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Joe Scott: More than just tough talk

Basketball head coach Joe Scott is teaching the Pioneers what it means to be tough. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

The way Joe Scott talks about toughness, you’d think he grew up swallowing glass, some hard-luck kid fighting his way through grade-school one bloody nose at a time.

“Making lay-ups is toughness,” DU’s new men’s basketball coach growls with a voice like a road-grader on gravel.

“Making fouls is toughness,” he spits, the passion rising.

“Defending every possession — caring about defense — is toughness.

“Guts. That’s what it comes down to. That’s the toughness we’re looking for.”

His eyes stare like a sniper spotting prey, his gym-rat rough, 5-foot 11-inches leaning hard into the words. You feel as if any minute he’s going to get up and run through a wall.

You know he’s a head coach, and that making sure his players are tougher than the other guy’s is his life. But still, you wonder where all the fire came from. Hard time on some crime-plagued schoolyard at Rocky Balboa Junior High?

Nope. It was Toms River High School East, a quite-good school in a rather pleasant community on the Jersey shore, where Scott had loving parents, a safe environment and miles of beach barely a short bike ride away. No crack, no crank. Just crabbing, surfing, swimming and hanging out on the boardwalk.

And playing lots and lots of hard-nosed, all-season, you-win-and-you-keep-the-court basketball.

“(Joe) shot baskets endlessly,” recalls Scott’s 44-year-old brother, Bob, older than Joe by two years. “He’d shovel snow to shoot baskets. He’d bring a bucket of hot water to the court, and every now and then he’d put the ball in the bucket so the bounce would stay true.

“Everything was a contest with Joe: Who can throw darts best. Who had the highest score at bowling. He was always keeping score.”

The boys’ father, also named Bob, put up a basket on a telephone pole outside the family home. The boys played hoops nonstop until a bus knocked down the basket. So, the kids moved to a neighbor’s house, Joe tagging after his brother, learning to stand up to bigger, older kids. Learning to play smart basketball — to use his considerable athletic talent.

And be tough.

“Dive on loose balls? He’d dive on asphalt after loose balls,” says his dad. “And he’d take charges. Oh, my. He wouldn’t get out of the way for anybody.”

Scott’s dad refereed high school basketball games around Toms River, then a town of about 50,000 best known as the setting of the 1979 movie The Amityville Horror.

The referee assignments gave Scott a chance to become a student of the game at a young age and to mix with athletes. Academic prodding from his mother, Elizabeth, a librarian, helped Scott get the grades to get into Princeton. Things in the Scott household were pretty clear, he recalls. His job was “to listen, pay attention and impress the teacher.”

He did. But it was his ball-handling skills that impressed people more, landing Scott a spot playing for Princeton’s legendary coach Pete Carril.

“[Joe] was very tough,” Carril recalls of his 1986-87 team captain, who’s still in the record book for career steals, assists and 3-point shots. “[He was] dedicated, committed to practice, an excellent dribbler, decent shooter.

“How did I know he was tough? One day in the fall, Joe found a party he wanted to go to, but there was a football player standing at the door saying he couldn’t go in. Joe knocked him out.

“That’s when I knew he was a tough kid.”

But Scott learned more at college than how to go through doors. He learned the Princeton offense, a devilish creation of Carril and Bill Carmody, now head coach at Northwestern, that is a complex blend of rapid movement and quick passing. It’s intended to patiently set up the easiest possible shot and to wear down the opposition.

Carril used the style to win 13 Ivy League championships and rack up the highest winning percentage (.658) in league history. His used it to win the NIT in 1975 and in 1996 to pull off one of the greatest upsets in college basketball history, when Princeton bounced defending national champion UCLA out of the NCAA tournament in the first round.

Scott got the technique down cold as a player. As a coach, he adapted it to the U.S. Air Force Academy, leading the 22-7 Falcons to the Mountain West Conference title and their first NCAA tournament appearance in 42 years.

“When we got to Air Force, there were 100 people in the stands,” Scott says. “When we left, it was sold out every game.”

Now Scott is applying the Princeton plan to a Pioneers team that last year finished with a dismal 4-25 record and the program in disarray. The goal, he says, is to sweep away the past and create a style of basketball that is the University’s own.

“Fundamentals are the most important thing in this game,” Scott explains. “As long as you’ve got guys who can dribble, pass and shoot — and they’re tough and they’re smart — you can compete against anybody.”

Easier said than done.

“This offense and defense are terribly, terribly demanding,” says David Kummer, a 6’6″ senior from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “You’re constantly moving. It’s going to take a toll on the defense, which is the main focus. But the offense has to be in good shape.

“We’re going to be a lot tougher than in the past. We’re going to be real patient and we’re going to work together. You’re not going to see a lot of one-on-one flashy showboating.”

Except perhaps in the stands, where University staffers are ratcheting up the fan experience, working to make sure the pep band and cheerleaders are ready to roll, that Ruckus the red-tailed hawk flies right and that there are enough ThunderStix for the Crimson Creatures in the student section to wave.

Will all that hoopla translate into wins?

Scott isn’t worried.

“Our measuring stick is whether we are getting better every day at knowing how we’re going to win.

“At Air Force it took four solid years to get really good, but then they got four unbelievable years after that. And something in place that’s going to last forever.

“Ultimately it’s five guys who are selfless, who are fundamentally sound and who care — each possession down the court — that we get the best shot we can get.”

It takes time, Scott cautions. But the system works, and if you make “incremental progress,” the result will be a “sustainable, winning program.”

Bob Scott has a brother’s-eye-view of his sibling’s allegiance to discipline and hard-nosed practice.

“(He believes) you’ve got to live it every day. Persist. Never quit,” Bob says. “It’s almost a religion with him.”

Carril is somewhat more pragmatic. The Princeton system is “overrated,” the hall-of-fame coach growls, and it’s only as good as the talent on the team.

“The better your talent, the more they’ll do things you can work with. Joe will see that.

“And if he does for you what he did at Air Force, you’ll be happy.”

Carril pauses, then adds with a laugh: “If he’s winning, I’ll take credit. If he’s losing, I don’t know the guy.”

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