Coach David Arseneault built an utterly unique basketball system at Grinnell College, an up-tempo philosophy with literally life-changing potential.
Many of us have a moment that somehow comes to define our professional lives. Most of the time, it is easily recognizable: walking in on the first day of your new job; wowing a future employer during an interview; or earning an award for excelling in your chosen field.
My moment wasn’t quite as straightforward. On Dec. 10, 2002, I first learned of a basketball team at a small Iowa college that played the game in a style all its own. That knowledge eventually led me to take two trips from my home in North Carolina to visit the campus.
It also brought me to where I am now, which, metaphorically speaking, might be even farther than those 2,500-mile round trips. Here is my story with The System.
Grinnell, Iowa – and its namesake college – is a town of 9,200 people located about 50 miles east of Des Moines, along Interstate 80. The school is selective during the admissions process, with an acceptance rate of around 24 percent and an enrollment of roughly 2,000 students. Of course, I didn’t know any of this on that fateful day more than 18 years ago. The only numbers which stood out to me were 136. And 121. And 83.
I was reading an article about this NCAA Division III school preparing to play Division I Drake the following day. Grinnell had played five games and averaged 136 points as it won four of them. The opponents scored 121 points per game. And in the contest prior to the matchup with Drake, Grinnell attempted 83 3-pointers.
As someone who valued unconventional ideas in sports — the “Moneyball” theory in baseball, the “Air Raid” offense created by college football coach Hal Mumme and used so effectively by others — I was blown away. Could this be my basketball Nirvana?
Predictably, Drake won the game the next day 162-110, yet the result hardly registered with me. I quickly went to the school’s website to gather more information and bookmarked the men’s basketball page. Grinnell had a new fan.
I wanted to learn as much as I could about coach David Arseneault and his strategy. Yes, it was similar to what Paul Westhead did more than 30 years ago at Loyola Marymount. Yes, both coaches used the term “The System” to describe it. Yes, both teams captivated my interest as few teams had previously.
What made Grinnell College’s version of The System different?
There were some major differences, however. Here is what separated Grinnell’s version of The System:
- The Pioneers pressed all over the court, in any situation. Fullcourt. Halfcourt. Sideline out of bounds. Baseline out of bounds. No matter. This led to many steals and many wide-open layups, for the Pioneers and their opponent.
- They sent five different players to the scorer’s table every 35-to-40 seconds of game clock, a substitution pattern more similar to hockey than anything I had seen in basketball. They did this the entire game, and at least 15 players regularly played in each one.
- They looked for 3-pointers as a primary weapon. That season of my discovery, Mississippi Valley State led Division I by averaging about 29 attempts from behind the line. Grinnell shot 61 per game that year; by comparison, Loyola Marymount took about 23 3s in each game during its amazing run to the Elite Eight in 1990.
What a crazy way to play basketball. And amazingly, the reason Arseneault came up with it wasn’t to win championships or even to win more games. He decided to play this way to make losing a bit more fun.
When Arseneault arrived in Iowa in 1989, the Grinnell Pioneers were on a streak of 25 consecutive losing seasons. They had won five games combined in the previous two, including a 1-27 record in the Midwest Conference. The new coach had his work cut out for him. Arseneault was a traditionalist on the bench at this point in his career, and his teams played very conventionally on the court.
“I like to describe myself in those days as everything that was bad about sports,” said Coach A, as he is affectionately known. “All I cared about was winning. I tried to motivate my players through intimidating them. I saw every mistake, and I tried to correct every mistake.”
He must have been very busy after four seasons, even as he did help Grinnell stop the run of losing records in 1991-92, finishing 11-11. Still, the experience for the coach and for the players was anything but enjoyable. The roster size shrunk during each season because those who weren’t getting on the court found better things to do with their time. Remember, this is D-III, where no one is on scholarship.
After four seasons, Arseneault had enough. He wanted to make a change.
“I went to my athletic director and said, ‘I have to try something different,’” he said. “She said go for it.”
The System, or at least, Coach A’s version, was born.
“We just went about doing as many crazy things as we could,” he said. “We wanted to be as different as we could be from [what] everybody else was practicing. That was going to be enough to make us feel good about ourselves.”
To keep his roster engaged, Arseneault knew he had to use all his players in every game. The question was how to do it.
“If you’re one of our better players, why are you coming off the floor?” he said about his internal discussions. “I wanted to use everybody, so I had to justify that.”
He came up with a pressing style of defense more aggressive than anything seen previously. Grinnell wants the ball back in 12 seconds — preferably by getting a steal or forcing a dead ball turnover, of course — and will sacrifice giving up a layup to do so. On offense, Coach A wanted his players to shoot as quickly as possible, and preferably a 3-pointer or a layup. Everyone was tasked with sprinting up and down the court the entire game, which led to that funky substitution pattern.
