Colorado State makes a bet on redemption

There’s never been any doubt that Larry Eustachy could coach.

Anybody following Big 12 Conference basketball at the turn of the century will recall the back-to-back conference championships at Iowa State featuring star players Jamaal Tinsley and Marcus Fizer. Eustachy and his upstart Cyclones came this close to the Final Four in 2000 before losing a memorable Midwest Regional final to eventual national champion Michigan State.

Of course, Big 12 fans might also remember Eustachy’s meltdown at the end of that game, a public hint of the private demons that stalked him when the games were over and the television lights had been packed away.

Four years later, after the sort of internet-fed public disgrace with which we have since become familiar — a Missouri student snapped and posted photos of a drunken Eustachy kissing college co-eds at a party after a game — he found himself starting over with a program at the University of Southern Mississippi that even basketball fans barely knew existed.

The road back, both personally and professionally, led him to Fort Collins on Thursday, where he became head coach at Colorado State, a school with a president and new athletic director dreaming of greatness.

“The Southern Miss job really interested me because of the culture,” Eustachy said on the Dave Logan Show. “There just is no basketball culture there, and I’m one who has lofty goals and thinks I can change the world. The previous coach, the coach I followed, I picked the last game that he was the coach at and I counted the people in the stands and there were like 218 of ’em. And I thought, well, here’s a perfect place to try to educate the fans, to try to build some type of tradition.”

In his first season, the Golden Eagles went 2-14 in Conference USA play, good for fourteenth in the standings. Conference USA doesn’t even have fourteen teams anymore. Eight years later, they were 25-9 overall and 11-5 in the conference, accepting their first NCAA tournament bid in twenty-one years.

“To say it was easy, it was not,” Eustachy said. “It was very difficult. We were in for a marathon, not a sprint. And we got it to a point where we were getting four or five thousand people at the game and I just thought it was time to have a new challenge.

“When this opportunity opened up, I just am in love with this region, you know? I had been at Utah State. I grew up on the beach of Southern California. I love the beach and I love the mountains. I just thought this would be a perfect place to reach other goals of mine, particularly with a program with such potential.”

The internet pictures made Eustachy more famous than he’d ever been as a successful basketball coach. Iowa State announced his departure in 2003 as a resignation, but Eustachy calls it what it was — a firing.

“It was truly the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said. “I’m a recovering alcoholic. I have the disease of alcoholism and I have no problem talking about it.

“I never understood just what it meant to have that disease and be an alcoholic. I thought that was the guy under the bridge with the paper bag. I mean, I never drank during the day. I never drank before a game. I never drank before a practice. I never drank before a meeting. I drank when the day was over. And how can I be an alcoholic if I’m National Coach of the Year, winning back-to-back Big 12 championships? But I was. But I was, is my point.

“I believe there’s somebody much more powerful than me I choose to call God guiding my life, and he dropped me to my knees and humbled me and made me reinvent myself. I know it happened for a reason. So I don’t look back. I wouldn’t change a thing. I don’t need to be at Duke. I don’t need to be at Kentucky. I need to be at a place that has a chance to win because losing’s no fun. So I’m at a perfect spot in my life and would rather be nowhere else.”

In keeping with the tone that CSU president Tony Frank and athletic director Jack Graham want to establish, the first economic incentive in Eustachy’s five-year contract rewards him if his players graduate and there are no major NCAA violations on his watch. After that come the usual incentives for winning. Asked about CSU as his next stop, the 56-year-old Eustachy responded this way:

“The next and the last, and I’ve got a contract to prove it, because if I tried to buy myself out, I’d have to take out a loan. I love the area, I love the vision of the president and the athletic director and I really think it’s been an untapped basketball program, I really do.”

Before leaving for Nebraska, former CSU coach Tim Miles left the program in much better shape than the one Eustachy found eight years ago at Southern Miss. The Rams made the NCAA tournament field this year for the first time since 2003. They went 20-12 overall, 8-6 in the Mountain West Conference. In fact, Eustachy’s Golden Eagles were the only team to beat the Rams on their home floor last season, a 79-58 thrashing in November.

“I’ve completely changed as a person, Eustachy said. “I haven’t had a drink, in a couple weeks it’ll be nine years. But the game hasn’t changed. I really think there’s just one way to play the game. I think players want parameters built around them. I think players want to be coached hard. They certainly don’t want to be belittled, and we don’t do that. What we do is we mold character and we teach them how to play the game the right way.

“We’re very demanding. We don’t believe in taking plays off. We push it up the court offensively and take the first good shot available. You’d have to ask them, but I think players love playing that way and love playing for not only me but the staff that I have.”

Not that many college coaches last long enough to amass 400 career wins, so you know Eustachy has been around just by the career 402-258 record he brings to Fort Collins. CSU gives him a chance to take an unrecognized program to the national stage. Eustachy gives CSU a chance to achieve its suddenly ambitious athletic goals. And together, they have a chance to make a public statement about the power of redemption.

About Dave Krieger

Dave Krieger is a recidivist newspaperman. View all posts by Dave Krieger

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