UM assistant Leonard plots opponents’ strategy, tendencies
By Matt Vautour, The Daily Hampshire Gazette Staff Writer, 12/27/2001

AMHERST - John Leonard sits at his desk, his thumb hovering just above the buttons on the remote control in his hand as he studies the television hanging from the ceiling of his office.

John Leonard keeps an eye on practice.
On the screen is a tape of a recent game between Marshall and Winthrop. Leonard, who is the University of Massachusetts men's basketball team's top assistant, is watching intently, looking for plays that Marshall runs in its halfcourt offense. He is preparing for UMass' Saturday meeting with the Thundering Herd on the road.

On the TV, Marshall guard Monty Wright catches the ball while moving to the basket. Leonard's thumb freezes him mid-drive, then Marshall moves backwards as Leonard rewinds the tape. When Wright's remote-control-driven moonwalk brings him back to the play's origination, Leonard pauses again. He leans over and charts the action - screens, passes, movement, etc. - on a notepad. Then he watches it again.

He adjusts something on his notes and continues.

The game, which is being shown on ESPN-Plus (the network's satellite arm) goes to a break. Despite the impressive financing rate being offered by a car dealer in the ad, Leonard fast-forwards through the commercials.

Many assistant coaches don't even like watching live games on TV, so accustomed are they to reaching for the fast-forward button. Leonard falls into that category.

"It's brutal," the 43-year-old assistant said laughing.

Leonard is responsible for studying game film of one third of UMass' games. First-year Minuteman head coach Steve Lappas divides his schedule and splits the scouting assignments between Leonard and fellow assistants Chris Walker and Andrew Theokas.

Before UMass even tangled with Maine last Sunday, Leonard already was an authority on Marshall.

Photo - click for larger image
Leonard rallies the troops before Midnight Madness. photo
Natural scout

Leonard's meticulous nature makes him a natural scout. It also has made him a strong complement to Lappas.

"He's the best. He does all the things that I don't like to do," Lappas said. "He's very organized. He lets me concentrate on the things I need to concentrate on."

When Leonard isn't concentrating on film, he is still busy. Anything that falls under "administrative duties" are also his domain.

"John runs things in the office, from the uniforms to the sneakers to coordinating the scouting reports, tape exchange, everything in the office," Lappas said.

Lappas' unwavering trust in Leonard stems from the eight years they were together at Manhattan, from 1988-92, and at Villanova, from 1992-96.

Their union broke when Leonard returned to Manhattan to be the head coach in 1996. He took over for St. John's-bound Fran Fraschilla.

But Leonard struggled at his alma mater, going 26-57 in three seasons at the Jaspers' helm.

Leonard spent the last two years working as the assistant commissioner for the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference and contemplated leaving coaching altogether.

But when Lappas left Villanova to take the vacant UMass position in March, he got in touch with Leonard, hoping to reprise the working relationship that had been so successful in the past.

"He was the first phone call I made," Lappas said. "I was just worried that he wouldn't want to do it. He was getting into the other thing on the administrative end."

The lure of being back on the court working with players and being back around the game on a daily basis was hard for Leonard to resist. After discussing Lappas' offer with his family, which includes his wife Cynthia and children Alyssa, Brianna and John Jr., Leonard accepted the position and moved north.

"It was tough," said Leonard. "It was a decision to get back into coaching. It was very appealing and something I've always loved to do and something I feel I do a good job at, but I also enjoyed what I was doing and I had started doing that route. We were two years into it. But we thought that this would be the best thing for us to do."

Lappas configured his staff to make Leonard his top assistant, putting him in charge of the office and teaching, while younger assistants Walker and Theokas handled most of the recruiting chores.

"This job was so appealing the way Steve talked to me about it," Leonard continued, pausing the VCR. "Coming in here doing a lot of the teaching, being in the office all the time, not worrying about recruiting. Doing X's and O's with him. Those are the fun things for coaches."

As a former head coach, Leonard clearly appreciates the amount of responsibility Lappas entrusts to him.

"I think Steve relies on me because I've been with him so long and I have a really good feel of how he coaches," he said. "I make suggestions about what plays to run, what defenses to change to."

Meanwhile, Marshall's X's and O's beckon from the TV screen. The tape is back on play briefly before Leonard makes another notation on the paper in front of him.

"Central Connecticut ran that play. A lot of schools run it, so our kids will recognize it," Leonard said.

Finding trouble spots

What Central didn't have that Marshall does have is one likely NBA player and another potential one.

Leonard scribbles down the tendencies of every Thundering Herd player, but there has to be special emphasis on 6-foot-9 shooting guard Tamar Slay, a projected first-round draft pick, and 6-10 big man J.R. VanHoose, who leads the nation in double-doubles (double figures in points and rebounds in a game).

If Slay seems to go to his left more than his right, Leonard writes it down. If VanHoose has a favorite post move, that, too, goes on Leonard's report.

When the team begins preparing for Marshall, usually two days before the game, Leonard's scouting report will include diagrams of Marshall's plays, player tendencies and player statistics, among other things.

The diagrams will be broken down into offensive plays against man-to-man defense, zone offense and special plays.

Each member of the coaching staff gets a full packet, while the players get selected pages.

"We do emphasize scouting," Leonard said. "We feel it's very important. Some schools don't. Some very successful schools don't. It's just different ways of skinning the cat."

Leonard saw the fruits of his work against North Carolina State in the defensive efforts of sophomores Willie Jenkins and Raheim Lamb on Wolfpack star freshman Julius Hodge.

"Coach Leonard gave us a packet that told us that (Hodge) likes to drive. He's a good shooter, but he doesn't get (his shot) off that fast, so we could play off him," Jenkins told reporters after that game.

Hodge scored just three points, nine below his season average at the time.

"What we really stress with the kids is the tendencies," said Leonard, who was pleased with Jenkins' endorsement. "That makes the staff feel good because we spent hours putting it together."

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Leonard and Jackie Rogers look on at Midnight Madness. photo
The UMass players see the plays on paper, on film and then simulate them in practice, first in a slow-motion walk-through, then at full speed.

At some point during Saturday's game, Lappas will turn to Leonard after a timeout and ask, "What defense are they going to play?" Leonard won't know for sure. But he'll have a pretty good idea from studying not just the tendencies of the players but those of Marshall coach Greg White as well.

"You try to figure out how he thinks. I want to know what kind of defense he goes to after a timeout," Leonard said. "Is he the type of coach that changes after every time-out? What's their primary defense down the stretch? It's going to be an educated guess, but you want to give him the best answer you can possibly give him."

* * *

If Leonard could push the fast-forward button on his life, he would hope to see another head coaching opportunity down the road, giving him a chance to use the lessons he learned at Manhattan.

"It's something I've done once and I think I learned an awful lot from it," he said. "There's certain things I did well and certain things I didn't do as well as I could have. I'm back in the saddle now. I think I've learned an awful lot.

Whether it happens is far from his mind right now.

"I'm not worried about it because of the position I'm in right now," he said. "This was a good opportunity. They're good kids. They're very receptive and they've worked hard. It was what I was looking for."

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