Sunday, August 7, 2011

It's about time: another team from Grinnell's conference takes on The System

Over the past eight or nine years I have dedicated to Grinnell, coach David Arseneault and The System, one thought more than any other has been stuck in my brain -- why wouldn't another team in the conference try to play this way? No basketball program was as downtrodden as NCAA Division III Grinnell before Coach Arseneault decided to start this one-of-a-kind style in July 1991.

How downtrodden? Well, in the 22 seasons before the man affectionately known as Coach A took over in 1989, the Pioneers had an overall record of 94-383, or a winning percentage of .197. That included one completely winless season (0-22 in 1979-80), two one victory seasons and four seasons with only two victories. The closest Grinnell came to reaching .500? That was 1984-85, with the Pioneers finished 9-13.

Amazingly, the results in the Midwest Conference were even worse over that span. In those 22 seasons, Grinnell was 62-254 for a winning percentage of .196, and it had won a total of one conference game in the two years before Coach A came to town. There were three winless seasons, two with only one victory and six with two. No wonder he came up with something as revolutionary as The System.

Evan Massey, the girls' coach at Galesburg (Ill.) HS, graduated from Knox College, a conference rival of Grinnell's, and shared some memories on his blog of how poorly the Pioneers competed during that period.

Coach Massey: "People don't know how bad Grinnell was before Arseneault instituted 'The System.' In the 1970's, it was great to play Grinnell - it was a sure win. My last game at Grinnell there were about 20 non-players in attendance at the game at Grinnell. Most of them were from a fraternity with a dog sitting on the sideline and a wagon with a beer in the back. I never dreamed Grinnell could win. Grinnell would have 10-12 players for their home games, and 7-9 for their road games - some players did not want to make the trips. Coach Arseneault totally transformed that program."

Yes, he did. In the 22 years since Coach A took over, including two playing traditionally, the Pioneers are 275-222 (.553 winning percentage). This includes a record of 182-152 (.545) in the MWC along with five conference championships. Pretty amazing, right? I don't think even I, perhaps the top fan of The System and Grinnell outside of the state of Iowa, have given Coach A enough credit for what he had done. It truly boggles the mind.

So, anyway, back to my original point, how could any coach watch this over time and not appreciate Coach A and his invention? Or, better put, not appreciate it enough to want to give it a go with his/her own program?

Well, finally, someone from the conference has seen the wisdom behind The System. Emily Cline, the women's coach at Knox College, plans to take the plunge this season, becoming the first coach to hope to emulate the success Grinnell has had in the past 20 seasons. We have someone else to thank besides just Coach A for this wonderful fact; since Knox is in Galesburg, Ill., Coach Cline has seen firsthand how successful another team can be with The System by following coach Evan Massey and the Galesburg girls' team.

Coach Cline was hired at Knox in May 2008, and the Prairie Fire (love that mascot!) were 6-17 last season, including 5-13 in the MWC. I caught up with her via e-mail last week, and here are the results of our exchange:

(First off, are the rumors true? Are you going to The System next season?)

Coach Cline: "Yes, the rumors are true. We are going to The System. I am very excited about going to The System. I know it is going to be a challenge but I think it will be a great experience for our team."

(OK, tell us why.)

Coach Cline: "There are several reasons we are going to The System. Some of the main reasons are I love the thinking behind The System, I really enjoy watching teams play The System, and I have been intrigued by The System for many years.

"I first started hearing about the System when I was an assistant at Sewanee: The University of the South. My second year there the men's assistant was a former Grinnell men's player and he would talk about The System and show me clips/highlights. I was impressed by his enthusiasm about The System and I loved watching The System clips.

"However, if you would have asked me then if I would ever coach The System I am not sure my answer would have been 'yes.' Some more specific reasons we are going to The System are I think my players really fit well into The System, we should be deep this season (barring injuries) and I love the participation side of it. All of my players will play so I think that will make team chemistry better than it already is."

(Any other System influences?)

