ISU coach Dan Muller (WJBC photo/B Corbin)
By Bryan Bloodworth
Dan Muller is doing more than just trying to build a basketball program at Illinois State.
He’s also trying to build the right culture within the program – something that will pay dividends down the road even if his actions seem costly now.
That became evident a month ago when he suspended Tyler Brown, the team’s second leading scorer, in the midst of a then four-game losing streak. He did so because Brown’s actions were veering off course and he needed to be reined in before things became detrimental to the team.
Muller’s culture-building became crystal clear last week when he benched Johnny Hill, the team’s best perimeter defender and starting point guard, midway through the first half of the Bradley game when Hill was whistled for a technical foul after verbalizing his disgust about an offensive foul call against teammate Bryant Allen.
Hill’s words were delivered a good 15 feet away from the official making the call, so it wasn’t like it was delivered in a conversational tone. What he said deserved the technical, even though the foul on Allen was viewed as questionable at best, especially by ISU fans.
No one thought much about it when Muller took Hill out of the game at that point.
But to the surprise of everyone at Carver Arena - except Muller and Hill and maybe ISU team members – Hill never returned to the game.
It wasn’t the first time Hill had been warned by Muller about controlling his emotions and it wasn’t in the too distant past prior to the Bradley game Hill had been given a stern warning – something along the lines of ‘do it again and you will sit.’
Many ISU fans probably believed it was too stern, especially after ISU committed 23 turnovers and Bradley’s guards consistently drove the lane to shred the Redbirds’ defense for 55 second-half points to earn the come-from-behind victory.
The stance Muller took obviously didn’t sit well with Redbird Nation, especially when it came in a loss to arch-rival Bradley.
Many believe Muller’s hard-line stance cost ISU a game the Redbirds very easily could have won with Hill in the lineup.
That might be true, but he also was shaping the culture he will build within his program at ISU. As painful as it was for Hill, he understood and accepted the penalty, much like Brown did when he served a suspension for voicing his frustration in an improper manner after a loss at Missouri State.
Brown returned after sitting out a game against Drake – a move by Muller that very possibly cost ISU a victory – and has responded in a positive manner.
“I’m glad Tyler has handled it the way he did and Johnny is fine, but that’s what’s expected,” said Muller. “Guys playing hard; guys acting right; guys doing what their supposed to be doing – that’s just expected.
“It’s just part of the deal here and should be part of the deal in life. I love these guys and they’re a big part of the team, but they have to be held accountable just like everybody else on this team.
“You get what you earn in life and you get what you earn here. Nothing is given to you or given to the team and you can’t expect that or you’re going to fail in life. We need to be more consistent with what we have to do to get what we want.”
One of the toughest things for a new coach, who inherits a veteran group like Muller did, is to get it to understand the culture he is building and what he will do to achieve it.
“That’s part of it,” said Muller. “We didn’t handle success well, some individuals in particular and as a team. My expectations are certainly very high and I’m not going to change no matter who comes here. I expect guys to perform and do the right things. If our players want to be rewarded for doing what they’re supposed to do then once they leave here, they are not going to be successful.
“My level of expectations and how certain things weren’t acceptable at times throughout the year was a surprise to some of these guys. Going forward it won’t be a surprise, so certainly that will help us and that’s the culture you build as a head coach.
“Unfortunately, it reared its ugly head for a stretch with some individuals in particular and then the team collectively. I didn’t change my expectations and I think we just got back to understanding that’s what you need to do to be successful.”
The foundation is being laid.
Bryan Bloodworth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org