Sports

Kallet: Is The Grinnell System Legit Or Unjust? An Expert Weighs In

Exclusive Interview With Ex-Player, Author Of Book About Pioneers Hoops
Screenshot of Grinnell Athletics' landing page on Nov. 21, 2012. (credit: pioneers.grinnell.edu)

Screenshot of Grinnell Athletics’ landing page on Nov. 21, 2012. (credit: pioneers.grinnell.edu)

By Brad Kallet, WFAN.com
» More Columns

If you’re a sports fan, you’ve probably heard the name Jack Taylor several times over the past year.

Not ringing any bells? He’s the 23-year-old guard who dropped an NCAA-record 138 points in a game on November 20, 2012, and then followed that up with an encore 109-point performance a little over a week ago.

The Black River Falls, Wisc., native — who plays for Division III Grinnell College in Iowa — has been criticized for shooting too much. Coach Dave Arseneault has been criticized for running up the score. The program has been criticized for its well-known System — yes, uppercase — and highly unconventional style.

Is the criticism warranted? Is it justified? Or is it simply unfair?

To get a better understanding of the situation — and to find some answers and gain perspective — I reached out to Ross Preston, an expert on all things Grinnell basketball.

Preston, who split his childhood between Virginia and River Vale, N.J., before attending high school in Jacksonville, played for the Grinnell men’s basketball team from 2006-2010. The sharpshooter, in Grinnell terms, played “right wing” — that’s where he lined up in the press — though he was essentially a shooting guard. His most productive season arguably came in his junior year. He only averaged 2.0 points per game during that campaign, but he played one out of every four shifts for a conference championship squad. The 25-year-old was often on the court with either John Grotberg (still the program’s all-time leading scorer) or Bobby Long (sixth all-time). As a role player in the Grinnell System, Preston’s job was to help get them open or knock down an open three-pointer if they drew a double-team.

After graduation, Preston stayed in touch with Dave Arseneault, Jr. — his teammate for three years and a close friend — who coached the team while his father was on sabbatical in the spring of 2012. At the time, Arseneault, Sr. was working on a book entitled “System Successes,” which is about other coaches and teams who have implemented Grinnell’s System. That summer, the head coach emailed alumni to tell them that he finished the manuscript and asked them if they’d like to read the lone chapter on Grinnell. Preston did just that and responded with feedback. As it happens, the coach was looking for a grad student to help him with the book.

Preston copy edited and proofread “System Successes” for his former coach, but over time he came to the realization that just one chapter dedicated to Grinnell was not enough. It was at that point that Preston decided to write a separate book about the Grinnell System.

He returned to Iowa in October of 2012 to talk with coaches, study archives and conduct interviews. The former player traveled with the team that season and happened to be tallying the points for the bench on November 20, the night that Taylor scored 138 points against Faith Baptist Bible College.

It was on that evening that everything changed for Preston and the Grinnell men’s basketball program. Suddenly, just like that, the author had to drop everything he was doing and follow that story. Grinnell had been in the news before, but it had never been in the news like this. In the blink of an eye, every media outlet in the country suddenly cared about Grinnell basketball, and the book had to be altered to reflect that. It was “Coach A,” as his players call him, who came up with the book’s title, “The Road to 138.”

When asked to summarize, briefly, what the book is about and to explain what he’s attempting to get across to his readers, Preston said:

Context, context, context. “The Road to 138″ is the story of innovative, unorthodox Pioneer basketball over the last 20 years. Starting around the time Coach Arseneault arrived at Grinnell, I wanted the book to show readers what’s really behind the record-breaking antics they’ve seen in the headlines. It covers the ups and downs of the team, the evolution of the playing style and the incredible athletes through the program’s history. Jack Taylor is the most recent example, but far from the only one.

In an exclusive interview, Preston provided insight into what the Grinnell System is really all about, and explained in detail why the program shouldn’t be condemned for its style of play.

Brad Kallet, WFAN.com: Following Jack’s 109-point performance, Deadspin wrote that “Grinnell College bastardizes basketball to set records.” This seems to be a pretty common point of view. What is your response?

