Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Thursday, Sept. 27, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Every morning, Todd Simon swings his legs out of bed and prepares for the worst. The unsettling crunching sound is a given. So is the pain.
“Those first two steps are just agony,” said Simon, who on Sept. 11 took over for friend Mike Peck as the head coach at powerhouse basketball program Findlay Prep in Henderson.
Simon has Charcot-Marie-Tooth, a hereditary neurological disorder that causes a progressive loss of muscle tissue and touch sensation in the body, particularly the extremities. Simon’s father has it, too.
The nonlife-threatening disorder is named for the three men — two doctors and a student — who diagnosed it in 1886. There is no cure.
The crunching sound comes from the bones in his feet being bent to the brink of breaking. Over the years, the muscles in his feet have contracted, pulling his toes closer to his heels and raising his arches. In eighth grade, he wore size 13 shoes. Today, he wears 11.5. His days of running or playing basketball are done, though he does his best to be on the court demonstrating drills in practice.
Doctors told Simon he could be in a wheelchair by age 30, a prognosis the 32-year-old already beat. He does physical therapy and there’s talk of surgery when his schedule allows for it. At some point, those bones are going to snap. It’s inevitable. That pain will be even worse than the current one, which he said feels like a knife is sticking in the side of his foot. Simon tries not to take painkillers. Sometimes it’s just too much.
Each morning, getting to that third step is Simon’s goal — because once he gets there on his own two feet, it’s easy to be happy. The pain doesn’t suddenly go away; Simon just knows it’s another day he can beat it.
“When the worst part of your day is the first two steps, it’s pretty good perspective,” he said. “I’ve looked at it like a blessing.”
Simon was with Peck at the ground floor of Findlay Prep in 2006. After one year under coach Scott Beeten, Peck took over with Simon as his top assistant, and together they pulled in top-flight recruits and helped turn the program into a nationally recognized power that has won three national championships in the past four seasons.
The duo had spent the previous two years as assistants on then-coach Lon Kruger’s staff at UNLV. Peck was a video coordinator while Simon did some video scouting and helped organize camps and recruiting.
“(Todd) was always positive, always upbeat,” said Kruger, now the coach at Oklahoma. “When you watch Todd work, you see he’s very natural.”
Peck left two weeks ago to be the coach of the Idaho Stampede, the D-League affiliate of the Portland Trailblazers.
After Findlay went 33-0 in 2008-09, Peck and Simon discussed a succession plan should either of them jump at one of the offers that started rolling in. For more than eight years, Peck and Simon saw each other or spoke almost every day, forming an extremely close bond that’s rare in any profession. Those around the program said they were different men who shared one mind.
“That’s probably the hardest thing in all of this for me,” Peck said. “It may not be blood, but it’s as close as you can get.”
Peck said it took less than 10 minutes to get Simon up to speed with the extra duties of running the Findlay program. Still, there’s a difference when you’re officially the guy at the top. Simon, the happy guy from a small town in Michigan who wanted to be a coach since he was 6, is ready for the next step.
The tiny Fowler, Mich., is about 50 miles east of Grand Rapids. According to the 2010 census, the population is a tick over 1,200, and it fits a lot of the small-town stereotypes. On Friday nights in the fall, the businesses shut down for football. The basketball gym’s capacity was nearly the size of the town itself and it was almost always full.
“If you could paint the perfect place in the world to grow up as a kid,” Simon said, “that was it.”
His wife, Kati, grew up 5 miles down the road. Their first date was a game of two-on-two basketball with a couple of mutual friends. Simon found out she could play and it was all over.
When he was 6, Simon discovered his love for athletics. He sat on the floor laying out his ideal all-star baseball team with 1986 Topps cards and watched the Lakers’ Magic Johnson, who grew up and played college basketball about 45 minutes from Fowler, redefine what positions meant on a basketball court. Johnson was 6-foot-9 playing point guard.
“It’s probably shaped the philosophy of our team,” Simon said. “What if you had a whole team of Magic Johnsons?”
The average height of this year’s Pilots is 6-7 1/2. In practice, every player practices at every position.
Back in Fowler, Simon realized his neurological disorder wouldn’t allow him to be a great athlete. Instead, he bought a pile of coaching books and fed his competitiveness in the classroom. If he had 100 percent in a class and the teacher offered extra credit, he said, he was doing the extra credit. He went to Central Michigan on an academic scholarship and added a master’s degree in 2010 at UNLV.
“I want the teacher to say, ‘That’s the best student I’ve ever had,’” Simon said. “That’s how Findlay was, too. Why not do this? Why not win it every year?
When Simon accepted Peck’s invitation to join him at Findlay, it came with a unique opportunity that sounds more like a dare: Live with the players.
The Simons moved into the off-campus house purchased by Findlay Prep founder Cliff Findlay, a former UNLV player and current booster, and served as the adult supervision for a group that came from all over the world for the opportunity and the stage Findlay Prep presented.
