The Indiana Pacers' most anticipated season in at least a decade was about to dawn, and Frank Vogel thought he had a gem.
When he met the media before the Pacers faced Orlando on Oct. 29 in Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Vogel anticipated a question about expectations and was prepared when it came.
"It's like when you see a great movie and the sequel comes out," he said, "you want to see how it plays out after that."
After a brief moment of awkward silence, one of the reporters pointed out, more often than not, sequels suck.
Rather than being put off by the effrontery, as would so many others in his profession, Vogel laughed and launched a discussion about sequels good and bad, deciding he hoped this season was more like Toy Story 2 than Caddyshack II.
"I'll chalk that up as a bad analogy," he said.
It was not the type of relaxed dialogue you would expect before a game from a professional head coach, a profession that spawns God complexes capable of humbling an actual deity.
That type of self-importance simply is not for a guy who laughed the night fans of the movie Old School started chanting "Frank the Tank" in his, um, honor.
Vogel isn't interested in being a legend. He just wants to be a coach.
Thing is, he's on his way to both.
- Michelle Craig
- Vogel at work
In Vogel's third season, the Pacers are in rare air, poised to contend for what would be the franchise's first NBA championship.
Coach Slick Leonard hung three banners during the ABA years, but lasted just four losing seasons in the NBA. Larry Brown got the team to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in 1994 and went back again the next year, but didn't take the next step. After two more years ended on that same precipice, Larry Bird's third season as coach was the breakthrough as the Pacers reached the NBA Finals in 2000, only to lose to the Lakers in six games.
What happened since has been well-documented and threatened the franchise's future. Just when Rick Carlisle thought he had a team in position to contend, a spectator named John Green lobbed a drink at Ron Artest one November night in The Palace of Auburn Hills, all hell broke loose and the Pacers became pariahs.
It took patience, discipline and a series of shrewd moves, most orchestrated by Bird after he moved from the bench to the front office, but now the Pacers are all the way back. The team is winning, the headlines are positive and the seats are full.
Maybe the shrewdest move of all was the most unlikely: Bird's decision to replace seasoned but vitriolic head coach Jim O'Brien with his protégé, an inexperienced but enthusiastic young assistant named Vogel, midway through the 2010-11 season.
"In this business, when things go bad you start getting calls from agents representing coaches, and they say, 'I hope it doesn't happen, but if it does, my client would be interested,'" Bird said, reflecting on the move. "I had a number of those guys and there were some pretty good ones.
"I asked Jimmy O'Brien and he said 'For the long run, Frank's going to be an excellent coach, but obviously he has no experience yet.' So I called Herb [Simon, the franchise owner] up and said 'I'm going to hire this kid. I'm going to give him a chance.' Nobody gets chances in this league, but they should."
At the time, Vogel appeared to be the most interim of coaches. Now, at only 40 years old and still the third youngest coach in the NBA, he is on the verge of not only joining the Pacers coaching legends who have preceded him, but surpassing them. He is on course to move beyond Leonard (142 NBA wins) and Bird (147) on the Pacers' franchise list this season. If he follows up with one more successful season, Vogel could pass Carlisle (181) and Brown (190) to become the winningest coach in the franchise's NBA history.
• • •
- Michelle Craig
With the Pacers in the midst of winning their first nine games, by far the best start in franchise history, they prepared to play host to the Chicago Bulls, one of their chief rivals in the battle to dethrone the mighty Miami Heat. Mike Dunleavy, now a member of the Bulls but a former Pacers player from the O'Brien era, was asked by a reporter from The Chicago Tribune about Vogel and referred to him as "one of the premier coaches in the league."
When told of this comment, Vogel was genuinely flummoxed. His face flushed as he searched for a response.
"I'm an aspiring young coach," he said.
Always has been.
Growing up in Wildwood Crest, N.J., a small vacation town on the Jersey Shore, real life was far different than that portrayed on the MTV series. His father published a local real-estate guide, his mom worked the reception desk at Wildwood High during the school year and waited tables at one of the tourist joints in the summer.
"It was a complete working-class background," Vogel said. "We had enough to be happy but not a lot in excess."
