Dan Issel, who helped turn around a foundering franchise, resigned as coach of the Denver Nuggets Sunday, saying the duties and pressures of the job "have started to make me something I don't want to be."
In a hastily arranged news conference, Issel, 46, said he will remain with the Nuggets' organization. His specific duties haven't been determined, but he might help oversee the team's move into a new arena in 1997.Assistant Gene Littles will become interim head coach for the remainder of the season. Mike Evans will remain an assistant, and a second assistant will be hired soon.
"I never coached before, and I certainly won't coach again," the emotional Issel said. "I tried to make the right decision for my family and for the organization."
Issel said he and general manager Bernie Bickerstaff "have been talking about it for a long time. I think it came to a head in the last couple of days. It's tough to do something that your heart is not completely in. I think the way I was conducting myself was starting to show on the team."Asked if he had become concerned about his physical health, Issel said, "A little."
Bickerstaff was not surprised at Issel's decision. "We've had some profound conversations, and things seemed to be eating at him," Bickerstaff said. "In our conversations, Dan kept saying he was not having any fun. It was wearing on him, you could tell that. I want him to get away and clear his head."
Bickerstaff said the Nuggets are "a better team and a better organization because of Dan Issel. We will honor his contract, and he will still be a part of our family. I don't know what his duties will be, but with the new arena he brings a lot of things to the table."
Issel, in his third season with the Nuggets, had guided the team to an 18-16 record this season. Surprisingly, the resignation followed two of the team's best games of the season, including a 118-104 win over league champion Houston Saturday night.
In 1992, Issel took over a team that had won only 20 and 24 games the previous two seasons under Paul Westhead. He compiled a steadily improving 78-86 record in his first two seasons, and guided the team to an upset of Seattle in the playoffs last spring. It was the first time a No. 8 seeded team ever beat a No. 1, and the Nuggets then forced Utah to seven games in the second round before losing.
"I didn't come into this as a lifer, as somebody who wanted to be a coach," Issel said. "What I wanted to do was help turn the franchise around, and I think I did that."
Issel was a star player for the Nuggets and is a Basketball Hall of Fame inductee. He retired in 1985. He returned to Denver in 1988 to do color commentary for the Nuggets until he became the team's 10th head coach.
For Littles, it is the third time in his NBA career he has assumed the head coaching duties during a season. He had previous stints with Cleveland and Charlotte.
Littles, 51, anticipated no problems in the transition.
"The good thing is, I think the players respect our ability to coach," Littles said of himself and Evans. "We do a lot of preparation, a lot of hands-on coaching. We do a lot of work. I think if we were assistant coaches who just sat around and smiled at the guys and ran errands for them, it might be different."
Issel informed his players of his decision early Sunday. When they were called to the meeting, most players believed a trade had been made.
"I thought somebody had been traded, and I hoped it wasn't me," center Dikembe Mutombo said. "When Dan said he was resigning, I thought he was kidding. Instantly, there was a silence in the lockerroom. Guys couldn't find words to say. I feel sad. I'll miss him. He's a great friend and a great coach."