I called Gary with an interest in job and as it turned out, Gary was about to call me anyway so I flew up to Edmonton and was hired.

Talk about how those early years at U of A went.

In 1983, I basically had to start from scratch as many of the players Brian had brought in returned home, primarily to Ontario. That first team was made up of local kids and walk-ons. Although I had coached the B.C. Provincial team in summer of '83, in which we won the Canadian Championship in Regina, it was too late to get any of those kids. Looking back, I may have had a chance to start my team with 7'0" Cord Clements, who later became an All-Canadian and won a couple of national championships with UVic. Cord was at TWU and before I got the U of A job, I actually called Ken Shields urging him to recruit Cord. We really didn't have a true basketball tradition at U of A and I had to change the philosophy of the program to make it a "winning culture". It took more time than I wanted it to take but we still made the Canada West playoffs in my first year. The following season, we had to deal with numerous injuries and were in the midst of UVic's tremendous run under Coach Shields. However, we got it together in the playoffs to beat Lethbridge and then played UVic for the Canada West championship, beating them by thirteen to advance to the Nationals in only my second year. At that time, the CIAU Nationals were a sixteen team national tournament and we played the West Regional final in Victoria, losing to York by five points. By 1986-87, we had a breakthrough year including being ranked #1 in Canada for the first time in the history of U of A. Unlike some of my teams later on, we were not a big team - we did a lot of run and jump pressing and played up tempo. At that time, TSN was televising CIAU games nationally and we won the Calgary Classic Christmas Tournament beating Western and the Golden Bear Invitational Tournament, with TSN televising both the semi-finals and finals and with Jack Donohue as colour commentator, giving the program some much-needed national exposure.

Who were some of the early Bears stars who helped put the program on the map?

We were fortunate enough to have a number of talented players who bought into our systems immediately and set the tone for future players to emulate. Some of these include 6'3" 4-man Mike Suderman from Prince George, where he won a BC championship (NOTE: Suderman's son represents the first father/son combination that Horwood has coached as Mike's son James Suderman is a freshman on this year's Bears squad); 6'3" swingman Mike Kornak from Edmonton, an athlete who was a tight end on the Eskimos practice roster after graduation and forward Dean Peters. But the key player on those early teams was point guard Sean Chursinoff. Sean was a physically and mentally tough kid who pushed people hard and he could get away with it because he had the game to carry it through. He was a tremendous scorer, especially in traffic. His teammates fed off the fact that not only was he very good, he also never quit. Nowhere was this more evident than in 1990 when we had our backs up against the wall against Canada's top ranked team, UVic, in the Canada West championship. We had lost four straight games during the season to UVic and then lost game one of the Best-of-Three final in Victoria, by 18 points. When all looked lost, Sean put us on his back and we won by 5 on Saturday and then won by 13 on Sunday. After Friday night, we had no reason to believe there was any hope we could beat them but, led by Sean, the guys showed their character. There aren't many athletes who are more competitive or mentally tough than Sean, who I have ever coached. His attitude, drive and determination were the reasons for the turnaround against UVic. I would push kids but Sean would get after guys if they didn't work hard. Sean was good enough to have a short stint with the Canadian National program with Ken Shields during that time.

Where does that 1990 UVic series comeback rank in your career memories?

Winning the series in such dramatic fashion in Victoria, which was ranked #1 at the time- especially after coaching high school in Victoria for so long and having so many friends and supporters from there-, was up to that time the highlight of my coaching career at the University level. Unfortunately at Nationals that year, we maybe had a bit of a mental letdown, since it had been fourteen years since the Bears had made it to the Final 8. We played Acadia in the first round and lost in overtime by 3 in front of 10,000 fans to a very tough Acadia team. It was devastating loss because we really thought we should win even though it was everyone's first time there.

But there were some better times ahead at the Nationals including a dream year in 1993-94 and three consecutive trips to the championship game.