A funny thing happened once the Pioneers committed to what Arseneault called his “experiment” — they actually begin to win. The first season of all-out run-and-gun came in 1993-94, when they averaged 109.2 points on their way to a 13-8 record, the first winning mark in 30 years.
“To this day, I still don’t know why it worked,” Arseneault said.
Eventually, a group of professors and students at Grinnell studied the results and explained it to him through what became known as “The Formula for Success.” The researchers found success in each game with The System could be measured in five relatively easy-to-track statistics:
- Shot attempts – At least 94
- 3-point shot attempts – At least 47
- Offensive rebound percentage – At least 33 percent
- Turnovers forced – At least 32
- Shot differential – At least 25 more total attempts than the opponent
The research said when Arseneault’s teams hit those numbers, they won about 96 percent of their games.
“I would say it is organized chaos,” said John Grotberg, a 2009 graduate of Grinnell who still holds the record for most 3-pointers for all NCAA divisions. He made 526 in his four years. “I had never played in a style as fun as The System. It is so fresh and unique, I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.”
Before long, other schools took notice of what was happening in Grinnell, which is where I finally re-enter the story.
When I traveled to Iowa for the first time in December 2009 to meet with Arseneault, I was working as a branch manager of a community bank in Rockingham, North Carolina. Taking that job was career change No. 1 for me after 14 years in journalism, the final six of which came with The Associated Press. I was with the AP in Atlanta when I read that original article on Grinnell, and my enjoyment with all things related to The System traveled with me to Raleigh, where I completed my career as a sportswriter.
Imagine being the person covering a North Carolina-Duke basketball game at Cameron Indoor Stadium, sitting so close to the action one of the officials once allowed you the opportunity to get the feel of the ball right before the opening tip (thanks, Mike Eades). And all the while, being more concerned with how Grinnell had fared that evening against rival St. Norbert. Yep, that was me.
I left journalism for an opportunity to work regular hours (my standard line to everyone was, “They don’t call them banker’s hours for nothing!”) and help my wife raise our two daughters in Rockingham, North Carolina. The System became a bigger part of my life when I discovered those other teams using it, both in college and in high school. That led to a blog which I mostly devoted to them, and I reached out to all the coaches who employed this style of play to find out why they did it.
All were accommodating, and their generosity led me to a message board for The System, which was run by Bob Belf. He was a longtime high school and college coach who was attracted to The System essentially for the same reasons I was.
“I loved the pace, the use of the arc, the movement yet creativity, plus the number of players that participated,” Belf said. “Once we went into establishing it as our style, it totally changed how you communicated and coached. I loved everything and I bought in totally.
“It made perfect sense never to go back to normal.”
Most of the others I spoke to had a similar story. The System had changed their views on coaching, and they could not see themselves doing anything else. I not-so-secretly envied them, until an opportunity came to join them.
While working at the bank, I became friends with the coach at our local high school, a man named David Laton who already had lived a life in basketball worthy of a Hollywood story. Unable to make his high school team, he vowed to become a college basketball player and was able to walk on at UNC Greensboro. He graduated and joined Hall of Famer Lefty Driesell at Maryland as a graduate assistant, then later recruited David Robinson to Navy as an assistant under Paul Evans.
After another stint as a college assistant at Army (how many coaches have worked at both those military academies?), he took a head coaching job in high school back in his native North Carolina. His star player at West Forsyth HS? Chris Paul.
By the time I met him, Laton had moved back to his hometown of Hamlet, which is about five miles from Rockingham. He came back to care for his mother and he stayed after she passed away to coach the boys’ team at Richmond Senior High School, my alma mater. He was somewhat familiar with The System and often toyed with the idea of implementing it in his program.
We discussed the merit of doing so, and finally, he called me in the summer of 2015 and asked me the question which changed my life: “If I run The System, will you help me?”
His team already was successful, compiling a record of 48-24 the previous three seasons. Laton planned to coach for two more years before retiring, and as he put it, he wanted to go out with a bang. Here came The System.
That first year, 2015-16, we went 18-9 and reached the second round of the Class 4A state tournament, matching the achievement of the previous team. And we scored 97.4 points a game and reached at least 100 points in 10 games.
Our crowning moment came in the conference tournament when we advanced to the championship game on the road against Hoke County, which tied us for the regular-season title. Hoke had won both matchups previously, and its gym was packed for the third go-around.
I walked on the floor before the game and discovered our reputation had proceeded us. A Hoke supporter walked up and asked me, “Do you think y’all will score 100 points tonight?” My answer was spontaneous and seemed to excite him even more.
“I hope so,” I said, and he happily ran back to a group of other fans and shared my message.
They all seemed giddy about the upcoming game, which reminded me of something Coach A always said about traveling with The System: it is as if the circus has come to town. On this night, that statement came close to characterizing what happened.
