Underdog coach a perfect fit for underdog team

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vogel Photo by Brian Cunniff/Frank Vogel Frank Vogel had dreams of becoming a Division I college basketball coach, hoping to someday lead a team into the Final Four.

Vogel never did get a job leading a college team. But he is in the Final Four.

By the time you read this, Game 1 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals will have already been played.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, or, if you’re from out of the area and here for Memorial Day weekend, Vogel is the Wildwood Crest native and Wildwood High School graduate who is the head coach of the Indiana Pacers.

Vogel is also the guy who rankled LeBron James and Miami Heat before this series began by saying the Heat were “the next team that’s in our way” en route to an NBA championship.

Ever since taking over the Pacers midway through the 2011-12 season, Vogel has shown that kind of irreverence from time to time.

Perhaps it’s in his nature. People talk about underdogs in sports all the time. It’s an overused word, really, but a true underdog is what Vogel represents. He’s the guy who has no business being here, the guy from a small Jersey shore town of less than 5,000 year-round residents who somehow went from playing Division III basketball at Juniata College to getting one of the most coveted jobs in sports.

Vogel’s story has been chronicled many times over the years but it’s so extraordinary and improbable that it’s worth repeating. Really no more than an above-average 6-foot high school point guard for Joe Bimbo’s Warrior teams who once was on Late Night with David Letterman for his ability to spin basketballs on the edge of a toothbrush while cleaning his teeth, Vogel played college basketball for three seasons at Juniata after graduating from Wildwood High School in 1991.

But he exhibited his extraordinary basketball IQ even back then. As a high school player, Vogel would often dissect scouting reports on opponents and help Bimbo formulate game plans on how to try to beat Wildwood’s opponents.

Vogel easily could have played a fourth year at Juniata, earned a bachelor’s degree and entered the working world like thousands of college graduates each year. But he always had this dream of becoming a Division I college basketball coach and he saw no clear path to that dream by staying at Juniata. So he explored somehow getting involved with the men’s basketball program at the University of Kentucky. He left numerous phone messages and sent letters – this was before email was common – and eventually then-Kentucky coach Rick Pitino agreed to bring Vogel into the program.

He worked as a student manager, played for the Wildcats’ junior varsity team and impressed Pitino enough that the coach kept Vogel on after graduation as a video coordinator. Soon thereafter, Pitino bolted Kentucky for the Boston Celtics, taking Vogel with him, also as video coordinator. He eventually worked his way up to assistant coach. Then Jim O’Brien, also a Pitino assistant at Kentucky and with the Celtics, took over the Celtics when Pitino left, and Vogel remained as assistant coach. He later followed O’Brien in the same role when he became head coach of the 76ers in 2004-05.

After O’Brien was fired by the Sixers after just one season, Vogel worked as a scout in the league for a couple of seasons. Then O’Brien got hired by the Pacers for the 2007-08 season and brought Vogel on board with him. In January 2011, O’Brien was fired by Pacers president of basketball operations Larry Bird – yes, that Larry Bird – and Vogel ascended into the role he currently holds. He was first hired on an interim basis but was given a two-year contract after rallying the Pacers from under .500 to their first playoff berth in five years in his first abbreviated season. That playoff berth fulfilled a promise made by Vogel, who boldly and brashly predicted the team would qualify for the postseason in his first press conference with the media after taking over the job.

In his first full season as coach last year, Vogel’s Pacers won their first-round playoff series and held a 2-1 lead in a second-round series against the Heat before losing to the eventual NBA champions. Now this season, the Pacers are in the NBA’s version of the Final Four, first dispatching Atlanta in six games, winning the series clincher in Atlanta after the franchise had lost 13 straight games in Atlanta dating back to 2006. Vogel, again showing some irreverence, laughed about that losing streak before the game, saying something to the effect that a string of losses doesn’t become a losing streak until it reaches 15 games.

Then last weekend, the Pacers took down Carmelo Anthony and the higher-seeded Knicks, something that would have been difficult to believe if you read all the series preview stories in the New York newspapers.

After his second full season as coach, Vogel – who doesn’t turn 40 until June 21 – has compiled a career record of 185-111 in the regular season. He signed another contract extension earlier this season.

If you don’t follow the NBA too much, you might have a hard time naming even one player on the Pacers, although 7-foot center Roy Hibbert seems to be on the verge of stardom. Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that the team is led by the underdog Vogel, who is arguably the most anonymous coach in the NBA, so anonymous that he could probably stroll the Wildwood Boardwalk this summer with his family and not get noticed.

But the no-name team led by the no-name coach is still playing while teams like the Lakers, Thunder, Knicks and Celtics are not. They’re still playing because, in some ways, they play like a good college team and they embrace the underdog role under their underdog coach. In the six playoff games against the Knicks, the Pacers had five different leading scorers. That just doesn’t happen in the NBA, not anymore.

Vogel and the Pacers may not be anonymous for long. When you play a semifinal-round playoff series against the highest profile team in the NBA with the league’s highest-profile star, it’s hard not to get noticed. And judging by James’s reaction about Vogel’s comments prior to the season, it’s obvious the Pacers have the Heat’s full attention.

But they’re still underdogs, although they’re underdogs who were also only four wins away from playing for an NBA title going into this series.

There are people who say Vogel’s climb from tiny Wildwood Crest and Wildwood High School is the stuff movies are made of. Kind of ironic that he grew up on Hollywood Avenue, don’t you think?

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