OK, OK, so your first question might be, "Who?" Ron Rohn is the women's coach at Division III Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Penn., and no, the Mules (not my nickname, the actual mascot) don't run "The System." They previously did, however, and Coach Rohn still participates in a Web support group for coaches using the best style of hoops known to mankind.
Even without it, he and Muhlenberg have enjoyed tremendous success in his first eight seasons, and they currently are ranked 11th in the D3hoops.com Top 25. The Mules are off to a 7-1 start this season.
Coach Rohn went to "The System" in 2003-04 as a way to get more of his players on the court, much as coach David Arsenault did when he created this gem at Grinnell. Muhlenberg did things a little differently, such as employing offensive patterns based on the stuff Paul Westhead used at Loyola Marymount back in the day, but still had tremendous success.
That first year, the Mules were 19-7, and five of those losses came to Centennial Conference foes and national powers Johns Hopkins and McDaniel. They scored at least 100 points in their first two games and appeared on their way.
The trend continued with a 7-1 start the next season before Coach Rohn came down with a debilitating injury over Christmas break. He never truly discovered the cause, he just knew that he had tremendous back pain. The combination of that, mediciation and fatigue from a lack of sleep left him with very little energy when it came time to practice. When the Mules struggled a bit, he decided to play more conventionally, and they finished 11-14, his only losing season at the school. In hindsight, he said changing schemes was a mistake, since his team likely would have been better off continuing what it was doing.
Still concerned about his health, he stuck with this plan the next season and led Muhlenberg to a 26-3 record, the best mark in school history. Coach Rohn said it was difficult to change anything at that point, and the results have proven him to be correct: the Mules are 99-22 since that fateful 2005-06 season, with three Centennial Conference titles and three trips to the NCAA tournament, with one ending in the Sweet 16.
Coach Rohn took some time Tuesday to talk to me about "The System," and his responses were enlightening. Enjoy.
(On "The System" simply being another way to play the game)
"It's a style of play. There are too many coaches at a lot of levels who see this as a magic bullet. They say, 'We haven't been successful, we'll start doing this and we'll be more successful.' Really, if you have a bad team, or you're outgunned talent-wise, or you're not that good of a coach, you're just going to get beat by twice as much. I can't tell you the number of coaches I talk to about this System, and after I talk to them for five or 10 minutes, I know this is just a disaster waiting to happen. How do you tell somebody that? I've got a friend in coaching who runs a lot of the Westhead stuff, and he has people ask him about it all the time. His first question to them is, "Can you coach?" Because if you can't, nothing is going to help. You still have to be able to coach, it's not just rolling out the balls."
(On lessons learned from "The System")
"One of the realizations I came to was that there are two ways to win a basketball game. You either take the same number of shots as your opponent and shoot a better percentage, or you take more shots and shoot a lower percentage. When we ran 'The System,' we had games where the other team would shoot 60 percent, and we would shoot 33 percent , and we would win by 20. And people just couldn't believe that."
(On coaches shifting to "The System," even late in their careers)
"It's like a teacher who teaches History for 35 years. He starts thinking, 'How can I teach this differently?' A lot of times, you want to rejuvenate yourself. There's a lot of people who think they're ready for this type of System, and then they see all the uncontested layups and all the sudden, they want to slam on the breaks. They don't have the tolerance for it. You know, a lot of people look at Grinnell and say they don't play any defense. Well, what's that say about the teams they beat 130-100, or whatever? What kind of defense are they playing?"
(Would "The System" work at a major Division I school?)
"I think it definitely would work from an Xs and Os standpoint. The problems they have is there's just so much focus and attention, I don't know that they would be given the latitude needed to make it work. Coach Arsenault was able to make it work at Grinnell because, as he always says, he was in the middle of the cornfields. Nobody cared or paid attention until they started putting up numbers and winning."
I appreciate Coach Rohn taking the time to talk to me. And even though the Mules no longer play a full-out Grinnell-type style, they do run and press to stay ahead of their opponents. I'll give some regular updates as they continue their season.