Nick Nurse was a student at Northern Iowa in 1985 when he learned about a book that would influence his career, leading him to become the head coach for the Toronto Raptors and win an NBA championship.
Recently, that book, “Freedom in the Huddle,” was out of print and selling on the secondary market for up to $900 a copy. So this year, Nurse teamed up with Ames-based publisher Championship Productions to launch a re-release of the book. He was in Ames on Aug. 28 for a book event at independent bookstore Dog-Eared Books.
Nurse was a basketball player at UNI from 1985-89 and was attending a football game there one day.
“I love football. I played football in high school (at Carroll Kuemper),” Nurse told the crowd at Dog-Eared Books. “I was there early as an eager young freshman to my first UNI football game.”
Nurse was sitting on the aisle at the UNI-Dome, about 14 rows up, watching pregame warmups. He saw football coach Darrell Mudra, nicknamed Dr. Victory, heading up the stairs. Mudra and Gordon Scoles, assistant track coach at Iowa State, had written “Freedom in the Huddle: The Creative Edge in Coaching Psychology,” which would be published in 1986.
“He ran right past me up to the press box, and I followed him up there,” Nurse said. “That was his kind of legendary trademarking as head coach from the press box, and it’s the whole symbolism behind ‘Freedom in the Huddle.’”
Mudra told Nurse he had excellent offensive and defensive coordinators and didn’t need to be down on the field controlling every move that was made.
“Basically, I thought, ‘This dude is really cool. I really dig this guy,’” Nurse said.
Mudra taught a sports psychology class where “Freedom in the Huddle” was used as the textbook.
But Nurse was an accounting major and had no plans for coaching.
“So I didn’t think too much about that except that I loved sports,” Nurse said. “Then I decided I wasn’t going to be an accountant and was going to be a basketball coach after four years in the accounting program.”
Nurse had a copy of “Freedom in the Huddle,” which took on particular meaning for him in 1995 when he went to England for his first year of professional coaching, he said.
“I was young – I was about 26 years old,” Nurse said. “I had that book with me the entire season. I started reading it on the plane ride over, and I was like, ‘This is what being a pro coach is.’”
Nurse had been a college coach already. His first full-time coaching job was at Grand View University, where, at age 23, he was the youngest head basketball coach in the United States.
In England, as head coach of the Birmingham Bullets, Nurse kept the book with him the whole season, he said.
“I’d read it pregame in the locker room. I’d just read it over and over and over, all season long,” Nurse said.
Nurse and his Bullets won a championship that first year.
“It was kind of a remarkable championship,” he said. “It was a team that had never had a record over .500 in their 25-year history” and they beat a team in the championship that had won the title several years in a row.
Ames High grad wrote a chapter in Nurse’s relaunched book
Over the years, Nurse and Mudra developed a friendship. They talked on the phone and exchanged letters — some of their conversation was about coaching, but a lot of it was just about life, fishing and family.
Nurse’s book “Rapture: Fifteen Teams, Four Countries, One NBA Championship, and How to Find a Way to Win – Damn Near Anywhere” was published in October 2020. One chapter, titled “Freedom in the Huddle,” talks about Mudra and the importance of Mudra’s book in Nurse’s life.
“Coach Mudra’s family, after that book came out, called me and said thank you so much for honoring our dad by putting that chapter in there,” Nurse said.
It started a conversation that led to relaunching the “Freedom in the Huddle” book. The new version includes the original book in its entirety with some additional chapters, and letters exchanged between Nurse and Mudra.
A chapter about Mudra was written by 2007 Ames High grad Brandon Hurley, a longtime sportswriter and editor who has covered Nurse extensively.
In 2018, Hurley was writing for the Carroll Times Herald, Nurse’s hometown newspaper, when he saw the Raptors were going to play the Pacers.
Nurse was an assistant coach for the Raptors at the time, and Hurley drove to Indianapolis to interview him for a feature story.
“We went to a sports bar and sat down for a while on game day,” Hurley said. “He gave me about two hours and I did a big profile on him, and it just kind of carried on from there.
“I kept following him, and I heard rumors that he was going to be named head coach for the Raptors.”
Nurse did become head coach for Toronto in June 2018.
“People in Canada actually call me the Nick Nurse beat reporter,” Hurley said with a laugh. “I kept following everything he did.”
Hurley went to Chicago after Nurse became head coach and interviewed him there. He also interviewed former Iowa State men’s basketball coach Fred Hoiberg during that trip.
“I talked to them both in pregame,” Hurley said. “I’m a big NBA fan in general, so the fact that I have been able to cover the NBA from Carroll, Iowa, is pretty cool.”
When the relaunch of the “Freedom in the Huddle” book was planned, Nurse called Hurley “completely out of the blue and asked me to research Darrell Mudra and do some writing for the book,” he said.
Hurley’s bosses at the Carroll and Jefferson newspapers gave him permission to pursue a book deal with Nurse, he said.
Hurley and Nurse discussed marketing and business plan strategies.
“I was pretty shocked at first because Nick was in the middle of coaching his first season as a head coach in the NBA, but here he is working with me,” Hurley said.
Bill Bergan’s Championship Productions republishes popular coaching book
Championship Productions was founded in 1976 by Bill Bergan, longtime head track coach at Iowa State who is now retired from coaching but continues as president of the publishing company along with co-CEO Darryl Bennett.
For many years, Bergan would coach during the day and work on the production company at night.
“Bill started out with track books and videos,” Bennett said. “His initial launches did so well, he wondered if people would have interest in materials about basketball.”
Bergan experimented with topics. He got top names in basketball — people like Lenny Wilkens, Bill Walton, Jerry Tarkanian and Tom Davis.
“A lot of people wanted to study Tom Davis and what he did on defense and what he did on offense that made him so hard to stop,” Bennett said.
Championship Productions has continued that formula over the years, branching into more than 20 sports, featuring Hall of Famers, NCAA champions, world champions, and professional athletes and coaches. There are more than 3,000 individual titles on Championship Productions’ website.
“We’ve gone from VHS tapes to DVDs to streaming videos,” Bennett said.
Bergan has held a track coaching clinic each of the past 53 years that regularly draws 600 coaches and track officials. A volleyball clinic has been held for the past 26 years, and Championship also works with the NCAA Final Four organization putting on regional basketball coaching clinics.
With a career in publishing and marketing, Bennett joined Bergan, who is also his father-in-law, at Championship Productions in 1997. Bennett replaced Scoles, one of the “Freedom in the Huddle” authors, who left for a coaching position in North Carolina.
Bennett said the backstory connections surrounding “Freedom in the Huddle” are amazing.
“Bill (Bergan) and Wayne Chandlee and Gordy Scoles all coached together at a high school in Waterloo,” Bennett said. “Bill comes to Iowa State as the track coach, Wayne goes to Carroll Kuemper as the basketball coach. Gordy kind of goes on tour.
“Wayne ends up being Nick Nurse’s high school coach. Bill ends up starting a publishing company. Gordy ends up bumping into Darrell Mudra at Western Illinois and then both being at UNI together and writing this book.”
Scoles referred Mudra to Bergan to publish the book, Bennett said.
“And Bill’s great friend Wayne’s star athlete finds the book and turns it into his own amazing book,” Bennett said. “It’s crazy.”
As Bennett was reading “Freedom in the Huddle” to get it ready for publication, he noted that one of Nurse’s favorite players in the NBA Development League was former Cyclone star Curtis Stinson, who coached Bennett’s son this summer.
“There’s something really neat about the small circle of coaching, of former athletes who become coaches and all of the special connections there,” Bennett said.