Mike Woodson didn’t want anything to do with coaching when he retired from playing in the NBA in 1991. He was content heading back to Bloomington, where he played on the Indiana men’s basketball team from 1976 to 1980 under former coach Bob Knight, and working alongside former Indiana All-American Scott May in real estate. Then he got a phone call.
Hall of Fame coach Cotton Fitzsimmons, who was in his second stint as the Phoenix Suns head coach, was on the other end of the line. Fitzsimmons wanted Woodson to come on as an assistant coach while he coached during the summer league.
“He said, ‘Hey Woody, we can play golf every day,’ so I said ‘I’m on my way’,” Woodson said at Big Ten Basketball Media Days on Friday.
Thirty minutes into his first practice, Fitzsimmons told Woodson he’d see him later because he was going to play golf. Confused, Woodson asked if he was coming along with him.
Fitzsimmons said no, someone needed to stay back and coach the team.
“I knew nothing about coaching — it was one of the most embarrassing times of my life as a coach,” Woodson said. “He left me there and I’m like, ‘Shit, I played 11 years in the NBA and I have no clue what I’m doing from a coaching standpoint.’”
Woodson said the players probably thought he didn’t know what he was doing, but from then he caught the coaching bug.
After 34 years in the NBA between playing and coaching, Woodson had the opportunity to return home for good this spring.
IU Athletics Director Scott Dolson met Woodson in New York City, where he was serving as an assistant coach for the Knicks. At the meeting, Woodson pitched to Dolson why he should be the next head coach of the Indiana men’s basketball team.
“When this job opened, it was a no-brainer for me,” Woodson said. “This is a very unique job and I know the dynamics of this job because I played here and I’ve watched it over the years.”
He was hired as the 30th head coach in program history a few weeks later. He said Friday at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis that Indiana was the only college coaching job he’s considered.
Now a few months into the job, Woodson said he has a feel for the college game, thanks partially to a trip to the Bahamas this summer where the team played two scrimmages. After bringing in three transfers and two freshmen, the team was able to bond and Woodson said he left feeling good about how his team was progressing.
Woodson said the hardest challenge he’s faced so far is getting the team on the same page and getting his players to buy into what he throws at them.
“I can’t change because I have a young team, I gotta be who I am,” Woodson said. “They’re doing everything we ask them to do, like I always say with young players, and Knight used to say it: ‘Hey, just because you think you play hard, there’s always another level.’”
Woodson inherited a program that hasn’t reached the NCAA Tournament since 2016 and finished 12-15 last season. Indiana tied for 10th in the Big Ten last season with a 7-12 record in conference play.
He said Friday he felt hurt and frustrated watching the Hoosiers in the last few years, but being a coach he understands how hard it is. He added it’s not in his nature to bad mouth another coach.
Ultimately, Woodson came back to Indiana to help the program do better.
“I gotta make sure we can make a major move and get this team back on top,” Woodson said.