With DeVoe, Navy finds winning is fundamental

March 17, 1994|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,Sun Staff Writer

OGDEN, Utah -- Remember Gettysburg. That's not a battle cry for the Navy basketball team. It's simply a reminder of how far the team has come in such a short time.

It was Dec. 9, 1992, when Gettysburg visited Navy. Gettysburgthe Division III school. Gettysburg, a team full of Richie Cunningham look-alikes. Gettysburg, which the week before couldn't beat the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy.

Final score that night: Gettysburg 78, Navy 76.

"We were supposed to be a Division I program," said Navy senioBrad Cougher. "To come out and get beat by a team that we're supposed to be a lot better than, that was hard to deal with. It was really sad."

And it had to come as a shock to Don DeVoe, who was in his first year as Navy coach. DeVoe had been to seven NCAA tournaments, compiling a 328-228 record at Virginia Tech, Wyoming, Tennessee and Florida. His approach to the game had been an instant hit with the Navy players.

For DeVoe, that December night in 1992 was supposed to produce his first win at Navy. Instead, it reinforced the difficulty of his task. Navy went on to finish 8-19, winning fewer than 10 games for the fifth straight season.

"It became very apparent to me that we were very much going to have to develop our players," DeVoe said. "It occurred to me that we were going to have to pay attention to a lot of small things."

Three days ago, the Navy players were paying attention to the small things. Dribbling drills, first the right hand, then the left. Shooting drills, elevating over the outstretched hands of a stationary defender. Not exactly what you'd expect from a team preparing for today's NCAA first-round game against top-seeded Missouri at the Dees Center at Weber State, but all part of the preparation that defines DeVoe as a coach.

"DeVoe's philosophy is fundamentals, defensive fundamentaland working on it every day at practice," said assistant coach Emmett Davis. "It's all the little things that go into playing good team defense. Trying to get some offense from your defense, that's the area where our success has been dictated."

The aggressive man-to-man defensive style derives from DeVoe's days as an assistant coach under Bobby Knight at Army. It's a style that led him in 1978 to take the top job at Tennessee.

"I think Don is well known in his abilities to coach the X's and O's," said Doug Dickey, the athletic director at Tennessee. "His teams always prepare and play hard."

Tennessee had finished 11-16 the year before DeVoe arrived. Ihis first season, he led the Volunteers to a 21-12 record, three wins over rival Kentucky, a Southeastern Conference tournament championship and a berth in the NCAA Sweet 16.

It was the first of five straight NCAA appearances. But in the mid-1980s, the game began to change. The three-point shot and 45-second clock created a faster-paced game -- and DeVoe was slow to adapt.

"I'm a traditionalist and I thought that we already had a great game," DeVoe said. "The three-pointer's not a difficult shot -- it's just an extended free throw. And with the shot clock, they messed up the whole chance of upsets."

Rocky times hit

Tennessee's five straight NCAA appearances were followed by two trips to the National Invitation Tournament. Then came seasons of 12-16 and 14-15. Many expected DeVoe to be fired after the 1987-88 season, when Tennessee finished 16-13 and was eliminated in the first round of the SEC tournament.

But DeVoe was given another chance. With an experienced team playing a more up-tempo game, the Volunteers opened with an 11-1 record and a spot in the Top 15. It didn't last. The season ended with an 84-68 loss to West Virginia in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The final record was 19-11, and DeVoe was fired.

"We came to a point in time where we had to go in a differendirection," Dickey said. "And we did so."

Unemployed, DeVoe was shocked three weeks into the following season when SEC rival Florida called. Norm Sloan had left the coaching position there and, desperate, Florida went with a coach who was familiar with the SEC.

DeVoe was hired on an interim basis, with the understanding that he would be considered for the full-time job the next season. The Florida followers didn't exactly welcome DeVoe with open arms and, toward the end of that 7-21 season, he decided he wasn't interested in the job.

"I was a no-nonsense coach," DeVoe was quoted as saying athe time, "at a nonsense program."

Two years of frustration followed.

"When you don't have a job, it's extremely difficult to get onand I had not experienced that in my lifetime," DeVoe said. "It's a very humbling experience. You have to continue to believe in yourself, and find somebody else to believe in you. It's

not an easy combination."

DeVoe spent his time as a volunteer coach at Indiana and Duk-- and learning.

"I spent the second year traveling to different schools anobserving," DeVoe said. "I think it gave me a perspective on how coaches work with players and relate to players.

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