Ross Preston, Author of “The Road to 138″: Deadspin says that Grinnell “bastardizes” basketball, while enthusiasts say that Grinnell “reinvents” basketball. So we all agree that Grinnell does something radically different than other basketball teams. I realize some people don’t like Grinnell’s methods, but breaking records has never been the only goal, and to say they “bastardize” the sport is excessive.

Kallet: Deadspin also wrote that Coach Arseneault “has focused less on putting together a successful team and more on getting his players’ names in the record books.” You both played for Arseneault and have worked closely alongside him for a substantial period of time. Is Deadspin’s assertion inaccurate? Tell me why.

Preston: Since the 1994 season, which is the first year that Coach Arseneault began the mass-substitution, three-point shooting attack, Grinnell has qualified for its four-team conference tournament in 13 out of 20 seasons. (The Midwest Conference currently has 11 teams.) In that time, they’ve won or shared five regular-season championships and won the conference tournament twice.

Before he was hired for the 1990 season, the four previous coaches went a combined 52-222 with no championships. So to answer your question: Yes, I would say Deadspin missed the mark there. The Pioneers have been successful with Coach Arseneault, and while they’ve certainly broken their share of individual and team records along the way, the original choice to play fast and shoot a lot of three-pointers had nothing to do with records. 

Kallet: Critics have insinuated that Arseneault employs the Grinnell System — firing tons of three-pointers, continuously pressing, frequently substituting players — as a ploy to gain national attention and, thus, sell books. To someone who is unfamiliar with Grinnell basketball, this seems like a reasonable accusation.

Preston: It’s important to remember that the strategy we now call the Grinnell System began out of a desire to incorporate more players into Grinnell’s rotation, to create a more entertaining atmosphere for fans and to have fun as a team — win or lose. The amount of coverage Grinnell has gotten over the years is impressive, but it was never the reason behind playing this way. 

As for the books, Coach Arseneault is a faculty member at Grinnell College who is expected to share his knowledge with colleagues in his field. He’s had coaches around the country emailing and calling him for over a decade because they want to learn more about the playing style. One guy wants to start a basketball academy that teaches the Grinnell System … in Italy! So I don’t think there’s anything scandalous about writing two books over 15 years if you’re the unquestioned expert on the subject matter and you have a following among coaches. It’s part of his job. 

Kallet: You played traditional basketball your whole life before enrolling at Grinnell. You still love and appreciate traditional basketball. But the great majority of traditionalists simply can’t seem to accept the System. As someone who, above all else, respects the game, why are you a proponent of this unconventional style of play? Why does it work and why is it nothing more than legitimate strategy used to win basketball games?

Preston: It works because the coaches find 14-17 players who buy into a data-driven strategy that forces opponents to adapt. Grinnell’s depth and commitment to teamwork are precisely what allows them to win games, even when someone like Jack Taylor hits triple-digits. As for why I’m a proponent? I love Grinnell’s offensive creativity, the fast pace is fun as hell to watch and let’s be honest: I got to play college basketball for four years because of it. 

Kallet:  Do you feel that Grinnell sometimes unnecessarily runs up the score and embarrasses teams when it should hold back? By passing on two-point shots in favor of threes when the game is no longer in doubt, is Grinnell showing up the other squad?

Preston: Most opponents and coaches understand that Grinnell likes to shoot a lot of threes regardless of time and score. This team wants to develop chemistry in their different five-man units while playing at the fastest speed possible. So win or lose, they want to play aggressively for 40 minutes. 

The goal is never to embarrass other teams. Grinnell is trying to perfect their own execution, which occasionally involves a specific objective like setting a record. Coach A will often call off the full-court press during the second half if Grinnell has a big lead, which does keep the game from getting more lopsided. But asking his guys to only shoot two-point shots would run counter to their identity. 

“The Road to 138: The Inside Story of Insanely Fast, Record-Breaking Basketball at Grinnell College” will be available as an eBook in December. It will also be available in hardcover and paperback.

Brad Kallet is an editor and columnist for CBSNewYork.com. He has written for TENNIS.com, MLB.com and SMASH Magazine, among others. You can follow him on Twitter @brad_kallet.

You May Also Be Interested In These Stories