We followed The System mantra of, “Run, shoot, rebound, press, sub,” and kept using our roster. Hoke stuck with its normal rotation of six or seven, and by halftime, all 13 of our players had scored and we led by 10 points. We did what was needed down the stretch and won the game 113-106, a testament to our players and their belief in what we were doing.
For the season, each of 15 players who dressed for a game scored in double figures at least one time, an amazing statistic for high school. And only one of those players, who averaged 3.8 points, went on to play at a four-year college.
As we prepared for our second year with The System, Laton decided it would be his final year as a public-school coach. We had our sights on what we considered reachable North Carolina high school records, which we secretly eyed during the season.
We finished 20-7, the first time in more than 10 years the program had won that many games, and again reached the second round of the state tournament. Just as importantly, we led the nation in scoring at 100.9 points, the only team in the country to average at least 100, according to MaxPreps.
One of the records we targeted was most games in a season with at least 100 points, which had been 14. We reached triple figures in 17 games to set the mark, and in our opener, we scored 50 points in a single quarter, also a state record. We beat conference rival Purnell Swett 141-105 at home, combining for a state-record total of 246 points.
In the opening round of the state tournament, we rallied to beat Vance High School from Charlotte 123-118, reaching the highest point total in state tournament history and the most combined points, too. A player for Vance scored 63 points, the most ever for a player from a Charlotte-area school. When the result filtered back to Coach A, he quickly asked for a video of the game, and I happily sent one his way. The guru wanted to see how we ran The System!
Here are some other numbers from that final season at Richmond: we had a roster of 15 players, and in 27 games, we averaged 4.1 players in double figures for each game (our high was seven, which we accomplished three times) and averaged 12.4 players scoring in each game. What a season.
It was our final one at Richmond. Laton followed through with retirement and found a position coaching basketball at a private school, and his longtime assistant, Donald Pettigrew, rightfully took over the program. As a player at the school in the late 1990s, he led Richmond to consecutive appearances in the state final. He cares deeply about getting the program back to that level, and he believes the best way to get there is playing more conventionally. Hard to argue with the results: Richmond won 20 games again this past season and has enough young talent to be good for years to come.
For me? Well, no System meant no coaching for me, and I missed it terribly. So much so I decided to make my second big career change. At the age of 49, I left banking and found a job as a teacher at Richmond, coming in via what is called lateral entry. Fortunately, I was hired to coach boys’ basketball at Hamlet Middle School, another school in our system.
We have run The System for two seasons and had a lot of fun; we have a record of 13-8 and have gotten better at what we do. In our second season, we had a roster of 14 players, and as always with The System, everyone who was eligible played in every game. And 13 of them ended up averaging at least one point; the other player went scoreless in our final game and ended up with nine points in 10 games.
Of all the things I love about The System, participation is at the top of the list. I compare it with other extracurricular activities at school — if you have 75 members in the marching band, would you tell only the first chairs they could perform at halftime of the Friday night football game? Of course not. Yet many players go through their high school careers and rarely get to see game action.
With Coach A’s creation, everyone has the opportunity, and through four seasons of doing it this way, I have seen that time and again. As someone who values education-based athletics, that truly is a special thing.
So that is my story of how one article in 2002 about an obscure college basketball team in Iowa completely changed my life. I went from a sportswriter to a banker to a teacher and a coach, and I wouldn’t change a thing.
Neither would Coach A, who retired after the 2015-16 season. He left with a record of 343-267, an overall winning percentage of 0.563. Pretty impressive considering how bad Grinnell was when he arrived.
His son and former Grinnell point guard David Arseneault Jr. took over the program; you might recognize that name from his time as coach in what is now the NBA’s G League, when he briefly brought The System to the Reno Bighorns. Now, the younger Arseneault is tasked with carrying on his father’s legacy.
“I was not always creative,” Coach A said. “I had to learn how to be that way, and now I try to teach other people to be fearless in their creations. The credit I would take is we weren’t afraid to fail. We just tried things, and if they worked, they worked. We didn’t worry about the result.”
My second trip to Grinnell came along with Laton in the fall of 2017 to attend a clinic on The System, where coaches from around the country descended to thank Coach A. We watched the Pioneers practice and learned how this style of play had evolved under Dave Jr.’s leadership.
One highlight of the time we spent together that weekend came when everybody had the opportunity to tell their individual System story.
As Laton and I prepared to begin our drive back to North Carolina, Coach A escorted us out to the parking lot. We talked about that first time I came to see him, and how much both our lives had changed in the years since. And referencing that footage from our game I sent him earlier that year, he left us with this compliment.
“Watching your team play took me back to how we played in the early days of The System,” he said. “Your kids play with so much energy and fun. I’m glad you got something out of it.”
Something? No, Coach A, I got everything out of it. Thank you.