The early 90’s were a rebuilding period after losing virtually the entire Canada West championship 1989-90 team to graduation. But by 1993, we were again among the top teams in the country and looked to return to the Nationals led by 6'8" Rick Stanley, a former CIS Freshman of the Year, who had averaged 20 ppg, 8 rpg the season prior and fourth year guard Sean Foot (15 ppg in 35 mpg). However, in probably the most bizarre one half hour period of my entire coaching career, our fortunes for the 1993-94 season changed almost immediately. In September of 1993, I recall having a pre-season tryout meeting and Rick Stanley knocked on my door to tell me he could not play because of deteriorating knees. Although I couldn't blame him because of the pain he was going through, I was still in shock. Lo and behold, not one half hour after that meeting, Sean Foote came into my office and quit because he apparently had lost his enthusiasm and couldn't go through another year. In less than one hour, we went from Canada West Championship contenders - to possibly not making playoffs. We went to camp with a bunch of hard working role players who generally were not heavily recruited or even recruited at all and ended up having an unbelievable year, finishing 18-2 in the league. A bunch of young kids like Greg DeVries, who would go on to be the all-time leading scorer at the U of A, 6'5” post Murray Cunningham, 6'7" post Scott Martel and Greg Badger all got a chance to play major roles. Still, the Canada West playoffs brought a huge challenge – being played in Calgary, and led by Richard Bohne. The teams went to a third and deciding game for the Canada West championship and without starting point guard Badger, who could not play in the Saturday or Sunday games due to doctor’s orders, Greg deVries had to play the point and we were up 20 points at the half. Unbelievably, before the second half was five minutes old, Calgary had come back to take the lead! And I remember this moment as it was one of the biggest turning points that I ever recall. Calgary's athletic forward Jeff Smith was about to finish a dunk in the low post and Clayton Pottinger blocked the dunk, we got an easy transition basket and we went on to win the game. We then went on to beat UBC in the Canada West final and won our first national championship the next weekend in Halifax with basically a team of second stringers, after losing our top two scorers at the beginning of the season. It was amazing and incredible to be part of that team which was not the most talented but was formed by players who played together. We played the ultimate team game and our group that season had plenty of opportunities to give up but they didn't, becoming a team of destiny.

How did the group respond the following two seasons after the first championship?

The next season we got to Halifax as the wild card after losing to UVic and Eric Heinrichsen. We got to the finals and defeated Concordia in the final game to take back-to-back national championships. In 1996, we went to the Nationals for the third consecutive season, this time as a wild card. We beat UBC in the national semi-finals when Darren Semeniuk had a big game. We had lost five straight to them during the season and playoffs but again were able to come up big when it mattered most. Unfortunately, we lost in the championship game the following afternoon to Brandon by 7 points. All in all, with a group that was lightly regarded when they arrived on campus, we went to three straight championship games, which I believe is a testament to our systems and how hard our kids worked and bought into the system. Greg DeVries ended up being the all time leading scorer in the program and Cunningham, Badger and Martel will be remembered as the core group of four players during that era.

The two national titles started a string of 9 CIAU/CIS Nationals appearances in 12 seasons including 5 championship game appearances (3 victories) in 9 years. During that time, you had the opportunity to coach your son. Talk about your recollections of the late 90's and early 00's.

In 1996-'97 we had a virtually brand new roster including my son, Chris among the newcomers. Still, we were able to have a decent year with a brand new team and finished first in our division but were upset by Lethbridge led by Barnaby Craddock (new coach at Fraser Valley) and coached by Dave Crook (now at Winnipeg). The following season led by Ryan Dunkley and Nick Maglisceau, we were back at the Nationals and it was during that season that my son Chris began really contributing to the team. It was a fabulous experience being able to coach my son, albeit difficult at times – but getting the chance to see Chris every day for at least two hours over that period was a dream come true. Chris was a solid point guard throughout his career. One of our bigger disappointments as a program came in 1999-2000 when we were ranked Number One in the country but lost to Brandon in the first round of the Nationals as both Phil Scherer and my son, Chris could not play due to injuries. With our severely hampered backcourt, Brandon took advantage. There was a period during Chris's time here where we had some very good teams but could not get over the hump and bring home a championship.

How surprising was the third championship in 2002 given that once again the team had lost a number of stars from the previous era?

