The Orlando Magic’s new head coach talks about his basketball philosophy, optimism, family—and his strategy for taking the team to the playoffs.
The journey from South Jersey to head coach of the Orlando Magic was unconventional, if not improbable.
Frank Vogel was a good high school basketball player, but only good enough to play at nondescript Juniata College, a Division III Pennsylvania school that employed a football coach as its part-time basketball coach. Knowing he wanted to get into coaching, Vogel made the agonizing decision to forgo his senior season to transfer to the University of Kentucky, where he hoped to learn at the feet of legendary coach Rick Pitino. Once there, Vogel cajoled UK’s coaches into any role with the team. He got it, and his first job was the humbling assignment of picking up jock straps off the locker room floor. Eventually, Vogel worked his way into a job editing practice and game film.
He worked hard and excelled well enough that when Pitino became head coach of the Boston Celtics in 1997, he brought Vogel along as his film guy. Eventually, Vogel became a top NBA assistant and in 2011, Indiana Pacers president Larry Bird hired him to be the team’s head coach. Though Vogel turned the Pacers into a perennial playoff power, it wasn’t enough, and Bird didn’t renew Vogel’s contract following the 2015-16 season, whereupon the Magic immediately hired him. His short-term goal is to lead the Magic to where they haven’t been since 2012—the postseason.
The 43-year-old coach recently sat down for a question-and-answer session.
Vogel with players Bismack Biyombo, Nikola Vukevic, and Serge Ibaka (Fernando Medina, Orlando Magic/Getty Images)
Orlando magazine: Are you standing by your statement that you’re going to be a playoff team this season?
Frank Vogel: Absolutely.
OM: What has convinced you of that?
FV: For me, winning begins with the defensive end. We’ve had success putting together a defensive scheme that is successful, and now we have the personnel to get it done. With the additions of Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo and Aaron Gordon playing more at the three [small forward], I feel like we have better defensive talent than we had last year.
OM: Magic fans have been through lean years, and they’re excited to hear what you’re saying, and with some of the moves. Do you hear from them?
FV: Yes, I’ve seen a lot of Magic fans around town. A lot of people are disappointed that Victor Oladipo is no longer here, but by and large they see why. They see the need to improve on the defensive end and what Ibaka brings to the table.
OM: Everybody knows you had other teams you interviewed with. Why the Magic? You had some other good opportunities.
FV: Including sitting out.
OM: Which was an option, too.
FV: Yes. It was a real option. It was something I was leaning toward unless the right situation presented itself. And I felt that this was the right situation in so many ways, starting with a team with a young core that reminded me a lot of the team I took over in Indiana [in 2011] that was ready to take a big step in terms of the growing pains being behind them. And with the number of assets [the Magic] had, the flexibility to move a piece or two to improve the talent base or experience level and balance the roster. So there’s a lot of opportunities on the court and obviously all East Coast guys love the idea of living in Florida. We’re thrilled to be here. It’s something I always thought would be neat and cool, and Orlando is a great place where I think my daughters will be happy, not only with all the parks and Disney, but the fact that their friends will definitely come visit here. There are a lot of places where you can go around the country where your friends will say, “We’ll come visit.” But they never do. They’re going to come here. They’ll come to Orlando. My connection with [general manager] Rob Hennigan was a big factor, too. Obviously that relationship has to be strong.
Of Aaron Gordon, Vogel says: “I’m going to put the ball in his hands a lot. I’m really going to increase his role. And I believe in his shooting.’’ (FERNANDO MEDINA, ORLANDO MAGIC/GETTY IMAGES)
OM: Did you know him at all?
FV: Never met him before.
OM: So you clicked with him …
FV: Immediately. We did a two-hour phone interview because it was kind of a rush thing because we had some things going on with some other teams. We realized we both played Division III basketball, we both were given these positions at a very young age, and we were both living in Boston at the same time, when he was in college and I was working with the Celtics. Probably most importantly, we have similar leadership styles.
OM: Which is?
FV: Listening a lot. Taking the opinions of the people around you. You employ a staff, so it doesn’t make sense to have a dictator-type mindset. We listen and we take opinions and we make final decisions that are best for the group.
OM: How many teams were feeling you out?
FV: I got calls from five teams.
OM: With the Magic being one of the five?
OM: What did you need to see to prevent you from sitting out a year?
FV: The right situation. I wasn’t going to take a job where I didn’t feel I could win, where I was going to be in a place where I didn’t think my family could be happy, where I didn’t feel comfortable with the relationship with the ownership and the front office.
OM: You won 31 playoff games with the Pacers. During that same stretch, do you know how many the Magic won?
