The basketball world was stunned today by the sudden passing of Philip Daniel “Flip” Saunders. He was a life long basketball player and coach who earned the respect of everyone he played for and with and coached. He never topped the polls as the best coach in the NBA or at any college, he never coached in the Finals, and while he attended the University of Minnesota, the Golden Gophers were suspended from NCAA postseason play. He only won a conference championship one time, a Big 10 Championship as an assistant coach in 1981. For most of his career, he didn’t win much of anything. Yet people still loved him to no end. He was loved by his players with the Minnesota Timberwolves, even though they only made it out of the first round of the playoffs once and never made it to the NBA Finals. John Wall spoke efervescently about him and Saunders was only 51-130 after being fired in the middle of his 3rd season. Yet he was loved by so many in the coaching world and in basketball at large. Why? Simple. He was a champion without a ring.
Sports center so much around winning and success that many coaches who are respected but aren’t successful on the court will get fired quickly. Flip Saunders was not the most successful of NBA coaches, and never led his team to a championship. He did lead the Timberwolves to success in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, capped off with a 58 win season and a trip to the Western Conference Finals in 2004. And he did lead the Detroit Pistons to 3 consecutive Eastern Conference Finals appearances from 2006-2008, including a franchise record 64 wins in 2006. He found success while coaching, but never got his team to the pinnacle of success. He fits into the category of people who were excellent at their job but never won a title. Think Chris Webber, Rick Adleman, Reggie Miller, and others who were successful and respected in the basketball world but never climbed the mountain to win a championship. He earned the respect and admiration of his players everywhere he coached, and the outpouring of respect and love for him and his family was incredible. Most poignant was this picture from Kevin Garnett, the best player he got to coach.