UMES new basketball coach are a happy fit Each has to offer what other wants

October 24, 1990|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,Sun Staff Correspondent

PRINCESS ANE — PRINCESS ANNE -- The University of Maryland Eastern Shore was looking for a men's basketball coach, and Robert Hopkins' resume set off bells and whistles.

Conference championships, tournament crowns and Coach othe Year honors -- and very lopsided winning records -- everywhere he served as head coach: Alcorn State, Xavier University, Southern University and Grambling State.

An impressive apprenticeship in the National BasketbalAssociation: chief scout and assistant to Willis Reed with the New York Knicks, general manager and then head coach with the Seattle SuperSonics.

But that resume also set off a red flag.

Hopkins left Grambling after a National Collegiate Athletic Association probe resulted in sanctions against him and the school.

Take on Hopkins, UMES was told, and you are going to have to take on those penalties, too.

UMES didn't swallow hard, didn't stutter, didn't even blink.

For this historically black institution, growing incredibly fast annewly committed to competitive basketball, Hopkins was simply too good to pass up. Penalties and all.

"No other way could we get this caliber of individual to ouschool," said UMES president William P. Hytche, who introduced Hopkins in July to replace Steve Williams, who had a 20-87 record in four seasons.

"I am not going to do anything that will hurt this program," said Hallie Gregory, in his second year as athletic director, picked by Hytche to boost UMES' athletic programs.

"We feel like we have the structure in place to prevent any difficulties of the kind that happened at Grambling," said Gregory.

Out of work since he was fired by Grambling in June 1989, Hopkins found in UMES a chance for redemption.

"It would really have hurt to give [Grambling] the satisfaction of knowing they were able to drive me out of something I dearly love," he said.

Hopkins, who set a handful of records while a player at Grambling, returned as head coach in 1986-87 and promptly won the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship. His teams were second in 1987-88 and tied for first in 1988-89.

But in August 1989, the NCAA handed down its judgments against Hopkins and an assistant for a series of rules violations that resulted from extra financial benefits given a prospective player during an on-campus visit.

Because it fired Hopkins immediately and cooperated with the NCAA, Grambling suffered lesser penalties than did Hopkins, whom the NCAA accused of deliberately circumventing institutional controls.

He was forbidden from accepting a coaching job at any member institution for five years, unless he and the institution appeared for judgment before the NCAA infractions committee.

When UMES and Hopkins did that in June, they were told, among other things, that Hopkins could not do any off-campus recruiting until August 1991, and Hopkins could not coach in any postseason tournaments this year.

"We felt we had in place the organizational structure that the kinds of things that happened at Grambling won't happen here," said Hytche.

"And the NCAA believed us, because we were allowed to hire him with reduced restrictions [Hopkins is restricted for one, not five years]."

"I was surprised they were not as severe as they could have been," said Henry Brooks, faculty representative and chairman of the search committee that recommended Hopkins. "I was not put off by [the restrictions] at all. And Coach Hopkins was a proven winner who had won wherever he had been."

Bobby Wilkerson, who played on a national championship team at Indiana and was the first-round choice of Seattle in 1976, was among the finalists for the UMES coaching job.

The top recruiter at Colorado, Wilkerson agreed to be Hopkinsassistant and to take over that role for UMES.

"I have to be his legs out there on the road," said Wilkerson, who played under Hopkins at Seattle. "It is OK with me. If it wasn't, I wouldn't have come here. I was looking forward to building a program that has been down for years, and that starts with recruiting."

"[The recruiting restrictions] are nothing we can't live with," said Hopkins. "We're going to get some good players and turn this program around."

Hopkins -- even though he brings with him the unwanted attentions of the NCAA -- was too good a bargain for UMES to pass up.

"We can't pay to get a Gary Williams to come to a little school like this," said Hytche, who was forced to suspend football in 1980 for financial reasons. "And, if we could, he wouldn't come."

And so Gregory has made Hopkins the catalyst for revitalizing a program that has not had a winning season in 16 years.

"We are looking to be competitive," said Gregory, with the firm understatement he brought with him from the Coast Guard Academy, where he was assistant athletic director and basketball coach.

"We would like to be able to compete with the teams in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. We would like to win our conference sometime in the not-too-distant future."

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