The Trail Blazers have had fourteen coaches in their history, two of which are in the Hall of Fame, but the man that ran the show in the inaugural 1970 season has often been overlooked. Rolland Todd coached 138 games in his brief stint in the NBA (all with Portland), but his legacy hasn’t been forgotten by his former players. Kerry Eggers of the Portland Tribune interviewed Todd and some of his former pupils about those first few months of Blazers basketball.
Before making the leap to NBA coaching, Todd got his start as a player at Fresno State, where he was roommates with legendary college coach Jerry Tarkanian. After a short time as a non-NBA professional player, Todd transitioned into coaching, eventually landing a job as the head coach at Nevada Southern (which later went on to be known as the University of Nevada-Las Vegas).
Five successful seasons later, and the NBA came calling for Todd’s services thanks to an opportune encounter with Portland’s Stu Inman. Prior to undertaking General Manager duties for Portland, Inman was scouting the same junior college tournament as Todd. With the help of close proximity in the stands, a conversation surrounding the open coaching job for the Blazers ensued.
"Stu was sitting right behind me at a game," Todd recalls. "I knew he'd been hired to conduct the draft for the Blazers. I asked him if they'd hired a coach yet. He said, 'No. Are you interested?' I said, 'Yes.' He said, 'Let me check with Harry Glickman.'"
That unlikely meeting eventually led to formal interview with Harry Glickman, resulting in Todd’s first (and only) NBA head coaching job.
"We had quite a long talk in Chicago," Glickman says. "Of the guys I talked to at the time, he was the only one who knew anything about the NBA. Rolland was very persuasive. He talked himself into the job."
The 36-year-old rookie head coach deployed an offense that relied on creating scoring opportunities quickly, and it resulted in Portland owning the fourth-best scoring average in the league in its first year. With the help of a favorable schedule that pitted the Blazers against their fellow expansion clubs (Buffalo and Cleveland) 12 times, Todd led his squad to a 29-win opening campaign.
Todd got the most out of his players on offense, and Rick Adelman was one of those players that benefitted the most from Portland’s up-tempo style of play.
"Rolland was ahead of his time, the way we played," says Adelman, now retired and living in Portland. "We played with a lot of motion and movement. I was a bad player, and even I averaged 12.6 points, so he was doing something right."
Todd went on to reciprocate fond feelings towards his former point guard.
"Rick got a lot out of what he had," Todd says. "He was smart, tough and resilient. He was going to make a shot when you really needed it, and he understood the game."
Along with Adelman, Geoff Petrie put up impressive numbers under Todd, eventually splitting the Rookie of the Year Award with Boston’s Dave Cowens at the conclusion of the 1970-71 season.
Todd still holds a high opinion of his former pupil.
"Geoff was 6-5 with a 36-inch jump reach and long arms," Todd says. "He had moves that nobody could guard. If he didn't have the injuries, he'd have been in the Hall of Fame."
Petrie also remembers his time under Todd fondly:
"He was a really upbeat guy, a very positive guy," says Petrie, now retired and living in Sacramento. "He had us playing an aggressive, running type of game. He was easy to get along with and to play for. I thought he was a terrific all-around coach."
After re-shuffling the roster and an untimely injury to Petrie, Todd faced significant obstacles in his second season as the Blazers’ head coach. To make matters worse, Portland selected the corrosive Sidney Wicks with the No. 2 pick in the 1971 NBA Draft, and Todd wasn’t shy about sharing his distaste for coaching the talented-but-troubled UCLA standout.
"He was impossible," Todd says. "Everybody found out about that later. If you're the best player, you need to take responsibility for a loss. He never did. It was always, 'Somebody else screwed up.'"
Eventually the hurdles proved to be too large, and Todd was removed from his head coaching gig after the Blazers stumbled out to a 12-44 record. Despite circumstances outside of his control, the now 83-year-old coaching guru accepts the decision made by Portland’s brass.
"I have no regret whatsoever about my experience in Portland," he says. "I love Harry. I loved Stu. I've always honored Harry for everything he'd done. I have responsibility for being fired, no matter what the circumstances were. I was a player in a piece of that. There was something I could have done that I didn't do that would have allowed them to keep me."
Todd never returned to the NBA coaching ranks, but it didn’t stop him from continuing his coaching career in other forms. He founded Todd Team Coaching in 1986, which focuses on leadership practices in both the sporting and business worlds.
You can check out Eggers’ full interview with Todd by visiting the Portland Tribune.