Solid ground at Navy Career revived: After a few years adrift, basketball coach Don DeVoe found his bearings with the Midshipmen.

November 24, 1995|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,SUN STAFF

If Navy basketball coach Don DeVoe decides to write his autobiography, he already has a suitable title: "From Heaven to Hell And Back Again."

DeVoe directed the Midshipmen to a 20-9 record last season and barely missed a second straight NCAA berth, losing the Patriot League final to Colgate.

In three years, he has regained respect for the Navy basketball program. In 22 seasons, DeVoe has won 373 games and is one of a dozen coaches to have taken three different schools -- Virginia Tech, Tennessee and Navy -- to the NCAA tournament.

Yet six years ago, DeVoe's career was in limbo. One nightmarish winter in Florida was enough to shake his confidence and make him wonder if it was time to get out of coaching.

After a 19-11 record at Tennessee in 1988-89, he was given a "quit or be fired" ultimatum by athletic director Doug Dickey, who hoped a more charismatic coach would help fill a new 20,000-seat arena.

DeVoe resigned, and hastily accepted an offer to replace ousted Norm Sloan at Florida, which was under NCAA investigation.

"Taking that job was a monumental mistake," said DeVoe. "Florida was facing all kinds of allegations, and I was left with only a graduate assistant to help me."

DeVoe also found himself at odds with Dwayne Schintzius and Livingston Chapman, the stars of the team.

"I thought I was a sound enough coach to get their attention," he said. "But because I had coached against Florida while I was at Tennessee, the players perceived me as an adversary. We spent almost the whole season going head-to-head. It was a horrible experience."

It took DeVoe two years to clear his head, renew his resolve and accept another coaching challenge.

"That was a rough time in my life. I researched a lot of jobs, but no one seemed especially interested in me.

"People always want to put labels on you. You're a good or bad game coach, a good or bad recruiter, a players' coach or too strict. Unless you do something great, it's tough to shed those labels."

Searching for the right job, DeVoe spent 1990 and 1991 as an unpaid coaching consultant. He was first reunited with Indiana's Bob Knight, a former teammate at Ohio State and his boss at Army in the mid-'60s. He then spent a season helping Mike Krzyzewski at Duke.

"I was having too much fun to worry about getting paid," he said. "I got several offers to coach at small colleges, and, in retrospect, probably should have accepted them. If you're away from the sidelines too long, you lose your visibility."

But he waited, which meant he was available when the Naval Academy called in 1992.

"I've finally found Shangri-la," said DeVoe, who late last season signed a five-year contract extension.

"Don and Navy are a perfect fit," said athletic director Jack Lengyel. "He was the first person I contacted when I decided to replace Pete Herrmann in 1992.

"He had a solid academy background from serving four years [1964 to 1968] as Knight's assistant at West Point, in addition to the character and integrity he showed in directing winning programs at Virginia Tech and Tennessee.

"I expected him to bring positive results by 1995, but leading us to an NCAA berth a year earlier was a real bonus.

"And to win 20 games last season without anyone on the all-conference team was really remarkable. I just hope he plans to retire here."

Perhaps even more impressed by the team's metamorphosis is Dave Smalley, a Navy basketball star in the mid-'50s who coached the team from 1966 to 1976. Now an assistant athletic director in charge of admissions, Smalley regularly attends practices and home games.

"I watch how organized and efficient his practices are, and I want to run out on the floor and be a part of it," said Smalley. "Don has a no-nonsense approach. Everyone is busy -- the assistants, the players, the trainers. I love it."

Born on New Year's Eve in 1944 in the southeast Ohio town of Sabina (population 1,500), DeVoe always was battling the odds. He went to Ohio State on a partial scholarship, passing up full scholarship offers from smaller colleges.

"I grew up reading about Buckeye football heroes like Hopalong Cassady and Vic Janowicz," he said.

"I always wanted to go to Ohio State, especially after they won an NCAA basketball title with small-town Ohio guys like Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek."

After an impressive freshman year, DeVoe earned a full scholarship and was a starting forward on the Big Ten championship teams in 1963 and 1964.

"Coach [Fred] Taylor was years ahead of most coaches in how he stressed man-to-man defense, and that had a lasting influence on me," said DeVoe.

He enjoyed immediate success in his first crack as a head coach, going 91-45 in five seasons at Virginia Tech. One of his best players was forward Allan Bristow, who played nine seasons in the NBA and is now head coach of the Charlotte Hornets.

"Tough, aggressive defense was Don's trademark, and I'm using a lot of things I learned from him," said Bristow. "But what I remember best was his competitive drive. We didn't have many blue-chippers, but we won the NIT my senior year [1973]. He did the best possible job with the talent he had, and now he's doing the same at Navy."

College previews

The schedule of college basketball previews in The Sun:

Tomorrow: Mount St. Mary's, UMES

Sunday: UMBC

Monday: Towson State

% Tuesday: Coppin State

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