If I recall 2000-01 ended up being a very disappointing season because we had tremendous talent - maybe the most talent we've had - but we lost a controversial regular season game at Victoria which allowed them to finish first - despite the fact we were tied in the standings - and to host the Canada West tournament. We went back out there for the Canada West Finals, lost and then were not selected for the wild card. In 2001-02, we had lost a bunch of players, including my son and we had eight new players including Robbie Valpreda, who I called the "unknown assassin". Robbie went on to be named First Team All-Canadian, plus we had one of the best athletes to come through the program in Stephen Parker. Parker put on a show at the Nationals including a steal and dunk with twenty seconds left in the championship game against Western, to seal the game and our third championship in ten years. Replacing several stars and having eight new players but still being able to win a championship was as satisfying as anything in which I have ever been involved.

After losing Valpreda, All-Canadian Phil Scherer then became the focal point of your offense and you made the Nationals again in 2003.

Robbie was not back in 2002-3 and we had lost Stephen Parker, Reuben Hall and Ryan Baldry as well as several other players who played significant roles in 2002. However, Phil Scherer was playing at an All-Canadian level and with Mike Melnychuk and Phil Sudol (who had won three provincial championships in a row and then in his first year with us he won a National Championship) we had a solid team. We won the Central division but Phil Scherer severely sprained his ankle in the first game of the division final against Calgary. We won the first game, lost the second with Phil out and then we had probably the most unbelievable comeback that I can recall against Calgary. We were down five points with twelve seconds to go in the third and deciding playoff game when Mike Melnychuk pulled up at the three-point line and Whit Hornsberger swiped at the ball and was whistled for what I thought was a questionable foul. Mike made all three free throws and we got a quick five second count on the in-bounds with four seconds to go. Then we ran an inbounds play to Dean Whelan who scored a lay-up at buzzer. We won going away in overtime.

In the Canada West Final Four, we had to freeze Phil Scherer's ankle and yet he still played unbelievably as we beat TWU to qualify for the Canada West final. This also put us in the Nationals because that year only the top two teams from Canada West qualified. We lost the final game to UBC, without Phil Scherer because he could not play back to back games. At the Nationals, Phil's ankle was still very painful and although we did not want to have to play him against St. Mary's in the first round, we found ourselves down thirteen points in first half - so we felt we had to use him. Phil single-handedly led us to a comeback win. However, we then lost by three points to Guelph in the semi-finals.

In 2003-04, we were ranked second in Canada West and fifth in Canada when playoffs started. Unbelievably, for the second year in a row, in the first game of our first round playoff at home against Saskatchewan, our top post player, Phil Sudol, tore his ACL and was lost for the remainder of the year. We managed to beat Saskatchewan but lost in three games to a very good Calgary team. We still qualified for the Canada West Final Four as a wildcard, but without Sudol we just didn’t have enough scoring up front to progress beyond that.

In 2004-05, we started the year without Sudol as he was still rehabilitating after his ACL surgery. We managed to stay in contention with Calgary and Saskatchewan, until Phil returned after Christmas. to end up in third place behind Saskatchewan and Calgary, so we had to go on the road for playoffs. In the first round in Calgary we won in three games and the next weekend we went to Saskatchewan and amazingly, again won in three games. This gave us the right to host the Canada West Final Four. We defeated Brandon the first night and then beat Victoria in the final to win the Canada West Championship after finishing third in our division. At Nationals, we lost in the first round. We had a great run after Christmas but we came up just short against Saint Francis Xavier.

The next year we expected to pick up where we left off with Phil Sudol returning for his fifth and final year. Lo and behold, in the warm-up in our first game of the year, Phil tore the same ACL and he was finished. Again we went to the division final but lost to Saskatchewan. And last year, 2006-07 we had a strong year finishing first in the central division with a 15-7 record but we lost at home to a very good Saskatchewan team by three points in the third game. We were good enough to get to the Final Four but probably not good enough to beat UBC in the first round. Overall, it was a solid year having brought in seven new players who did not know the system and didn't know how hard it is and what it takes to succeed at this level.

