Q&A with Coach Mike Woodson

Coach Mike Woodson at a podium

Photo by Missy Minear, IU Athletics

Coach Mike Woodson at practice
Indiana Hoosiers men’s basketball coach Mike Woodson.

You were a star player at IU from 1976 to 1980. But you got your start playing pickup basketball in Indianapolis. What were those games like?
I started kind of late as a player—didn’t play competitive basketball until the eighth grade. But then I grew from 5’9” to 6’5” and started making my rounds. At the time, you could go to any area in the city and pick up a game. It might be outside. It might be in a rec center. But there were always games where you could test your skills against the best players in the state. I even played against Pacers like Mel Daniels and George McGinnis. The talent went on for days.

Most fans know about your relationship with Bobby Knight. But I wanted to ask about another coach you played for—Broad Ripple High School’s Bill Smith.
I started out with Coach Partee, who coached the freshmen, and Coach Van Meter, who coached the reserves. And then I got to the real man, Bill Smith. He was a coach who talked about life both on and off the court. He was a disciplinarian, and he pushed me. I thrived at Ripple because of Smitty.

He was your history teacher too, right?
Yes, and Smitty was the same in the classroom as he was on the court. Early on, I was like most kids—I didn’t see education as very important. But once I got to his history class, he set the record straight. He didn’t show favoritism because I played on the team. He expected everyone to be on time, to prepare for tests, to stay on top of homework. It was a Black history class, and Smitty was all about Martin Luther King. Civil rights was a big topic for us, and it should still be a big topic for all people today.

In 1980, when you were at IU, Smith became the first Black coach to lead an integrated high school to a title. What do you remember about that team?
I couldn’t get to a game, but oh did I follow them. That was the old way of winning state titles, which I always thought was fair for everyone. You could be 0 and 20 but still go to state and win it. Indianapolis that year was on fire. To come out of their sectional and regional, how they won one game on a last-second shot—it was a grind for that Broad Ripple team. The whole time, I was talking about them with the guys I’d played with there. Some of my best friends are still my high school teammates, and 40 years on, we still get on the phone and talk sports.

Once you made the NBA, as a player and then as a coach, did you keep following IU?
Every year I was still living and dying by Indiana basketball. Coach Knight and I stayed in contact, and I would watch games on TV. There were plenty of Hoosiers in the league, and whenever I ran into Quinn Buckner or Kent Benson, we would talk IU on the court. It was the same way later with guys like Calbert Cheaney, Victor Oladipo—we’d still talk Indiana basketball. I don’t think you could play here and have it go away. If Oladipo was talking with you, he’d say the same thing. It’s ingrained.

Now you’ve switched to coaching college. What has surprised you most about your new gig?
There haven’t been any surprises. Coaching is coaching. I went on the recruiting trail for the first time, and yes, it’s a grind, but it’s a grind in the pros when you try to sign a free agent and there are 29 other teams trying to sign him, too. When you go to an AAU tournament, you’re not the only one in the room—there are the Dukes and the Kentuckys. So far, I’ve had a good time out there.

Have you changed your on-court approach?
No, because a lot of colleges are now trying to emulate pro teams. We tried to shoot a hell of a lot of threes and now they are trying to shoot a hell of a lot of threes. They’re playing faster, too. You don’t see a lot of zone in the pros—that’s the main difference.

What’s your biggest takeaway from your team’s Bahamas trip, where you won two exhibitions?
We worked for two months before we got to the Bahamas. We wanted our guys to win, but my biggest thing going in was, did they retain any of the things we’d taught them in the last two months? And they did. I was pretty pleased with how they defended in the half court—just hard work and taking pride in guarding the ball. That’s the way defense was taught to me at Ripple and at IU. That’s the kind of defense that won me a lot of games.

What, to you, does a successful first season look like?
I’m not singling anything out in terms of what I expect. But I came back here for two things: Big Ten titles and national titles. I’m not preaching a certain amount of wins or losses. The only thing I’m preaching is titles.

Since you brought up zone defense, I feel like I have to ask—what’s your approach against a 2-3 zone?
Well, we’ll get there when the time comes. At the end of the day, players have to make shots against a zone. But I’ll put them in a position to be successful.