Brian Earl lurks, not in a menacing way, but you always know where he is in a room. The new coach of the Cornell men’s basketball team — hired after eight years as an assistant at his alma mater of Princeton — is a relatively quiet presence at practice. Sometimes Earl jumps into drills, but often he’s slightly removed from the middle of the action, observing. He watches practices intensely, walking over to players one-on-one to tell them if he sees something they can improve.
From time to time, Earl will raise his voice, but that’s often limited to when he’s announcing what drill he wants to see the team work on next. When Earl talks one on one with someone, it can be an intense experience; every single piece of advice seems incredibly planned and thought through, almost analytically.
“Someone told me that I talk like a politician giving a speech. I think it is a compliment,” Earl chuckles. “It was meant as a compliment.”
Earl’s approach to basketball differs quite dramatically from that of former head coach Bill Courtney, whose contract was not renewed after six consecutive losing seasons and a 60-113 record. Courtney, who was well liked by his players, took an opposite approach with his team. He made his presence known and talked a lot in practices, telling players exactly what he wanted to see.
Earl takes a starkly different approach. He films every practice and drill, cites advanced statistics such as true shooting percentage and is generally more restrained in practice.
“Last year, it was more listening to the coaches and doing what they wanted rather than listening to each other,” said sophomore guard Matt Morgan. “We are the ones on the court and we might see things different than they might see. He’s done a good job of listening to us and at the same time, we listen to him just as much.”
And while Earl doesn’t say much now, assistant coach Donovan Williams — who also came over from Princeton — said he’s seen the young head coach become even more vocal this year.
“He’s a lot more vocal now, believe it or not. I think his message is consistent,” Williams said. “He was a great coach last year and he’s a great coach now and I’m proud to be a part of it.”
In the road up to his first head coaching gig, Earl turned to three coaches in particular for guidance. The first was Bill Carmody, the head coach of Holy Cross and his head coach during playing career at Princeton. Whenever Earl wanted to bounce an idea off another coach, the first person he turned to was man who taught him college basketball. The second was Stan Van Gundy, who Earl met when the coach of the Detroit Pistons visited a practice at Princeton.
“I bug [Van Gundy] whenever I can,” Earl said. “He’s a defensive genius and he works so hard at it.”
The last, of course, was the innovator of the signature Princeton offense, Pete Carrill. The Hall-of-Famer would often stop by the Tigers offices and would serve as someone whom Earl could throw ideas at.
“My brother is a head coach as well, so there’s a lot of bouncing ideas there,” Earl said. “There’s sort of these heroes you look up to, Carmody, Carrill, Van Gundy, and then your peers who you do the crying on the shoulders from time to time.”
While at Princeton, Earl asked Van Gundy if he could put together a scouting report of Tommy Amaker’s squad at Harvard before the Tigers faced them. When the Pistons coach came back with his notes, Earl noted a trend.
“It was all fundamentals, when you best defender should stay on someone,” Earl said. “It’s funny. I can come up with conversations I had with [Van Gundy], but that’s always what it comes back to, defensive and offensive fundamentals, trying to make the shots you take.”
When it comes to coaches and players with roots in Princeton, the question of whether the school’s legendary offense will be implemented emerges. Earl recognizes that the the way basketball is played today has changed dramatically compared to his time playing. While he does not watch a lot of NBA basketball, he said he admires the style of Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors. Combined with a renewed emphasis on fundamentals and trying to create the best shot opportunities possible, Earl hopes to reinvigorate an offense that finished with the lowest field goal percentage in the Ancient Eight.
“We’re trying to get them to think pass,” Earl said. “How can we get easy baskets and fundamentally, the easiest way to get a basket is to get someone to throw you a ball underneath the rim for a layup. It’s as simple as that in a lot of respects. What that takes is someone who can pass and someone who can catch underneath the basket. It takes away the dribbling aspect. It helps to think pass first when you want to get those kinds of shots.”
Defensively, Earl has overhauled the team’s approach. Whereas Courtney places heavy emphasis on trapping players and taking risks with double teams, Earl has tried to change the old habits from Courtney’s run-and-jump defensive scheme.
“Breaking that is an issue,” Earl said. “Just letting [senior guard] Robert [Hatter] guard that guy and see if he can stay with him and you give him a little bit of help, but you’re not the running. We’re just staying in front of our guys. From a defensive perspective, we’re going to try to break that habit.”
And while implementing a new system for his players certainly poses a major challenge for the first-year head coach, Earl’s biggest task comes working with a group of players who were all recruited by his predecessor. For now, it’s figuring out who is good at what, how the pieces fit together and can turn around Cornell basketball, at least in the short term.
“I think you just want to make them feel that they can communicate anything on their mind to you,” Earl said. “Coach Courtney brought them all in. I don’t know him that well, but I know of him in circles as being a really great person. You try to live up to that and you’re not going to be the same person, but try to be someone they can say, ‘Hey, I have a big problem, can I come to you?’”
Earl describes himself as an ambivert, which places him somewhere in between being an extrovert and introvert, according to an article he read. As he attempts to conquer his first season as a head coach, there will certainly be times when he needs to speak up. But his approach thus far — watching intently from the outside — seems to be teaching his players to lead. Whatever the Red needs him to be, Earl seems ready to take on that task.
“I don’t know how you would label me. A lot of people would say introvert, and they’ll be a few who need to be an extrovert,” Earl said. “I’m a chameleon.”