FV: Zero. No wait, one against us. It’s funny that the last time they were in was the end of Stan Van Gundy’s tenure and we were the team that beat them in that series [4-1]. Dwight Howard’s injury helped that situation.
OM: Does it seem kind of crazy that the last time Orlando won a playoff game was against you, and you won 30 more, and now you’re the Magic coach?
FV: I don’t know. Honestly, I think it’s a matter of timing more than anything. We hadn’t won a playoff game for five years before that. We were where the Magic have been the last four, five years, building something and hoping to get over the hump.
OM: Some Magic fans feel that the team has too many big players. Is there going to be another trade?
FV: I don’t think so. I think you need three, probably four, quality bigs playing big minutes in your rotation. The fact that we have two centers who are in my mind starting centers means we’re going to be rock solid and it’s going to be a strength of ours. We’ll look to play them together. This is different than what I had in Indiana. We’re going to play with size. To play great defensively, I believe you have to have size to contest shots, to be physically strong, to protect the rim and to rebound. In Indiana, we had a lot of that length, but we did not have great versatility to play against smaller teams. This team does. This team has it in a big, big way. We’re not going to have to change who we are, whether we’re playing a small ball team one night and a big ball team the next night.
OM: Aaron Gordon took a big step forward last season. A lot of people feel he has another step…
FV: There’s room to grow, for him and for the whole team.
OM: What do you see from him this season?
FV: I’m hoping for big things. I really am. I believe he’s not only capable, but I believe it’s going to happen. I’m going to put the ball in his hands a lot. I’m really going to increase his role. And I believe in his shooting. He works at it, and I think he’s improved. I believe that, given the right opportunities and the right recognition, he can really improve on the perimeter. When that happens, it’s going to be dangerous what he can do when defenses have to close out on him.
OM: People say you have to have offense, because that’s what puts people in the seats. I’m of the opinion that what puts people in the seats is winning.
FV: No question. But we’re not trying to be an 80-point-a-game team. We believe we’re going to be able to score at a high level. The thing that is not being written is that we dramatically improved our three-point shooting this offseason.
OM:Which is critical in this league right now.
FV: It’s everything. Evan Fournier being a full-time shooting guard helps our three-point shooting. I believe Aaron is going to improve at the three-point line. Our ability to stretch out defenses is going to create driving lanes to the basket. I’m hoping
we’re going to have an improved offensive unit. I joke that we may win some games
75 to 74, but that’s not what Magic fans should expect. We want to play in the 100s, we want to be a great, efficient defense, we want to get out and run…
OM: You want it all.
FV: Yes. Absolutely.
OM: You’ve been described as infectiously positive. Is that accurate?
FV: Hopefully. (laughs)
OM: That almost sounds like an oxymoron.
FV: Yeah, I try to get people feeling the same way I do. What comes behind that, and is a necessary ingredient, is to have an optimistic viewpoint on people and on life. It’s difficult for me to come in and fake positivity when I don’t believe in someone or something that we’re doing. That’s why I try to put myself in environments where my belief is real. And my belief in this group is very real.
OM: Where does that come from?
FV: It probably starts with my parents and the way I was brought up. They were loving parents who gave me a lot of
OM: What did they do for a living?
FV: My mother now sells kitchens, but was waiting tables as I was growing up, and my father was a typesetter for a local shoppers guide before starting his own shoppers guide, which has now turned into a real estate guide.
OM: So they were working-class people.
FV: No question about it, yeah.
FV: One brother. He lives in central New Jersey and is a CPA.
OM: How did the Pacers head-coaching job get presented to you?
FV: Larry Bird called me on the phone. Everybody gives Larry heat about firing me on the phone. He hired me over the phone, too.
OM: What was it like working for Larry Bird?
FV: It was awesome. First, because he’s Larry Bird, which is cool, and he’s always telling stories. And then, he’s a really genuine guy, a fun guy to be around. It was always good to use him as a sounding board, because of his experience. He’s not just a legendary player, he coached the game. He’s been in the front office. Obviously, he’s played at the highest level. So he’s seen everything.
OM: I heard you also had lunch with him this offseason.
FV: I did. At Hamilton’s Kitchen in Winter Park, during the Summer League.
FV: It was like nothing ever happened. (laughs) We talked about some things, like I always would. It was really just a catch-up, and in my mind, to let him know that I don’t like to do awkward. We were very close friends and that shouldn’t change.
OM: Who initiated lunch?
FV: I asked him.
OM: Did he pick up the bill?
FV: (laughs) I don’t remember. I think so.
