The college basketball season is barely three weeks old, so we thought we’d get early impressions from a man who has criss-crossed the country already announcing games: ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla. The coach-turned-analyst (Manhattan, St. John’s, New Mexico) talks about what he’s seen so far, the recruiting game, getting lured back into coaching, and his lack of “schtick.”
Q: You must have called 15 games in the last two weeks. We’d love to hear about your November travels. How many frequent flier miles have you racked up? How were the fans in each city? The crowds seemed sparse.
I get to spend a lot of time racking up frequent flyer miles and hotel points this time of year but it’s a small benefit to my job. The bigger benefit is that I have the best seat in the house for every game I do. That excites me more than anything.
After getting to see the Blake Griffin-Stephen Curry Show in Norman a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been in Puerto Rico and Orlando for two terrific early-season tournaments, so life’s not bad, right now. I am actually writing from snowy and bitterly cold Champaign, Illinois so it evens out over the course of the season.
The crowds in Orlando for the Old Spice Classic have really improved over the first three years because the fields are getting better and teams are seeing that they can get Maui Classic-type competition and the travel is easier on their players.
Q: So far this season, you’ve seen more teams live than possibly any TV analyst in the sport. Who’s the best team you’ve seen? The best player you’ve seen? The best individual performance? A team that might have shown flashes of talent, but isn’t quite there yet? And who is overrated?
I love Gonzaga. I think they have the experience and grittiness of their earlier teams that were trying to make a name for the program a decade ago to go along with immense offensive firepower. Every starter is capable of putting up 30 on a given night and that’s rare in college hoops today.
Blake Griifin and Stephen Curry, are hands down, the two best I’ve seen in person, so far. To me, it will be Griffin or Spain’s Ricky Rubio as the No. 1 pick in next June’s NBA Draft. Curry is so gifted and, yet, so understated as a player. The night dropped 44 on Oklahoma, he was defended well and missed some easy shots. He could have had 60 points if he was hot.
Xavier is an impressive team because they have toughness. Most of their key guys are underclassman and they should be the best team in the Atlantic 10. Next year, the should be a Top 10 team.
USC disappointed me in Puerto Rico because I expected freshman Demar DeRozan to have the same impact that O.J.Mayo did last year. But he doesn’t have Mayo’s personality and aggressiveness. He’s too nice a kid. However, I am a big believer in Tim Floyd and he’ll figure out his team.
Q: There was a pretty tremendous story on the demise of St. John’s hoops by SI’s Seth Davis recently. Considering you coached there, you’re as good a person as any to ask – what has happened over there? What will it take the school to become dominant again – short of taking down all those new dorms that are supposedly driving local kids away?
I pull for Norm Roberts but I don’t pull for St. John’s, obviously. It’s hypocritical, I know. (It’s like supporting the troops but not supporting the war.) He is a good guy and is trying to turn it around, but at the moment, it’s like pushing a boulder up hill in the Big East. One major problem is that the talent level in New York has dropped in recent years and, because of the malaise surrounding the program, some of the city’s best players have migrated to schools like Pittsburgh and Louisville.
It will take one transcendent player like a Chris Mullin to put his faith in the program to reestablish the pipeline to St. John’s again. I just don’t see that player on the horizon in the near future.
Q: Newspapers and magazines that cover sports leagues have no connection to them. ESPN, though, is paying to televise college basketball games. And its writers cover college baskeball. As newspaper and magazine staffs shrink, and ESPN grows, what sort of commitment to journalism can/should ESPN maintain? Should ESPN writers be investigating some of these schools that it televises on a weekly basis?
I wasn’t trained in Journalism at Brooklyn College, although I did get an “A” in the only Journalism course I took-it was easy! I do think, however that, since a sizable part of ESPN is in the news-gathering business, that we have no problem at all when it comes to investigating the things that go on in college athletics. That’s why the Jeremy Schaaps, the Sal Paolantonios and the Shelly Smiths do what they do. It was ESPN that uncovered a large part of the O.J. Mayo mess last spring.
Q: You’ve spent six years at ESPN after a lengthy coaching career. Ever get that itch to go back? Any schools reach out to you? Or coaches reach out to you to join their staff? What’s keeping you at ESPN as opposed to getting back into the coaching game?
I left coaching with the idea that I wanted to be the best college basketball analyst I could be for as long as I could be. Like coaching, I spend the entire off-season preparing for the next season but I don’t have the same pressures that I did.
