Welcome to the latest installment of “Leading Questions: Wisdom from the Corner Office,” in which IBJ sits down with central Indiana’s top bosses to talk shop about the latest developments in their industries and the habits that lead to success.
Frank Vogel, 38, was named head coach of the Indiana Pacers on July 6, after a lengthy audition as interim head coach last season. The team fired coach Jim O’Brien on Jan. 30, leaving former assistant Vogel to helm the team through 38 remaining regular-season games (going 20-18) and a gutty five-game playoff series loss against the Chicago Bulls.
Taking control of the young team, Vogel immediately loosened O’Brien’s tight reins in hopes of reinvigorating the players (see video above). He also tried to imprint a new identity on the team—that of relentless, overachieving underdogs who would stop at nothing for a win.
Vogel is quite comfortable with that identity himself. Never a gifted athlete, he forged a career as a high school player in Wildwood, N.J., and Division III starter at Juniata College in central Pennsylvania through dogged preparation and raw persistence.
He learned the lesson early. A gym rat as a youngster, Vogel heard a motivational speech at a basketball camp about challenging one’s self to continually improve, punctuated by eye-popping basketball-spinning tricks.
“I bought into it,” Vogel said. “I was like, ‘I want to do that. I want to keep getting better.’ So I was able to learn these tricks. I spent a lot of time in my front driveway, just spinning it and spinning it. Eventually, I mastered the craft.”
Friends encouraged him to audition for the “Stupid Human Tricks” segment on “Late Night with David Letterman.” The 13-year-old Vogel was a hit on the show, spinning a basketball on the back end of a toothbrush while brushing his teeth with the bristles.
Hard work doesn’t always pay off. Vogel enrolled at Juniata College and decided to study pre-med while also playing on the school’s varsity basketball squad. The best grade point average he could muster was a 2.6, so he started looking for alternatives. After deciding on coaching as a career, he became enamored of the resurgent University of Kentucky program headed by then-coach Rick Pitino.
“I said, ‘I want to work for that guy. I want to learn what they do and why he’s one of the best coaches in the country,’” Vogel recalled. That led to a great leap of faith—abandoning his senior year at Juniata and transferring to Kentucky in hopes of landing a spot as a student-manager.
Through persistence, Vogel landed a 30-second interview with Pitino and made the acquaintance of then-assistant Jim O’Brien. He eventually convinced O’Brien to give him a shot, and ended up working as a video coordinator for the team.
In 1997, he followed Pitino to the Boston Celtics, where he served as video coordinator through 2001, and then an assistant coach through 2004. After holding positions with the Philadelphia 76ers, Los Angeles Lakers and Washington Wizards, Vogel landed in Indianapolis in 2007 as an assistant to O’Brien.
In the video below, Vogel discusses early influences on his attitude toward success, his appearance on "Late Night" and how he was able to convince O'Brien to let him join the Kentucky program.
Contrary to popular belief, professional coaches don't pepper every halftime locker-room talk with emotional calls to greatness. But they occasionally are merited. In the video below, Vogel recalls inciting his players during halftime of a game against the Miami Heat, and how he used a pivotal scene in the movie "Rocky" to inspire them.