Frank played soccer and basketball but was not even close to a star athlete. His chief moment of celebrity came in 1986 when, as a 13-year-old, he appeared on the "Stupid Human Tricks" segment of David Letterman's show. His talent was spinning a basketball on one end of a toothbrush while brushing his teeth with the other.
Fifteen minutes of fame? More like 30 seconds.
"I was the least recruited of the starting five on our basketball team," he said. "I was never the man, the guy. I was just always a humble part of it, just part of the team, but I was a point guard, a captain, a leader, a lead-by-example type of guy, make sure you're touching all the other guys, keeping everybody else working as hard as you're working."
He wound up at Juniata Collage, a Division III (non-scholarship) program in Huntingdon, Pa., starting at point guard for the Eagles. He was like hundreds of other guys, playing out the string at the lowest level of the game, majoring in biology, looking at a future as a high school teacher and coach.
And then he met Rick Pitino, and everything changed.
After his freshman season at Juniata, Vogel attended the Five-Star basketball camp and took the opportunity to introduce himself to Pitino, then the head coach at the University of Kentucky. After a brief conversation, Pitino gave Vogel the standard brushoff line, "Gimme a call if there's anything I can do for you."
Vogel took it literally. He packed his bags, left Juniata and drove to Lexington, Ky., with no promise – or even prospect – of a job. In fact, he had been told in no uncertain terms he wouldn't even qualify as a student manager because the Wildcats preferred in-state applicants.
They told him he could hang around the gym if he wanted, and so he did. Constantly.
"My whole approach with them wasn't asking for something but showing that I can give them something," he said. "And I believed that I could."
After a couple of weeks of constant presence and no movement on the job front, Vogel turned to Pitino's top assistant. Jim O'Brien — yes, that Jim O'Brien —- decided he could use some help and got Pitino's approval for a two-week trial period for Vogel.
"That's all I needed," Vogel said.
After finishing out his senior season as a student manager, Vogel became Kentucky's video coordinator. When Pitino left to become head coach of the Celtics, he took Vogel along in that same role. When O'Brien succeeded Pitino in Boston, he made Vogel an assistant coach.
The happy kid with the basketball, the toothbrush and the dream was on his way.
• • •
The Pacers had just played one of those games where they seemed to sleepwalk through the first half, only to come out and utterly dominate the second, this time against Toronto. It has become their modus operandi, a difficult trend for Vogel to explain. This time, when the subject arises in the postgame media briefing, he smiles and says, "I give great halftime speeches that make them want to run through walls."
After the chuckles subside, he delves into his usual explanation, that the best players spend more time together on the floor when the game is in the balance, so naturally the team performs at a higher level.
In Vogel's world, it always is about the players. It is the bedrock of what makes him an unassumingly brilliant coach.
Do not be deceived, though. He is not a man without ego; quite the contrary. Nor is he a man without temper. The thing about Vogel is he understands both and has them firmly in control.
- Michelle Craig
- Vogel with Paul George
"I don't think he's an anomaly from the standpoint of not having an ego," said Mark Boyle, who in his 25 years as the radio voice of the Pacers team has worked with every significant coach in the franchise's history. "I think he might be an anomaly from the standpoint of managing it and disguising it better than other guys. You can't succeed without it and he's succeeding, so he must have it, but he doesn't demonstrate it, at least not typically."
He idolizes Pitino and reveres O'Brien, yet Vogel could not be more different. He has not aspired to be like them, but rather to take facets of their personalities and synthesize them into his own.
"They were good for me from the standpoint they're not like me," Vogel said. "I learned a lot of their style and what was necessary to have command in your voice and command of your team. But I would be remiss if I tried to do this outside of my own personality. I took a lot of what made them great and added it to what I do and came in here to be myself."
Consider the very genesis of his career as a head coach. Here he was, stepping in for his mentor, a coaching father figure.
The first decision Vogel made was to basically throw out everything O'Brien had installed and do it his way. On the fly, during the season.
A team built around up-tempo offense and 3-point shooting would suddenly shift its focus inside. Center Roy Hibbert, a player who wilted under O'Brien's tough-love approach, would become the focal point of both the offense and the defense.
Vogel introduced a new term to the team: smash-mouth basketball.