Coach Cline: "Another person that had a huge influence on my decision to go to the System was Coach Dickie McCarthy at Sewanee: The University of the South. I was Coach McCarthy's assistant at Sewanee for four years from 2003-2007. Coach McCarthy is my mentor and when he made the switch to the System in the 2009-10 season I was really struck by how much he enjoyed coaching the System. I think Coach was rejuvenated by coaching the System and that definitely had an impact on my decision to go System.

"Also, I think our situations are similar in that both Sewanee and Knox are selective colleges and we get similar type of athletes. I called Coach several times a week to talk about the pro's and con's of going System before I made the decision and we talk several times a week still about the System."

(What has it been like the past several seasons watching the Grinnell men's team play?)

Coach Cline: "I really enjoy watching the Grinnell men play. Coach Arsenault is a great coach and I think what he has done with his program at Grinnell is remarkable. I think getting the chance to see The System live has definitely help cement my decision to put in The System.

"I love how hard the Grinnell men play and they are so exciting to watch. I want my team to play that hard. So I think watching Grinnell play and getting to know Coach Arsenault over the last three years helped make my decision. Also, I love their defense."

(How much of an influence has it been watching Coach Massey and his team over the previous two seasons?)

Coach Cline: "Yes, watching the Galesburg girls' team play also helped make my decision. I love watching them play and try to make as many of their games as possible. Coach Massey has been a huge help and supporter since I arrived at Knox.

"Coach Massey has also been a invaluable resource as we transition to The System. I talk to Coach Massey a lot about The System and I think he will be very helpful throughout the season. It is a wonderful blessing to have a System coach in Galesburg to lean on."

(Have your shared your decision yet with the players, and if so, what was the reaction?)

Coach Cline: "My players all know about the switch to The System. They are excited now that they have had time to let the idea soak in. Their initial reaction was very mixed but now they can't wait to get started.

"My athletic director has been great about the whole thing and he is 100% supportive. I am very fortunate to have his support and I am sure a lot of AD's wouldn't be as supportive. Coach Massey has been very helpful in educating my AD and others about The System and what to expect. Also, I have a new assistant that is excited about learning The System."

(What do you hope to accomplish with The System?)

Coach Cline: "My main goal is for my players to have a great experience. Also, we hope to represent Knox well and play 100% all the time. I also hope for people to enjoy watching us and bring even more excitement to Knox Women's Basketball."

Great stuff there from someone who truly appreciates The System. Since this is the first time he has been "mimicked," so to speak, in his own conference, I got in touch with Coach A to discuss the development. He got back to me very quickly despite being in California visiting some friends and family, and for that, I am grateful. I particularly wanted to know if the women's coach at Grinnell, Kate Gluckman, might come to him for advice on how to prepare for Knox this season.

Here is what he said.

Coach Arseneault: "Curious to see how it will work out for Emily Cline. My gut feeling is that a number of coaches would like to experiment with The System but feel that they either have to have job security or not care if they get fired should things not go well. I think Mike Worrell from Illinois College would have tried it if he weren't in the conference (he doesn"t want to play second fiddle to us). Given how many coaches seem to be running the same boring thing these days, on any paticular year someone is playing second fiddle to someone anyways, so I really don't understand that rationale.

"Coach Gluckman has already sheepishly asked me whether I would be of help to her when they played Knox -- I sensed she was questioning whether my loyalties were to Grinnell or our System. I reassured her that my loyalties were to Grinnell, although I really don't yet know how I will be advising her (particularly since I do not know how committed Coach Cline is to implementing our System in full)."

Again, thanks for both of these coaches for their time. Oh, I almost forgot one other interest factoid about the upcoming season. Jessica Howard, who set an Illinois state record this past season by making a 139 3-pointers for Coach Massey's team, is set to play for Monmouth College, a conference rival to Grinnell and to Knox. So Coach Cline will be going against two teams who should have some knowledge of The System. I can't wait to see how it works out.

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