The program has always attracted international interest. UNLV junior Carlos Lopez (Puerto Rico) and recent grad Brice Massamba (Sweden) are alums, and this year’s squad has players from Spain, Lithuania and Senegal, to name a few. The melting pot it forms inside those walls is unlike almost any other experience for a teenager. Several players speak several different languages, and together in that house, they deal with being far away from home while undergoing a grueling schedule of basketball and school.
Peck led practices and used whatever motivational techniques he felt were best for each player, but it was Simon who saw firsthand whether the words sunk in or melted away when they got home. Every day, he witnessed the cause and effect of every word on every player.
“They bare their soul when you’re living with them,” Simon said. “You see them when there’s a dead time after a long day of conditioning, school, practice, test prep, study hall, and then they get home, they eat and you start to see them when the grind is starting to wear at them. You get to know how guys tick and what’s the right thing to say. It humanizes the whole thing.”
The kids grow up fast in that environment. So did the Simons. Todd started sounding like his parents at age 26, several years before he and Kati, a teacher, welcomed their first child, Rece, into the world.
Findlay now has two houses for its 12-man roster, and Simon doesn’t call either of them home. He and Kati are expecting their second child right around the New Year, and they’ve left those dorm days behind. The lessons learned, however, remain with him.
“He’s great at being able to relate with players no matter what their background is,” said fourth-year Findlay assistant Andy Johnson, who currently lives in one of the two houses.
Living in that house forced Simon to act like a parent. Now that he’s a father in an official capacity, he has more of an understanding of what it must be like for these kids’ parents, who are entrusting men like him to care for their child.
In the past five years, 157 Findlay Prep victories have been generated from a room about the size of a studio apartment. At the Henderson International School, where, since cutbacks in 2010, the Pilots are the only high schoolers taking classes on campus, Findlay primarily inhabits two areas: that small office with the coaches’ desks all fitting together like a jigsaw puzzle and the gym, which is in another building located a good chest pass away.
The legends’ wall features framed photos of several Pilots from years past that guide you into the gym, which also houses a locker room and weight room just for Findlay players. That wall has more room for future additions than the office, where the next McDonald’s All-American jersey may have to hang from the ceiling. The office is sort of like a giant trophy case with each framed picture or jersey selling a bright future to any potential Pilot.
Findlay doesn’t have to recruit anymore. Instead, the coaches focus on weeding out the players who want their jersey on the wall from the ones who will actually work to get it there.
Simon has that luxury because of the track record he and Peck have. In 2011, three alumni — Tristan Thompson (fourth), Cory Joseph (29th) and DeAndre Liggins (53rd) — were taken in the NBA draft, a night Simon called maybe the proudest moment of his Findlay career.
“You get to see them figure out a way to realize their dreams,” he said.
Draftexpress.com has four former Pilots, including current UNLV freshman Anthony Bennett, ranked in the top 72 of draft prospects. The current roster already has four commitments, including forward Chris Wood to UNLV and Allerik Freeman to UCLA, and several more with high-major offers. Things won’t slow down just because of a coaching change. In fact, they may speed up, at least on the court.
One of the few differences Simon could pinpoint between himself and Peck as coaches was the desire to do even more full-court pressure and overwhelm opponents with wave after wave of long-armed athletes.
Senior point guard Nigel Williams-Goss, a rare fourth-year Pilot who’s committed to Washington, said another difference is Simon delivers the same message but in a softer tone. Peck predicted that would change as the season progresses and Simon gets more and more comfortable in his new role.
“You’re not making suggestions anymore,” Peck said. “You’re making final decisions.”
The Third Step
Simon has learned to slow down. A guy who used to think he was getting more done than coaches who had families knows just how wrong that way of thinking is. He has Rece to thank for that.
Simon will probably never achieve full balance, though. His succession as the next top guy at Findlay was such an expected move at home, he shared the news with Kati over text. She said congratulations, then asked if he would be home for dinner. He would not, and two weeks later, they haven’t had time to go out and celebrate.
But there will be time, and whenever possible, there will be early nights. Simon’s best moments are when he gets near the door at home and can see Rece through the glass pane and hear him yelling, “Daddy.”
“If that doesn’t pump you up, I don’t know what does,” Simon said.
The coaches met with the players in the early evening of Sept. 11 to announce Peck’s departure and name Simon as his replacement. All of the players already knew Simon, but this was his first chance to address them from a new level and let them know where he’s coming from.
There’s two things that matter to me, he told them. It’s my family and Findlay, and those aren’t necessarily two different things.
Simon has always taken his work home. After all, his work used to be his home. And that goes both ways. The time he spends helping kids grow on the court and in the classroom matters in the same way helping Rece and his second child grow at home does.
All of it makes the agony of every morning worth pushing through because these are his kids and greatness is possible when you take it one step at a time.