Pat Riley, Inside-Out: Organizational Dynamics

The Daily Coach continued its conversation with Pat Riley about what he saw in a young Erik Spoelstra and the value of organizational continuity.

Before Erik Spoelstra was a two-time NBA champion head coach, before he was even a top assistant on a title-winning team, he was a baby-faced video coordinator penning detailed notes for Miami Heat Coach Pat Riley.

“I told him to slide them under my door,” Riley said, laughing in retrospect. “I didn’t want to have a meeting. ‘Just slide them under my door.’”

Spoelstra has now worked for the Heat for nearly three decades and is considered arguably the best coach in the NBA.

For Part 3 of “Pat Riley, Inside-Out,” The Daily Coach continued its conversation with the current Heat president about what he saw in a young Spoelstra, why he feels organizational continuity is essential, and the importance of image for a leader.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Coach Riley, thank you again for doing this. Whether you were with the Lakers, Knicks or Heat, it seems like there’s never been an aversion to conflict with your teams. Why do you think conflict is important and what does good conflict vs. bad conflict look like?

It’s human nature when you’re playing 100 games per year that you’re going to have nights and practices where players, who are human beings, are not going to be at their best.

But when it becomes something that’s intentional on their part, then you have to create conflict. I used to plan my temporary insanity. If I could see something happen on a Sunday in a game, I would address something after the game, but I didn’t really talk to the players until the next day after I reviewed the film. We would sit against the bleachers, and I would talk about the game. If I didn’t get any response the next day or I got the look I didn’t want or the pep in the step that wasn’t there in practice, I’d say, “On Thursday, I’m going to have to put my fist through a blackboard or something and let them know I care about it.”

You can’t always be crazy when it involves conflict, but sometimes, you have to create crisis to get their attention. A good, healthy conflict that arises within a team needs to be handled internally, quietly and not in secret but with the trust of your assistant coaches and training staff and players that they’re not going to leak all this stuff out to the media — especially today with social media on the extreme right or left that could send a team sideways.

There’s healthy conflict, which is good, and there’s real bad conflict. When you have bad conflict within a team, that has to be addressed instantaneously. Healthy conflict simply comes from human nature. Players have a tendency to go sideways on you, not for any other reason than fatigue, boredom, monotony, 82 games, 30 cities, same place, same arenas, same locker rooms, same hotels, same food. It’s not a bad life, but it’s hard to keep a team sharp for 100 games a year.

Whenever you’re shown on TV, you seem to always have the same stoic expression. Can you explain the Pat Riley look to us?

I don’t know (laughs). I think it’s a learned response over the last 50 years. When you’re young, and now at 78 years old, I think you do gain a lot of experience and wisdom in how you carry yourself.

This all started with my father. My father was rather stoic. He was very well dressed. He always taught me, “You do not walk out of this house without shoes and socks and pressed khakis and a clean white shirt and a belt. Comb your hair.” That’s the way he was as a manager. His uniform was impeccable. When he went out to give speeches in Schenectady, N.Y., or he received some kind of an honor, he was really a dapper man. He had great shirts and ties, and I took that with me.

I think when you’re a leader, you have to present yourself in a way that’s real, that’s who I am. If I’m going to be representing the Los Angeles Lakers, which was a $100 million franchise at that time, I don’t think Dr. Buss wanted to see me in a warmup uniform out there. So, that whole “Pat Riley look,” or “GQ look,” or slicked-back hair… the reason I slick my hair back is that my dad slicked his hair back. I started slicking my hair back in 1978 actually before I became a head coach. The suits were impeccable because I felt I had to present a respectful leadership figure to the fans in Los Angeles. I’m that way today.

When I’m trying to create a message, I’m always in deep thought. When I watch a game, I don’t really react to almost anything that happens on the court because I’m evaluating and watching. Plus, you’re always on television and you never know when they’re going to be reading lips if you say something. It’s just something that I do.

Hans Deryk/Reuters

How do you maintain that level of discipline to not react to plays or what’s happening in front of you when there’s so much at stake?

I think there’s a humility to it and not going over the top with your behavior when you’re a leader. I think people expect all coaches, all executives to behave in a manner where they look like they have a presence, they have an expertise, and they can be followed by other people. Not just men and women but anyone in a position of leadership, you want to be respected. If you give somebody a chance to ridicule you for something you might do that’s out of sync, that’s on you. I don’t do it consciously. That’s just who I am as a man.

You’ve been with the Heat since 1995. Erik Spoelstra is now the second-longest-tenured head coach in the NBA. When you see all of the turnover in the profession now, what do you make of it — and do you think leaders have in general become overly impulsive?

I think you’re right. It’s almost frenetic in a way based on the one tenet that probably a lot of organizations have: Win. I believe you only win through continuity and keeping people together, helping them grow. Erik Spoelstra, I didn’t even know who he was when I came here in 1995. He was down in the video room. He just kept supplying me with information. He used to send me some of the greatest notes that I used in practice, and I let him know.

But I think the thing that really helped Spo was in 2006, when we won the championship, was that he had delivered the edit from a game the night before. All of the players were sitting in the locker room waiting for the film. He brought it into me. We put it into the DVD, turned it on, and I gave him the remote and said, “You go over the film in front of the players.” That day, the film was really directed at Shaquille O’Neal not getting back on defense. I said, “You know what I asked you to put on that edit. I want you to explain to all these players who have respect for you. Don’t hold back.” He was a little nervous in his first presentation to those guys.

One of the great things about Shaquille and the players that day is they actually sat up in their chairs and showed him the respect because they knew how much he worked behind the scenes. They let him basically criticize them, praise them. It took him about five minutes to get his voice going, but that was the first time I said this guy has something special.

Continuity to me is the most important thing. Teaching from within. Promoting people who have believed in you and done their job. Giving them the opportunity. With a lot of what’s going on in professional sports with turnover, turnover, turnover, I don’t want that here, and neither does Micky Arison, our owner. He doesn’t like to fire people.

Train them up, give them a job, let them know it’s all hands on deck, even though you might have to help somebody else out in times of need. But just do your job, and do it well. Present yourself in a manner as a leader, because everybody here is a leader in their own department.

Spo now is the catalyst for all of this. Spo is a different thinker than I was. He’s a more contemporary thinker at his age. The books that he read versus the books that I read are different. He’s very intelligent. He really has a depth of knowledge now about coaching and people and how to coach contemporary players. Sometimes, I look at him and he says, “Coach, it’s not the way it used to be.” I trust him implicitly, and he’s turned out to be one of the great coaches ever.

Part 4 of “Pat Riley, Inside-Out” will run next Saturday, Nov. 4.

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