At first, no one could find a ladder.
On March 1, 2004, Air Force’s ever-awful men's basketball team was no longer awful. After beating San Diego State to clinch the Mountain West regular-season title, it was time to celebrate.
One problem: A ladder is required for to cut down a celebratory net. Nobody had cut down nets at Clune Arena because there had been so little to celebrate over the decades.
Finally, after much searching, a ladder was discovered in a closet. I was standing next to coach Joe Scott as his players took turns with the scissors. His Falcons stood high above all expectation. Their coach had pushed them there.
“Unbelievable,” Scott softly said in his New Jersey growl. “Unbelievable.”
Can Scott deliver unbelievable again?
Let’s be realistic. The answer is likely no. The Scott of 2020 and beyond will fail to match the magic Scott crafted in 2003-2004.
But Scott’s return as Air Force’s basketball leader was a brilliant move by athletic director Nathan Pine. Scott is a master at doing much with little. He’s already tangled with the hassles — and they are legion — of coaching at Air Force. He understands the task ahead.
Scott is tough. No way around that. He’s highly demanding of players. And he’s really loud. Trust me on that one.
Jacob Burtschi, an Oklahoman, was Scott’s prize recruit heading into the 2003-2004 season. At Burtschi’s first practice, he launched a quick 3-pointer.
Burtschi was laughing Tuesday night as he returned to that initial practice.
“Hey, kid,” Scott shouted at Burtschi from close range. “We’re not in Putnam, Oklahoma, anymore. That isn’t what we want here.” (I edited out a few of Scott’s words, if you know what I mean.)
But, remember, Scott practices equality in his coaching. He yells at everyone.
“Didn’t matter if you’re the Batman on the team or you’re the nobody on the team. He wants the best from you,” Burtschi said. “And I like to be challenged and be aggressively challenged.”
Scott needs to find players/cadets who will respond to aggressive (!) challenge. That’s the task ahead.
Be sure of this: Scott expects to win. He did not return to Air Force after his long tour through America to sit on the bench watching his Falcons get pounded. He will relentlessly and loudly and expertly guide the Falcons to better days.
In 2007, the Falcons were lucky alum Troy Calhoun returned to rescue a tattered football program. He was overqualified for the job. Same thing in 2020 with Scott.
I don’t see a return to the NCAA Tournament. I do see the Falcons consistently winning more games than they lose in the Mountain West. I see Clune Arena getting loud and hostile again.
Scott is remembered for his ultra-slow Princeton offense, which dictated his players drain the shot clock to 15 seconds before even thinking of a shot.
He should be remembered for his defense. His 2003-2004 Falcons led the nation in scoring defense, allowing a mere 50.9 points per game. Scott teaches a highly complex match-up zone with elements of man-to-man. His defense demands high intelligence and superb communication.
At times, it looked as if six defenders were on the court with all playing highly physical defense. (Highly physical is a euphemism for fouling a lot.)
While enemy ball handlers were getting assaulted on the court, Scott was shouting at the outer limits of a human’s lung power on the bench. It was astoundingly intense basketball theater, and it never let up.
His coaching job in 2003-2004 was a masterpiece, one of the finest college coaching performances of this century. His Falcons defied history to finish 12-2 in the Mountain West and earn a trip to the NCAA Tournament, where they placed a scare in the hearts of North Carolina.
The Falcons had won 38 of 222 conference games in the previous 14 seasons. The 2003-2004 ride was, truly, unbelievable.
But 2003-2004 was not Scott’s only revival project. He took over the University of Denver’s program in 2007 when it was in shambles after a 4-25 finish. By 2010, the Pioneers won 19 games. DU basketball has won more than 20 games twice in program history, which dates to 1903. Scott delivered both of those seasons. He won at Air Force, a football school, and he won at DU, a hockey school.
He wins. Winning is what he expects. Winning is who he is. Winning is what he will deliver.