OM: Tell us about the fire that gutted your home. You were 17, your senior year in
FV: Scary situation. I was actually the one who woke up. I heard glass breaking or something, and wondered what that noise was. It was 3, 4 in the morning. Under my door, smoke was streaming into my room. I opened the door and looked out, and I couldn’t see anything. My parents were separated and my brother was in college, so it was just me and my mom there. I tried to go out the side door, which was toward the fire, got on the ground and I couldn’t breathe. At one point, I stood up to run back to my room and it was like, you know how it feels when you open an oven door and that heat hits you? I stood up and I swear it felt like my face was on fire. So I dropped right back to the ground, crawled back to my room, screamed to my mom that we had to go out the back windows. We climbed out and the whole house got torched. The foundation stayed up, but the whole inside of the house was destroyed.
OM: Did you lose personal stuff that meant something special to you?
FV: We lost everything. Ev…ree…thing!
OM: What did that teach you?
FV: (sighs) That life goes on. You’re going to have things in your life that are traumatic.
OM:Do you think about that when things do happen in life?
FV: Somewhat. When you deal with things, like getting fired, I think yeah, innately, that’s part of one of my experiences. You think of the lowest points in your life, and you realize the sun comes up tomorrow, you have your health, and life goes on.
OM: I heard your high school team had practice that day, and you didn’t miss it.
FV: Yeah, I felt it was better to keep my mind off it. We played in a Christmas tournament a week later, and I won the MVP.
OM: Let’s get to some fun stuff. If you were NBA commissioner for a day, what would you like to change about the league?
FV: I would shrink the preseason to make an extra week during the regular season, to space the games out more. The ideal schedule is no back-to-backs.
OM: Coaches and managers in other sports, who do you like?
FV: I like Joe Maddon in Chicago [with baseball’s Cubs]. He wins and he does it in creative ways. I liked Terry Francona when he was at Boston [baseball’s Red Sox].
OM: What’s your favorite other sport?
FV: To watch, it’s pro football.
OM: And to play?
FV: Probably soccer.
OM: Everybody knows now that you were on David Letterman’s show as a kid, spinning a basketball on one end of a toothbrush while brushing your teeth with the other end, on one of his “Stupid Human Tricks” segments. What was that experience like?
FV: I was very nervous. I didn’t understand the scope of it. I just thought my friends were going to be able to watch me on TV. I didn’t understand the scope of national TV.
OM: How hard was it to learn to do that?
FV: It was an intriguing enough challenge that you could immerse yourself in it. When I learned it as a kid [from a lecturer at a basketball camp in South Jersey] a motivational speech came with it. When you achieve something, don’t settle for that. What’s next? Never be satisfied with an achievement. Spin it on one finger, spin it on another, spin it on all five fingers … what’s next? Let’s spin it on my left hand. Let’s bounce it off my knee, let’s bounce it off my head while spinning it. Let’s spin two balls at once. Keep striving for something better.
OM: Whose idea was it to spin it on a
FV: His. He did everything. A hairbrush. He spun it on a razor while shaving. On a fork while eating.
OM: I saw a video where you did it as an adult at some function …
FV: Yeah, once, and it got all over YouTube and I said that I’ll never do that again.
OM:Did you ever do it to impress a girl?
FV: (laughs) No, I don’t think so. Maybe. I think I have. College, probably, but I don’t remember.
OM: Obviously, it wasn’t effective then.
FV: Yeah, guess not.
OM: What is something about you that we’d never guess?
FV: I’m a pizza junkie.
OM: How did you propose to your wife, Jenifer?
FV: I did it at the place where I felt she was the happiest—at the house where she grew up. Christmas Eve.
OM: Drop down to a knee?
OM:What are you looking forward to doing in Orlando?
FV: Spontaneous trips to Disney and all the parks here.
OM: Are your two daughters excited about it?
FV: Very much. Yes. I want to see some soccer games. Hopefully finding an opportunity for my daughters to meet Alex Morgan [of soccer’s Orlando Pride]. They’re big, big fans. I want to get a Jet Ski for our lake in the backyard. Looking forward to my first country club membership. And meeting as many fans as I can.
OM: Best piece of advice anybody’s given you?
FV: Hmmm. Don’t change. Be yourself.
OM: What kind of music do you listen to?
FV: I’m a big Jimmy Buffett guy. I like back patio playlists.
OM: Last concert you went to?
FV: I don’t go to concerts a lot. The last concert I went to was Justin Bieber with
OM: Last one. Describe your perfect day.
FV: Play some golf. Go to the beach. Have all my film work prepared. At lunch, I’d have the best boardwalk pizza. For dinner, I’d have a buffet between chicken parmesan and a good filet. Win Game 7 of the NBA Finals.