I, obviously, realize that I am not a “schtick” guy but I do think that there is a place for someone that can tell the average fan what coaches and players are really thinking. I enjoy taking people “inside the game” but in a way that is simple to understand. The beauty of ESPN’s college basketball team is that we all have different strengths and insights.
The other reason I haven’t gone back to coaching yet was because I wanted to watch my sons grow up before it was too late. They are 16 and 13 now and will be two scrappy little high school point guards and I get to coach them when I am home.
I do get two or three offers every spring to coach and if I ever get bored with what I am doing at ESPN or, if I feel or, if my bosses feel, that I have reached my ceiling as an analyst, then you’ll see me back on the sidelines.
Q: When announcing as many games as you do, surely you’re going to eventually say something will a team/coach/player will not be thrilled about. While you’re not Doug Gottlieb, surely somebody has reached out to you at some point to express dismay over a comment you’ve said. How do you handle those?
I think coaches trust me and understand when I am critical because they know I do my homework. Nothing makes me feel worse than when I criticize a coach or player without having all of the information at my disposal.
Fortunately, I often say critical things on the air that the coach knows is true about his team and is thinking the same things. In fact, I’ve had coaches say to me that they have played back my comments on the air to their team when they were trying to make the same points.
Ultimately, ESPN pays me to give my opinions and insights about college basketball and most players, coaches AND referees I work with are fine about taking the bad with the good. There is an art form, in my opinion, about criticizing.
Q: You’ve got a strong recruiting history, especially what you pulled off at Manhattan. What would you say are some of the keys to recruiting? And do you feel the recruiting game has changed much in the last 10-15 years? Who are the best recruiters in the game right now?
Recruiting is about getting so close to a player and his family that they can’t tell you “no.” It’s about knowing who is helping the recruit make his decision because it’s rare that an 18-year-old is making a life-changing decision on his or her own. And, it’s about being empathetic.
I have never been African-American, but if I were an African-American mom sending her soon off to a college environment for the first time, I would sure want to know how that coach was going to look after my son and help him graduate and be successful in life. Phoniness works for some coaches but sincerity wins out more often.
Recruiting has changed in the last 15 years or so because the stakes to sign good players are higher than ever. Coaches live in the “gray area” as much or more than ever because good players mean job security and job security means making more money than ever. But, cheating has always been around the game. That’s not new.
By and large, the best recruiters are guys that are at smaller schools because, with all due respect, recruiting at places like North Carolina and Duke is like shooting fish in a barrel.
Most talented player you ever coached: Ron Artest, St.John’s. I loved coaching him. Yes, his competitive temper gets the best of him, but he is one of the most loyal and generous people I know without wanting any credit for it.
Best player you ever coached against: Danny Manning, Kansas. He was a great college player and, as assistant basketball coach at Kansas today, is a great human being.
After three winning seasons at New Mexico, and three trips to the NIT, you were fired. Do you know if any coach in college hoops has ever been hired after just three years despite not having a losing record?: It’s actually one of the prettiest places in America, has a great fan base and a great arena, the Pit. I came all the way from the East Coast at the time and was a poor fit for the culture there. They were coming off NCAA probation with a loss of scholarships and we were rebuilding after Kenny Thomas went to the NBA. It was my fault for taking a job that didn’t fit me, not theirs for hiring me. By the time I figured out recruiting on the West Coast, I resigned because of “illness”: They were sick of me and I was sick of the pressure to win there. But, it was a great experience and I landed at ESPN because of it.
For the NBA, Hansbrough or Harangody?: Both made my preseason All-America Team but I would take Hansbrough. There is no one in college basketball with his motor. He should be a good role player in the league but won’t be able to overpower NBA power forwards nightly.
When making the transition to calling games instead of coaching them, did you envision yourself in the mold of anyone? Like McGuire, Vitale, Packer, etc?: When I went to ESPN, I read and researched every single successful analyst in all of the major sports but didn’t try to copy anyone. If I had to compare my style to someone, I would hope it would be someone like Phil Simms, Troy Aikman or Ron Jaworski. Hopefully, it would be solid “meat and potatoes” analysis with some humor and, hopefully, an ability to tell people what’s about to happen instead of what just happened. I get my most satifaction in preparing well enough to forcast how a game will play out in advance.
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