Jim Boylen isn’t here to be a stopgap. The word interim was never used in the minutes and hours after the Bulls fired Fred Hoiberg and announced the 53-year-old Boylen was taking over. The Bulls believe their current core group has the talent to push the rebuild forward; John Paxson said as much.
But the hope and expectation is that Boylen will be able to provide the finishing touches, creating a positive environment that breeds competitive spirit and energy on a nightly basis, and ultimately creates on-court success.
“I feel I’m the guy for it,” Boylen said during his introductory press conference on Monday at the Advocate Center. “I don’t think anyone has a better vantage point of who this team is, what it was, what it can be than me. And from the experiences that I’ve had and where I’ve been, who I’ve been with, I’m going to try and use all that to make us into a better ball club and to build our culture in a positive way.’’
Paxson called Boylen a basketball “lifer” on Monday, and it’s not far off. The Michigan native began his coaching career in 1987 under Tom Izzo at Michigan State. He remained there for five years before beginning his NBA coaching career, acting as an assistant coach in Houston under Rudy Tomjonavich from 1992 to 2003. The Rockets won two titles in the non-Jordan years, and Boylen moved on from Houston in 2003, taking on assistant roles with Golden State and Milwaukee for a year apiece.
He went back to the collegiate ranks under Izzo in 2005 and then took the Utah head coaching job in 2007, where he won 64 games in four seasons and made an NCAA Tournament appearance. He was fired after a 13-18 season in 2011.
From there he latched on with the Pacers in 2011, remained there until 2013 when Gregg Popovich hired him as an assistant. He won his third NBA title with the Spurs in 2014 and stayed another year when Hoiberg came calling in 2015, making him the No. 2 man in Chicago post-Tom Thibodeau.
Suffice it to say, after eight different stops over a 31-year period that Boylen has seen what works, what doesn’t and how to implement the former instead of the latter. The Bulls are certainly investing in him, giving him a permanent title through at least next season – the length of his contract – as opposed to tagging him the interim and letting the season play out.
“The things that we believe Jim has with him are a lot of the intangibles that head coaches have. He has a passion and an energy to him that I think our players will respond to,” Paxson said. “It’s different when you’re an assistant than when you’re a head coach. I think he’ll be able to take his personality and get these guys to buy in to what he’s doing.
That final line was the main takeaway from Monday’s press conference. Where the Bulls might not have been expected to win during the 2018-19 season, they were expected to, under Hoiberg, take a step forward mentally. But the “energy and competitive spirit” lacked under Hoiberg in Year 2 of the rebuild, and he’s now replaced by a coach in Boylen who admitted is “a little more passionate in-game.”
So how does that get done? While Hoiberg never made excuses for his team’s poor performance in the wake of losing four key contributors for most of the season’s first month, Boylen is entirely taking it out of the team’s lexicon.
“I wasn’t raised that way to think that you can’t box a guy out whether you’re 6-foot-1 or 6-foot-8, you can’t be physical whether you’re 6-foot-1 or 6-foot-8. I wasn’t raised that way,” he said. “That’s not been my mentality. We have to do our technique better. We have to be more physical. We have to care about it more, and that’s what I hope I can help us do.”
Boylen was incredibly complimentary of Hoiberg, thanking him for the opportunity to coach in Chicago, calling him “a wonderful person” who was loved by all the players. But Hoiberg’s departure also opened up an opportunity for Boylen to reach the pinnacle of his profession. And from all indications he’s off to a good start. After practice he met with each member of the coaching staff and each player individually in Indiana to discuss their role. It’s the first step in building a culture not unlike the ones he was part of in Houston, Indiana and San Antonio.
And though he’s only been on the job less than a day, after a spirited two-hour practice the Bulls already feel closer to creating that culture that will breed success down the line.
“What I hope we can do is own ‘Bulls’ across our chest better. I don’t think we’ve owned it very well,” Boylen said. “And we have a lot to play for in this program and this place. So, to me that’s where it’s got to go. Who were playing for, what city were representing, and I’m going to preach those things every day.”