September 7, 1980
Jimmy Rodgers," explains Bill Fitch, "has been around me long enough that he's like radar. As I'm asking for something, he's already handing it to me."
That, as much as anything else, explains why Rodgers has ended his nine- year association with the Cleveland Cavaliers and has begun a new relationship with the Celtics as an assistant coach. He may, quite properly, be referred to as Bill Fitch's right arm.
The two have worked together for 10 years, the first two at the University of North Dakota and the remaining eight at Cleveland. Their partnership is probably as close as any head coach/assistant coach pairing in basketball. So it was only natural that when Rodgers became available at the conclusion of last season, he should wind up joining his old mentor for a third time.
Rodgers spent the 1979-80 season as the player personnel director of the Cavaliers, an opportunity he describes as a "great experience," but one which did not run smoothly, because of ownership machinations. "Something told me it was time to move on and get into a new situation," says Rodgers. And the obvious situation for him to be involved with was the one in Boston.
Fitch first spotted Rodgers when Fitch was head coach at North Dakota and Rodgers was starting for the University of Iowa. At one time, Rodgers was seriously considering a dentistry career. But by the end of his junior year he was entertaining coaching notions. By graduation time in 1965, he was utilizing his contacts in the hopes of landing a coaching position and one of those connections was Bill Fitch, who was friendly with Rodgers' coach, Ralph Miller.
Rodgers joined Fitch as a combination assistant coach and graduate student, and when Fitch left North Dakota in 1967, he recommended his young protege for the head job. Rodgers was hired, and he stayed at North Dakota for three years before spending the 1970-71 season as an assistant to Lanny Van Eman at the University of Arkansas ("My main job there was recruiting").
The chance to join the NBA came in 1971, and his first shock was how good the pros weren't. "I anticipated, at that time, to find out that the pros were finished products," Rodgers explained. "I reasoned that these All-Americans had to be fully developed players by the time they got to the pros. I learned, instead, that there was a whole lot more that could be done with each player. It was a revelation to me, to discover that you've got to work on the same fundamentals in the NBA that you had to work on in college. Everybody can be continually improved, and that goes for coaches, too."
Fitch views Rodgers as a fine all-around coach who will be able to handle a variety of tasks. "He can scout and handle men," lauds Fitch. "He's great with films, breaking down other teams." Indeed, the otherwise self-effacing Rodgers admits to this as a particular area of strength. "I think I have a certain degree of expertise in that area," he says, in as massive amount of self-promotion as he is capable of producing.
Fitch has yet to spell out the duties for both Rodgers and holdover assistant K.C. Jones, but Rodgers says it really doesn't make much difference to him what he winds up doing. "I'm ready to do whatever Bill asks me to do," stresses Rodgers. "If there is anything I can do to contribute to the Celtics winning another championship, I'll certainly try to do it, whether it's scouting other teams, scouting colleges or helping out on the floor."
After spending nine years in the NBA, and still being three years shy of his 40th birthday, Rodgers would have to be considered as a head coaching possibility. "I don't lose any sleep over it," he claims. "At the present time, I'm happy with what I'm doing. My objective is to be the best assistant coach I can be. I think I'll know if the right opportunity ever comes along for a head job. I'm realistic. I know there are only 23 of these jobs in the world. And sometimes a very good assistant coaching job is better than a bad head coaching job."
The two were in constant touch last season, although Fitch is quick to point out that their discussions centered on opposing teams and did not include evaluations of either the Cavaliers or Celtics. "I wouldn't ask him about Cleveland," says Fitch, "and if I did I'm sure he would have cut me off. He is too loyal an organization man to do something like that."
Rodgers' presence should make life much easier for Fitch, who worked many long hours last season. Rodgers knows exactly how his boss wants things done. "We're definitely on the same wave length," Rodgers says. And, once again, they're on the same payroll, as well.