There’s a scene in the movie Remember the Titans, toward the beginning, when Coach Boone gathers his team in the school’s gym before their football season starts. As he enters the dimly lit facility, players are laughing, smiling and cracking jokes. He walks swiftly toward the group, eyes staring daggers, and singles out Petey Jones for high-fiving his friends and wearing a smile:
Coach Boone intimidates the juvenile grin right off of his star running back’s face. To him, having fun does not precede success. No, success is what paves the way to fun.
For Tom Thibodeau, a similar hard-nosed identity is nothing new; he’s been demanding and demonstrative for as long as he’s been a coach – and it’s worked well for him. But in recent months, the narrative around his style seems to be migrating from tough-love to no-love. As a result, rumors have flurried surrounding whether free agents will be excited to play for his Wolves in 2018, a curious revelation about an ascending group.
Maybe it’s the doldrums of summer stirring up unwarranted controversy to keep fans engaged. Or, maybe a stream of rumors dripping into the public really is a sign that the faucet is leaking. Either way, perception is reality to those who don’t have first-hand knowledge.
As a head coach, being a hard-ass can be a good thing. After all, the ultimate goal is not to convince players that they like you, but to help them improve and succeed. If you win in the end, won’t everyone be happy?
Jimmy Butler, one of Thibodeau’s best success stories, is a perfect example of this philosophy. Butler was drafted by the Chicago Bulls with the 30th pick in 2011. At the beginning of his rookie year, he found himself at the end of Thibodeau’s bench.
“I never use the word hate, but he was right there,” Butler explained to ESPN’s Sam Alipour when asked about his early relationship with the Head Coach. “He never played me, and I wanted to play. Then finally, my time presented itself and I got to play.” Butler never looked back; he was voted the league’s Most Improved Player in 2015, was named to an All-Defensive team in 2016 and 2018, and was selected as an All-NBA player each of the last two years. Now, he’s Thibodeau’s biggest fan.
The same Bulls group that helped Butler develop into a star also enjoyed substantial success as a team. During Thibodeau’s first year, they won a rookie-coach’s record 62 games. Then 50, then 45, then 48, then 50 again. They lost in the first and second rounds of the Eastern Conference playoffs twice, respectively. The other season, they lost in the Conference Finals. To this day, a vast majority of the players that populated those teams hold their former coach in extremely high regard.
Such a winning trumps all mentality isn’t specific to the man who now runs the show at Target Center, either. It’s proven successful in sports before. In the National Football League, there’s only one current team that can be called a dynasty. The New England Patriots have made the playoffs nine years in a row, have won 12 or more games in eight consecutive seasons, and haven’t missed a Conference Championship since 2010. Still, a major storyline of this NFL off-season was about whether individuals enjoyed being a part of their no-nonsense culture. It sure looks like Patriots alumnus enjoy the rings.
Plus, the Williams High School Titans did win that 1971 Virginia state Football championship
But Thibodeau hasn’t earned a Bill Belickick or Herman Boone level of clout with a majority of his current players. More importantly, he’s no longer just a coach. For the first time since 1981, he has more to worry about than X’s, O’s, W’s and L’s. He can’t rely on a separate front office to mend fences with disgruntled players, and it has to be complicated when the teacher who accuses you of being late is also the principal that decides your punishment. Today, Thibodeau’s aura represents an entire organization. If he doesn’t provide more than fervor on the sidelines, that will remain his team’s identity.
We do know that he’s changing in subtle ways. We’ve heard it especially from those who played for him before he joined the Wolves. In March, Taj Gibson told CBS Sports that, “[Thibodeau has] calmed down so much. Some things are still the same, but he’s matured in different ways. He knows how to be patient. He just knows things now.”
Free agency begins on Sunday at 12:01 a.m. ET; the relative attraction of a rising Western Conference playoff team with a limited cap situation may serve as an indicator of just how meaningful those changes have been. Thus far during his tenure, Thibodeau has had more success attracting free agents to Minnesota than any executive in recent memory, and I expect that trend to continue over the next several weeks. But if this summer doesn’t go as favorably for the Wolves and their boss, he’ll need to do something to rewrite the narrative.
“I’ve never had problems attracting free agents.” -Thibs on the radio with @DanBarreiroKFAN ...also said Wolves are “hopeful” D. Rose (free agent) is back. Same w/ Belly but $ might make it difficult. Also said he, KAT + Glen are all in a good place. Still sounds high on Wiggins.— John Meyer (@thedailywolf) June 25, 2018