College Basketball Preview
Dukes Seek To Recapture Old Glory
By Ray Mernagh
Jarrett Durham remembers the mocking tone of the ball boy outside the Duquesne locker room in Oklahoma City to this day. He still hasn't figured out how the youngster knew Durham would be the one checking the legend in the championship game of the All-College Tournament.
"Come on out #25, Pete Maravich is waiting for you."
the kid thought his words would rattle the gifted small forward
he couldn't have been more wrong. Dudes from Aliquippa don't rattle.
Durham was amped-up to play on such a major stage. 9,000 people
were jammed into the old barn in Oklahoma City, while hoop fans
across the country - not to mention Pittsburgh -- tuned in to
listen to the early season classic. Durham was a sophomore just
cutting his teeth in big-time college basketball that night in
1969, and he regains his youth as he recalls that wonderfully
painful night at a recent Duquesne practice.
"We were ranked #9 in the country and 10-0 at the time," says Durham. "We'd heard a lot about Maravich, plus I think something like 6 of the top 10 scorers in the country were at that tournament, it was a pretty exciting time for Duquesne basketball." Only speaking about the result of the hotly contested game finally makes Durham's smile fade. "We lost 94-91," says Durham -- who's now an Associate AD at his alma mater - with a grimace. What about Maravich? "Held him to 27," says Durham, before laughing, admitting that he shared duties on the Pistol with teammate Bill Zopf. "He finished with 53 and was something else, but we still should've won that game."
Durham's answer when asked how many times he went to the postseason in his three-year career spanning 1969-1971 (freshmen weren't eligible then) truly illustrates how far the Duquesne program fell in the last twenty-plus years: "We went to the tournament every year," says Durham, "it's what we expected." Indeed, during that 1969 season the Dukes finished 21-5 and played in the NCAA Tournament. 1970's record of 18-8 was a "disappointing" year that still ended with an at-the-time-still- prestigious NIT berth. Durham's senior year produced a 21-4 record and a #11 AP ranking, not to mention another NCAA berth. Second-year coach Ron Everhart remembers the Dukes of the mid-to-late 70's - the era immediately following the Durham/Zopf period -- as a tough and talented bunch led by players like B.B. Flennory and future Lakers star Norm Nixon.
Everhart used to hitchhike the 22 miles from Fairmont, West Virginia to Morgantown whenever Duquesne came to town to play the Mountaineers. "Duquesne was still the team to beat in the area at that time," says Everhart, "they definitely had a target on their backs." Or in the case of Flennory, on his head.
During a game in Morgantown in 1976, Flennory drove the lane only to be knocked out cold by a hard-nosed sophomore named Bobby Huggins. Huggins -- who often let the young Everhart sleep on his floor after games -- hit Flennory so hard that some in the crowd wondered if they'd just witnessed a homicide. Flennory survived, but the basketball program at Duquesne wasn't so lucky. It's been on life support since the four-year tenure of Mike Rice.
Between 1978-82, Rice coached the team to 2 NIT's, was a respectable 62-49 and was named Eastern Eight Coach of the Year twice. The program was on life support for the next few years and was officially pronounced dead around 1990. Which begs the question: What the hell happened?
series of things contributed to the decline, including some poor
coaching hires. "Mike Rice was successful here," says Durham,
"but two of the guys after him, Scott Edgar and Darelle Porter,
just weren't ready for the job. After those two, the talent inside
the program was so bad it just snowballed - and if you can't get
talent, you can't win." If you had predicted Duquesne's decline
to former players (say those who played from 1945-1978) before
it happened most would probably echo Durham in saying "I would've
laughed in your face, never would have believed it."
So, how do you re-build a program that's been the laughingstock of college basketball for two-plus decades? First, you hire a basketball guy who helped create the premier program in your league as your new Athletic Director. Greg Amodio came to Duquesne with the blueprint in his pocket. During his time at Xavier he helped create the best mid-sized college basketball program this side of Gonzaga. Amodio proved his mettle early when he convinced Everhart to leave what was an arguably better situation at Northeastern. Amodio delivered with new offices and more money in the budget, then got out of the way and let Everhart do his thing -- recruit.
In this business you read a lot about coaches and the way they recruit. The endless hours spent on the road pursuing talent, talking on the phone -- can you hear me now Kelvin Sampson - trying like hell to convince young kids to play for them instead of the other schools also recruiting them. Eventually kids whittle that list down to 3-7 schools and actually make visits. This is where recruiting can go one of two ways: either the coach lies through his teeth trying to convince the kid he'll play 40 minutes as a freshman, or he lets the kid see what his college experience will really be like. Everhart, to his credit, does the latter.
"Ron's relentless when he goes after a kid," says Durham. "It's amazing what he's done to improve the talent level in a little over a year on the job and lets face it, that's what you have to do today, you've got to go out and get kids." Everhart learned to recruit at Georgia Tech as a graduate assistant on a staff headed up by Bobby Cremins.
"Georgia Tech was a great experience and education in how to recruit without being overbearing and turning kids off," says Everhart. "The important thing is to let guys know they'll have an opportunity both on and off the court if they work for it." All you need to do is watch one Duquesne practice while a much-sought-after star recruit is present to know Everhart keeps it real with potential players. They know after witnessing him in action that they're going to be coached - HARD.
"If coach wants a guy he's definitely coming after him," says point guard Kojo Mensah. Mensah is a prototypical New York City kid from the Canarsie neighborhood in Brooklyn. I asked him if he or his Brooklyn homeboy Shawn James knew anything about the history and success that Duquesne once enjoyed?
"We know about it," said Mensah before pausing…"but we're ready to have some success of our own." The 6-10 James is a shot-blocker extraordinaire, a "difference maker" according to his coach.
It's January, 2008 outside the visiting locker room at Duquesne's Palumbo Center and the ball boy has a message for the opposing center:
Come on out #55, Shawn James is waiting for you.
Ray Mernagh is the Basketball Editor for the Pittsburgh Sports Report. He also contributes to Basketball Times and Eastern Basketball. Visit his website at http://www.hoopwise.com/.