For as long as I can recall, you have always had tremendous post play at U of A. Talk about how important that aspect of the game has been to your success.

Our philosophy has always been that successful teams start with strong post play and our general rule has been that the team opens up the perimeter by starting the offense inside. I wasn't a post player myself so I had to spend a lot of time learning about how to develop that part of a player's game. As a young coach I attended many clinics up and down the west coast—throughout the states of Washington and Oregon - plus clinics in Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada. I also worked summer camps in Washington State, including two weeks at Lenny Wilkins’ camps in Seattle. I was able to work with and learn from many high school and college coaches throughout the northwest. Also, watching Ken Shields teach the finer technical points of this part of the game early in my career was extremely helpful. As you know, our offense at U of A has revolved around the post, then to the outside game. We have been able to compete with undersize posts by first insisting that they understand that it is a physical game inside and then going on to teach them how to use their body, use their feet, seal and finish or recognize the double down and find perimeter shooters. Every single day we work on post moves and sealing and we also work with our guards on how to pass properly in the post, which we feel is an underrated skill that must be taught. Post play is the staple of the high/low 1-3-1 offense we've been running here for years.

You've talked about some of your coaching influences in the context of other issues already but who comes to mind specifically as key mentors in your career?

Much of the technical knowledge I gained was self-taught; however, if I had to think about one person from whom I learned technical details about the game, it has to be Ken Shields. Ken's systems, ability to get teams to execute, his X's and O's, were tremendous. He also seemed to always get his guys to do what was necessary down the stretch at key times. Ken was also a big influence with his detail in teaching post players. From an emotional perspective, Ed Browne, my coach at Memorial, who was also Manager of the Canadian National Team with Jack Donohue for fifteen years, sparked my interest in coaching. Ed genuinely cared about his players and made it exciting for everyone to be around the game. I still remember getting goose bumps after Ed took me to Antigonish in 1967-68 to watch the National Finals between UBC and Waterloo Lutheran - that's when I got the bug. Gary Taylor, whom I replaced at Oak Bay, was another mentor who brought an infectious drive and enthusiasm to the game and who was, at the same time, very intense.

What are your thoughts on the current state of basketball in Canada?

Having been around basketball in this country for over thirty years, it continues to amaze me that the supposed top level of sport in Canada is run by volunteers who have complete decision-making influence over all key matters. In many cases, these volunteers are not basketball people who have dedicated their careers to the game. They are fans who usually have their own regional interests in mind, not the interests of basketball in Canada as a whole. As a result, things are too fragmented on a regional basis. Certainly Canada Basketball requires a business model with a leader who can run the organization in a business-like manner, but at the end of the day we haven't had anyone who understands the dynamics of our game. We need a business person who knows basketball or a basketball person who understands business. There is no reason why so many other countries are better than us given the resources we have. It would be great to have a program of which kids can be proud. Right now that simply isn't the case and these problems must be solved or things will continue as they are... The most obvious problem is the fact that we don’t have a pro league of any kind. I also believe that living so close to the United States is a problem. Most of the Canadian athletes who go to Division 1 in the States just don’t get enough playing time in situations where they have to be the “go to guy”. When they get with Canada’s National Team they have mostly been used to playing a role on their Division 1 team and it rarely happens that they are the top players - and so they are limited in their experience in tough games. Obviously, Steve Nash is the exception. Having said all this, running Canada Basketball has proven to be a very difficult job and there are no easy answers. I don't want to belittle the people involved and I hope the new Executive Director (Wayne Parrish) succeeds… but I do think that the current organizational structure in which volunteers run a country-wide, top level National program with the objective to succeed on a world level is wrong.

Talk about your experience at the University of Alberta.

The University of Alberta is the best place in the country to work, in my opinion. The administration considers sport a big part of the overall university identity and they behave that way: it is not just talk. They treat coaches with respect. I think there is a genuine effort to give coaches and teams the tools we need to succeed, showing that the university cares about athletics. We are also fortunate that Edmonton is a sports town and we get support at the gate from the community. During our big years, we had many sellouts and the most vocal and best fans in the country.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

mark....this is a great interview. thanks