Auburn Hills — Being the Grand Poobah of a proud franchise like the Detroit Pistons would seem to be a position Stan Van Gundy would embrace, as the basketball lifer has power only two other figures in the NBA hold.
But the cherubic, energetic and honest-to-a-fault basketball coach turned coach-executive spurns the image of this mythical figure at the top of a mountain, ruler of all in Pistons land — when in fact, he's exactly that.
"I don't think I can do it all, I never thought that," he said. "I never said, I'm gonna pick the players, I'm gonna draft guys, I'm gonna make the trades."
What he sold Pistons owner Tom Gores on in their early meeting was that he could create synergy between the front office and coaching staff. "Synergy" is an oft-quoted word Gores has used since hiring Van Gundy.
"I was looking for a situation like that. I was never looking for a place where I would be in both jobs," Van Gundy said. "I didn't think anybody would have an interest in me. I didn't want that kind of power. I just wanted to work in a unified organization. Tom wanted the same thing. He wanted better synergy between the front office and playing floor."
Unfortunate endings in Orlando and Miami have led many to believe Van Gundy was seeking power he didn't have before, and that the Pistons were the one franchise desperate enough to give it to him.
"I didn't want to experiment, especially from the coaching side," Gores said in a phone interview with The Detroit News. "We were looking for major names, and Stan was one of them.
"What impressed me about Stan was, when he talked about how to build an organization, how he leads people, if he was able to have this job how he would lay it out. I was convinced he could do it for the long haul."
Over the course of two in-person meetings, one that lasted longer than five hours and another nearly eight hours, Gores said he saw more than a basketball coach, sealing the deal.
"I expected a basketball coach but by the time we left, I saw an executive, a leader, much like a CEO," he said. "He not only spoke it but he was organized."
Van Gundy said, "The power thing is sort of overrated," and pointed to examples in which he didn't exert any authority over the people he put in place to make critical decisions.
"As I told Tom when I interviewed with him, the thing I was most confident in was my ability to identify good people and hire them. And have a vision."
That vision included asking Gores make a financial commitment to beef up basketball operations, adding nine positions to the staff. Van Gundy wanted to delegate more than anything.
"It was well thought out," Gores said. "Once we decided Stan was the man, he came to Los Angeles and had a long plan for how he wanted to build for scouting positions. Stan was not in any delusion that he could run everything. I was convinced it was the right thing."
Van Gundy doesn't want an image of the tyrannical, emotional coach who will jettison a player after a bad game, but rather of one who trusts his many lieutenants to do their job and allow him to coach first, and oversee second.
"I'm not leading the way on what's going on, but staying up on what's going on," he said.
Pistons GM Jeff Bower was the point man on the trade that brought Joel Anthony to town, and does the negotiating.
On draft night, Van Gundy sat to the side while the scouts and executives watched players go off the board until the Pistons' second-round pick, Spencer Dinwiddie, was selected.
"I had virtually nothing to do with the draft," he said. "I knew where we were headed and trusted them to make a pick. Early results, I think it'll prove we made a damn good pick."
As Van Gundy enters his first season as Pistons coach — one in which he'll certainly outlast his last four predecessors — he knows he won't be walking the green mile anytime soon, but his name will be attached to every transaction, good or bad.
"I'll take the blame if things don't go well because I'm setting up how we do things," Van Gundy said. "But I never thought I could do all this."
Van Gundy sat back and chuckled, reminiscing at the thought of a previous life, when the Palace of Auburn Hills was a house of horrors for him as coach of the Miami Heat and then the Orlando Magic, where he took shots at the Pistons fan base on the heels of the Palace Brawl one decade ago.
He insulted security and sarcastically said the fans who aimed expletives Van Gundy's way in front of their 10-year olds were "real role models." The irony of becoming the man who controls the franchise's future shouldn't be lost on him — or the fans.
"I didn't like Pistons fans because I was playing against them," Van Gundy said. "There's players like that. You're on the other side, you hate them. You'd love to have them. It's the same thing with Pistons fans, I know if we can get this thing going and put a product on the floor they can appreciate, I know what this place can be like."
The Palace has been more mausoleum than madhouse lately, with five straight years of missing the playoffs, empty seats and a dispirited fan base. But "dispirited" doesn't mean "nonexistent," and if Van Gundy didn't know it before he settled into the area, he found out soon after.
"It's a working class place," Van Gundy said. "The people I've met, there's not a lot of pretense. They're honest, they work hard and they don't tolerate bull easy. And I'm comfortable as hell with that."
Walking into a fan store in Comerica Park with his son who wanted a Tigers hat, he was greeted by a local fan who welcomed him in a straightforward, no chaser, Detroit fashion.
"He was loudly letting everybody know who I was," he said.
Van Gundy smiled at the fan and was very polite, then the niceties were dropped.
"He was all, 'We love you, we love you, we love you ... but you better win or we'll be booing you.' "
It wasn't just a one-time occurrence. At Jalen Rose's Golf Outing in early September, hours before the Lions' season opener on "Monday Night Football," the Pistons weren't far from the minds of those in attendance, particularly former Piston Willie Norwood.
"He said, 'We love you, admire your coaching style, we're excited to have you but…"
Van Gundy didn't have to brace himself this time. The easygoing, laid-back expectations of coaching in trendy Miami and appreciative Orlando were gone by then.
"… You'd better win. He said, you know what they say, there's flights into town, and flights out of town. There's nowhere I've been where people said those things right out. This is an interesting place, I like it."
He pumped his fist excitedly.
"You know that, deep down, when people are telling you they love you, you know the other side of it is, 'You better win,' but most people don't say it," Van Gundy said. "Detroit people say it! They do! Let's be honest about things, that's what I've run into here."
Coaches grate on players, especially ones who are more hard-driving than diplomatic. Van Gundy admits his brand of coaching has to grow on his players, a group that has felt the sting of not living up to high expectations in recent years.
"I think it's an ongoing process," Van Gundy said. "The number one thing is I hope they get and I don't think everyone's gotten is where it's coming from when I'm being critical. When I get on you, it's not because I think you (stink) but because I think you can be good and we can be good."
He believes this team can be good, that he can get more out of Smith, more from the consistently inconsistent Brandon Jennings, and help Drummond tap into his vast potential. Van Gundy won't say playoffs but it's obvious he doesn't think it's out of reach.
"Can we show up and compete every single night? Do we care enough to do the work on the defensive end of the floor?," he said. "I think we're still up and down. I think they're trying, they want to turn it around but we'll have to see."
Gores reiterated his expectations for his coach and his team for the season.
"Ask Stan," he said. "He knows what I expect. What I'm expecting is a very organized team. I expect growth this season, because Stan and the team is doing everything right this preseason. He covers every single scenario in his mind. We want to win, now."