Coaching Profile: Jim Boylen

April 30th, 2014 | by Ben Dowsett
Potential Jazz Head Coach Jim Boylen

Potential Jazz Head Coach Jim Boylen – (Photo Credit: Tom Smart, Deseret News)

In today’s age of instant media, any major sports event, whether national or specific to a single team, will begin being dissected the moment it becomes news.  Naturally, events like the Sterling saga are somewhat rare, as are their relative levels of reaction.  But big events spur big reactions, and this was certainly the case last week when the Jazz announced that Ty Corbin would not be renewed as the team’s head coach.  And because Corbin’s departure wasn’t a surprise to anyone closely following the team, much of the “hot take”-style instant reaction was centered, understandably, around who his replacement would be.  Many possible candidates flew across my Twitter feed, from reasonable suggestions to slight stretches to complete reaches who seemed to only be brought up because they had some connection to both the game of basketball and the state of Utah.

But while current Spurs assistant coach Jim Boylen may have initially seemed like a member of the latter group given his former ties to the University of Utah, the reality quickly became apparent: Boylen is a fully legitimate candidate for the job, and if some rumors are to be believed, is in fact the clear front-runner.

Boylen began in the college ranks as an assistant before an 11-year stint with the Houston Rockets, during which he worked with current Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey.  After Houston, he bounced around a couple more NBA and NCAA programs as an assistant (including with Tom Izzo at Michigan State) before taking the head coaching job at Utah in 2007.  Things went mostly well for his first two seasons, including a Mountain West Conference title in 2008-09 and a berth in the NCAA Tournament as a 5-seed.  The Utes were upset in the first round, though, and it would prove to be Boylen’s high point with the program.  They went a combined 27-35 over the next two seasons and didn’t sniff another tourney berth, and Boylen was fired on March 12, 2011.  He was hired as an assistant under Spurs coach Gregg Popovich last offseason with the departure of Mike Budenholzer.

Boylen’s time as Utes head coach has been the main talking point since his inclusion as a major candidate, and with good reason.  Brought in to stabilize a program that had lost its way somewhat since the Rick Majerus era, Boylen’s first two years seemed to indicate success on the horizon.  But things quickly deteriorated, beginning with that tourney loss to Arizona in 2009; Boylen had rapidly developed a reputation as a combustible head coach, and the results were on full display by his third season.  He clashed with the media on multiple occasions, including a memorable rant against an unpaid Utah Chronicle reporter and an infamous snipe-fest with Tribune veteran Gordon Monson after a 20-point loss to BYU in 2010.  His seeming inability to handle media pressure that, frankly, doesn’t come close to comparing to the scrutiny he would face as an NBA head coach has worried many who followed the Utes closely during his time.  It’s partially in fun, but a few of his rants caught on tape appear in snippets of this clip, kindly pointed out by SCH Editor-in-Chief Spencer Hall on Twitter last week:

Media interactions are one thing, but player interactions are another, vastly more important element, and Boylen’s high-tension nature certainly appeared to spill over here as well.  While never confirmed on the level such reports would be in the NBA, stories about players unable to get along with him weren’t infrequent.  He had several impact players transfer away from the team during his tenure, including JJ O’Brien, Will Clyburn, and Marshall Henderson, all considered potential stalwarts1.  Those who pay close attention to the Utes have raised these concerns to myself and others, as well as questions about how a coach who couldn’t do better than .500 (32-32) in a weak basketball conference will do any better in the far more competitive NBA.  They’re reasonable concerns, to be sure.

Of course, they don’t tell the entire story by any means.  There are many good reasons why Boylen has remained consistently employed within the NBA and Division I NCAA for 20+ years, and why he was hired by guru Pop himself last summer.  Boylen is well-respected as a basketball mind within the league, and this sort of reputation has only grown over the past season given San Antonio’s continued success.  His hometown connection, while certainly flawed in the eyes of many, does bring with it a familiarity that would certainly have some benefits, the most notable of which would seem to be the lack of a “grace” period many coaches might receive2.  Predicting the success of quality assistant coaches in the league is very tough – my colleague Dan Clayton made the excellent point soon after Corbin’s dismissal that, with all the hubbub over Boylen’s Pop legacy (and other former Spurs assistants who have achieved success as head coaches), the Jazz had just finished canning the protégé of Jerry Sloan, another legendary coach, because said protégé simply didn’t transfer over to the top spot as well as was hoped.

For now, Boylen and Ettore Messina appear to be the leading candidates for the job.  Both are currently entrenched in postseason play for their respective teams, and it’s generally speculated that Utah will wait at least a few weeks to make any decisions for this and several other reasons.  Enjoy the playoffs for now, Jazz fans, but keep a keen eye out for new developments in the coming weeks.

Ben Dowsett

Ben Dowsett

Ben Dowsett is a life-long Jazz fan and current in-depth analyst based in Salt Lake City. He also writes for Basketball Insiders and BBallBreakdown, and can be heard on SCH Radio on ESPN 700 weekly. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.
Ben Dowsett
Ben Dowsett

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  1. LKA says:

    As I stated in another post “Just say no..”

