Amatucci, Anne Arundel rebuild together

JOHN EISENBERG

February 21, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

He sits in his office in the gym at Anne Arundel Community College. He tells a dark story.

"I guess I had a nervous breakdown," Mark Amatucci says. "Yeah. I didn't really want to admit it, but my doctor says I did. I was as low as you could get mentally."

He is back up again, at least upright, so he can talk about it. They ran him off at Loyola College and he slipped into a terrible funk. This was two years ago.

"I was fearful, angry, repressive, very irrational," he says. "I felt like a failure. My self-image was terrible. I thought I might never get another coaching job."

It was his first dance with failure.

He had built Calvert Hall into a power, then taken on the challenge of Loyola and college ball. Everything was layups for four years. The team got better and better. Almost beat Notre Dame one night. Almost made the NCAAs. "We were so close," he says.

Then it fell apart. The crash was almost audible. Some minor violations led to a year of NCAA probation. Losses replaced wins. Boos replaced cheers. Amatucci wound up in a civil war with a new athletic director. He fought with professors.

"I learned the hard way about how to handle yourself politically," he says. "Regardless of the circumstances on their side, I should havebeen much more professional. It was just devastating to see what we'd built up come falling down so fast.

It's still hard to look back on it."

He was out of his office soon after the last dribble of the 1988-89 season. That's when the hard part started. He bounced around his house in Parkville, hell as company, a workaholic with no place to work, shrill, furiously bitter, scared that he had lost his magic touch as a coach.

Money quickly became a problem. He has a wife who works as a nurse, and two young daughters. Amatucci refereed summer-league games and worked basketball camps for extra cash, but he needed more.

"The low point," he says, "was going down and filing for unemployment. It was July. I went to the office in Essex. You can imagine how it felt to go through that. It makes you appreciate having a job."

He was trying to find one, working the coaching network, "calling in markers" without benefit. He got an interview at Rider. Someone else got the job. He got an interview at Roanoke College. Someone else got the job.

"Selling insurance, or any other profession, that didn't appeal to me," he says, "but I began to think my future in this one might be over. Those were very bad days."

He got in touch with Buddy Beardmore, who had won national titles as a lacrosse coach at Maryland, and was now athletic director at Anne Arundel. Another interview. This time, someone else didn't get the job.

The team he inherited was at the bottom, a loser beset by constant attrition. "They were down to four players at the end of a couple of games," Amatucci said. "It wasn't a very attractive situation for local kids."

Amatucci installed the same framework he'd had at Loyola. Classwork was monitored. Players wore coats and ties on the road. Practices were tough. "The kids responded to it," he said. "You don't know how good that made me feel."

His team was wonderfully eclectic, a classic junior-college mix. Amatucci walked the campus asking kids to try out. Two who made the team had never played organized basketball. One was a playground legend in Annapolis, the other a statistician in high school. A couple of local high school players signed up. One star was born.

They ran the break and played high-pressure defense, the game Amatucci always has preached, and won 23 games. This year, with much the same nucleus, they are 27-4 and ranked third in the nation in the junior-college Division II.

"It's been fun," Amatucci said. "I've got my sanity back. Last year I just got my feet back on the ground. This year I've really gotten my confidence back, the knowledge that my way of doing things is still good. I was pretty shaky on that for awhile."

The ending still isn't all neat and tidy, not yet. Amatucci, 38, has been seeing a psychiatrist for a year, seeking the root of the anger and frustration he has felt. Forthcoming and verbal, a psychology major in college, he surely makes an interesting patient.

"I have a problem with expectations," he says. "I went 34-0 one year [at Calvert Hall] and got to the point where I didn't think I was a success unless I repeated that. I always expect too much. From other people, from everything, from myself. I'm trying to work it out."

He obviously would cherish another shot at coaching a Division I team, but there is a tentativeness about him, as if he is still a work in progress, as if he understands that he still has more to reconcile before he is ready.

"I would love to be happy and satisfied with myself, but I have to work at that," he says. "I should be happy. God, I've accomplished more at 38 than most people have by the time they are 60. But I have this tendency to look at the dark side. I'm working on it. Working on it all the time."

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