He also changed the culture, emphasizing positive reinforcement. Instead of dictating to the players what they were expected to do and berating them if they fell short, he told them what he thought they could do and encouraged them to strive.
It was so crazy, it worked. Ten games under .500 when he stepped in, the Pacers wound up making the playoffs in 2011, losing to the Bulls in a lively first-round series. The following year they won their first playoff series in nearly a decade but were overmatched by the Heat in the second round. The steady progression continued last year when they advanced to the conference finals and played Miami on nearly even terms before falling agonizingly short in Game 7.
There aren't many rungs left on the ladder for this happy team and its smiling coach. If they continue the climb this year, they may reach the pinnacle.
"You can be positive, but when players mess up they've got to know it's not right. They've got to be held accountable," said Bird. "You can be very positive in a lot of situations, but when it comes time to get down on a guy, you've got to tell him, you've got to do it in front of the guys, you've got to be consistent and players react to that.
"I like positivity. It makes you feel better. I like to go to practice and not hear the screaming. But when he needs to do it, he does it. The thing about Frank, he doesn't linger on the bad. He gets right to the positives and how he wants it done and he expects results. It's a good feeling. It really is."
- Michelle Craig
Behind closed doors, however, another side of his personality sometimes emerges. He isn't all smiles, pats on the back and slaps on the butt.
"He'll get mad and cuss," said veteran power forward David West. "He'll go Andrew Dice Clay on you, man."
Turns out there are teeth behind that smile.
"It's like sitting in second-grade math class at a Catholic school and all of a sudden the nuns are dropping f-bombs," said assistant coach Dan Burke, who has worked with all kinds in his 17 years with the Pacers. "There are a lot of guys in the league with the middle name 'f-bomb.'
"When he gets going, it's good stuff. Most of the time it's pregame or halftime when he's amped up. He comes in highly charged and the guys feed off it."
When Bird is asked about this side of Vogel, he couldn't help but smile.
"They always say when you're a head coach you get three times a year when you can go crazy. Any more than that, the players just laugh at you," he said. "I think Frank knows when the right time is and it's not staged. He really gets mad and the players sense that."
They know, even when out of character, Vogel isn't playing games.
• • •
The head coach's office is an assemblage of the things that make Vogel atypical for his world. Where you would expect to see trophies draped with cut-down nets, instead you see a huge photo collage of his wife and daughters. The big whiteboard on the wall, the place coaches normally fill with play diagrams and strategic bullet points, instead has doodles of small animals.
They are the work of daughters Alexa and Arianna, who visit dad after home games.
He also has a framed photo of his first Pacers team and a couple of motivational images, including one of former Pacer Jeff Foster appearing to decapitate an opposing guard above the caption, "No layups!"
Somewhere in a drawer there are bound to be volumes of statistics, cases filled with DVDs of game and individual player breakdowns, books authored by great coaches and, quite possibly, great generals.
Maybe so, but Vogel does not see himself as some Patton-like figure, destined for greatness, fulfilling some mythic destiny. You know the type.
He still sees himself as the player none of the big schools wanted, the kid who had to pester his way into Pitino's inner circle, the man who seems driven every single day to prove he belongs.
"I was always hungry because I never was the guy at any point — manager at Kentucky, video guy, assistant coach, fifth-best player on your high school team," Vogel said. "Here I am, still just a piece."
More like a piece of work, as they might say back in Wildwood Crest.
Vogel is the right man at the right time with the right team. His style might not translate as well with a group of more veteran, more jaded players, but with this group, it fits perfectly.
He knows basketball almost as well as he knows himself. And therein lies the true secret to Frank Vogel's success. He isn't trying to be anyone other than Frank Vogel. He doesn't want to coach any other team than the Indiana Pacers.
"I love the game, I love to compete and I want to be great at what I do," he said. "Besides my family, coaching is what I'm most passionate about. I don't want just to be a coach. I want to be the Pacers' coach forever."
After a moment, a well-timed pause, he flashes those pearly whites one more time.
"Billy Joel has a line: I won't be here in another year if I don't stay on the charts," Vogel said. "Gotta keep winning."
Now there's an analogy that works.