    • Mewko says:

      Agreed. Why would he be the front runner for the job? I doubt that true. Dennis Lindsey is not that stupid.
      Here’s a true analogy.

      Deron Williams: Jerry Sloan :: Trey Burke: Jim Boylen
      The fact is that Trey Burke is THE leader of our team, and that doesn’t work well with Boylen. It’s Boylen’s way, or the highway!

    • Ben Dowsett says:

      When I say he’s the frontrunner, at the moment I mean it within the context of respected opinions both locally and nationally. There isn’t a ton in the way of confirmed quotes from within the organization identifying anyone, so that’s the best we can do for now. There have certainly been many “unconfirmed reports” from “team sources” that have identified Boylen as a frontrunner. He would also not be my first choice, for a number of reasons.

  2. Clint Johnson says:

    I think Boylen should be looked at, but personally, I don’t think his credentials or potential compensate for the disastrous PR his hiring would entail in this market. Hiring an assistant coach with a “be brilliant or else” mandate isn’t wise, and the only way Boylen would overcome his history here would be instant brilliance. He might become a solid head coach, but I can’t see it happening here.

    • Ben Dowsett says:

      Clint, in a broad sense I tend to agree. It’ll be interesting to see where the Jazz choose to take things.

  3. Mewko says:

    I think Boylen can be a solid coach. He helped the Utes program move on to a new era. He’s obviously good if he was on coaching staffs at Michigan University, and working under Greg Popovich and Frank Vogel.

    I’m not so sure he’s defensive minded. He blamed that loss to BYU on the offense instead of the defense. A defensive minded coach would have said “We let the other team’s ball go in” instead of “the ball didn’t go in” I want our team to be defense first, and take defensive improvements like the Charlotte Bobcats.

    But the main reason I don’t want him is his history with the media and fans in Utah. He’s just not a fit, many Jazz fans will be upset if he get hired. Plus he’ll probably give the team the best chance to win, which means restraining minutes from Enes Kanter.

  4. Paul Johnson says:

    The fact that Boylen couldn’t handle the media as a college coach in a small market like Salt Lake City, and the fact that Boylen had problems with getting along with players as a college coach, because his policy was “my way or the highway” are red-flags that he may have trouble making the transition to NBA head coach from successful NBA assistant coach.

    In this day and age of having to “recruit” free agent players in the NBA, and with Salt Lake City already historically being a place that young NBA players don’t want to come to in free agency (because it does not have the hustle and bustle of a big city, and has a reputation of being a conservative lifestyle stronghold), it would seem to handicap the Jazz even further in free agency (or in even keeping players long-term who were originally drafted by the Jazz) to hire a head coach who has a reputation of having too big of an ego to get along with even college players–who have much smaller egos and much fewer options than NBA players. Also, even though Salt Lake City is a smaller media market, any head coach in the NBA gets some national exposure as well as local exposure, as was evidenced by some of the national criticism of Ty Corbin in the last portion of his tenure as head coach of the Jazz. I like to look at an analogy to Sarah Palin as a potential presidential candidate–if she couldn’t “stand the heat” of the media in a rural, isolated state like Alaska, what made anyone think she could withstand the intense media scrutiny in Washington, D.C., and nationwide if she were to be come president–it just doesn’t make sense. Similarly, if Boylen couldn’t stand the limited media “heat” that he received as the head basketball coach of the University of Utah Utes, what makes anyone think he could stand the media “heat” as the head coach of the Utah Jazz, in being compared to a basketball coaching legend like Jerry Sloan, it just doesn’t make sense.

    As a small market team in the NBA I don’t think the Jazz can survive two unsuccessful coaching tenures in a row. Therefore, even though Boylen seems to have the overall credentials to become an NBA head coach, I think the Jazz should let some other team take the risk that the “red-flags” of Boylen’s tenure as the head basketball coach at the University of Utah will not translate into problems as an NBA head coach.

    My preference for the Jazz would be a coach that has a track record of being successful on the defensive side of NBA basketball–such as Jeff Van Gundy, or one of the former assistants whom he mentored (Mike Longabardi, Tom Thibodeau, Steve Clifford–only one of whom appears to be available), or a young up-and-coming coach who looks like he could really develop the young Jazz players and grow with the young team, such as Kevin Ollie.

  5. Matthew says:

    I hate to disagree with most comments here on the board, but, I actually think that Jim Boylen would be a great hire for our team. He does have a proven track record as an assistant coach in the NBA (five different franchises: Golden State, Houston, Indiana, San Antonio, and Milwaukee), while he also has head coaching experience and relative success. The Runnin’ Utes still have not made it back to the NCAA Tournament since he left (but that will likely change this season). Boylen won with Ray Giacoletti’s recruits, but could not win with his own, whether that came from him clashing with his players, or, the fact that his players were just not that good. Mr. Boylen also ran pro-style sets at Utah, so he definitely knows the pro game. He is also an excellent big-man coach, and has been directly linked to helping with the success of several players (Hakeem Olajuwon, Luke Nevill, Roy Hibbert, etc.). Perhaps he was just unprepared for the type of pressure he would face as a head coach in his first opportunity. Perhaps he has now learned from his mistakes and is ready to be a head coach again.

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