Rejuvenation of sport, spirit Chris Fuller: New Morgan State coach works to rebuild a basketball program in which fun and victory have not often been found.

February 03, 1996|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,SUN STAFF

It was the fall of 1975, and Chris Fuller, just two years removed from college and a starring role as an undersized center at Buffalo State, was a Detroit salesman keeping his hand in basketball by playing and coaching semipro teams that barnstormed through Michigan.

"I was getting paid $50 a game if the money man showed up," recalled Morgan State's new coach. "That was when I first started thinking of coaching basketball as a career.

"I was watching TV one night, and there was Dick Vitale promoting his basketball program at the University of Detroit. He sounded so positive and enthusiastic, I got all fired up. I visited him the next day and applied for an assistant's job."

Instead of a job offer, Vitale gave Fuller brochures and schedules advertising his team and encouraged him to start his basketball tutoring on the high school level.

"I never did coach high school ball," said Fuller, 43, who spent eight successful seasons at Erie Community College before moving to Morgan. "But I still give Vitale credit for pointing me in the right direction."

Now Fuller seems to be pointing Morgan in the right direction.

After a combined 45-120 record the past six seasons, the Bears hit rock bottom last winter. After an NCAA investigation into recruiting irregularities, Morgan was placed on three years' probation, barred from playing in this year's Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament and had its basketball scholarships reduced from 13 to 11.

A search committee took close to six months to find a replacement for Michael Holmes, sifting through more than 30 candidates. Finally, Rick Perry, vice president of student affairs, gave Fuller a ringing endorsement to Morgan president Earl S. Richardson.

"Yes, Chris came from a winning program," said Perry. "But what I liked about him most was his strength of character, sense of integrity and the way he had pushed his players to achieve academically.

"Now I also enjoy watching him run a game. He really analyzes the game and takes advantage of situations.

"He started here under a real handicap. By the time he took over in August, it was too late to recruit. But he's gotten more than anyone could have expected out of this team."

Fuller did not arrive at Morgan with false illusions.

"At Erie, I also inherited a program that was on probation," he said.

"But I never broke a single rule and we went to the regional final four four times in eight years. I've always told my players, 'It's not bad to be watched when you're doing things the right way.' "

Fuller is not discouraged by his team's 4-14 record going into today's noon rematch at Hill Field House with cross-town rival Coppin State, the perennial MEAC regular-season champion that needed a last-second shot to beat the Bears a week ago.

"These kids aren't concerned about being banned from the tournament," he said. "They're so hungry for success, that each victory is like finding the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow."

The Bears began the season playing eight high-revenue road games against the likes of Penn State, Kansas State, Georgetown, Brigham Young and West Virginia and Marquette, losing all of them before settling into their less-daunting MEAC schedule.

"I've learned to deal with tough situations," said Fuller. "Erie was the only JuCo school in the region that didn't give scholarships. You learn to make do.

"When I first applied for the job, I didn't know about all the NCAA sanctions. My dream was to coach a Division I school, and when [former Dunbar and Maryland coach] Bob Wade dropped out, I really pursued it, and got friends like [Georgetown's] John Thompson to help me.

Fuller knows what it is to be the underdog, competing as a 6-foot-6 center at Buffalo State and averaging 17 points his senior season.

"Chris wasn't a gifted athlete, but he always had a very strong work ethic," said Tom Borschel, who coached Fuller his final year and now works as a clinic administrator at the Heart Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla.

"When Chris was in school, there was a lot of racial tension on the campus that put tremendous pressure on the black athletes. But he put himself above the internal problems. He had a burning desire to succeed."

It is the same desire Fuller seeks in pushing his own players.

"He has us believing in ourselves," said senior guard Paul Grant, Morgan's leading scorer. "He's convinced us that if we play hard every night, we'll eventually enjoy success.

"He's got a sense of humor, but he is very disciplined, especially in practices where you shoot free throws after every turnover. And when we're on the road, he tells us, 'First business, then pleasure.' And we're in the business of winning games."

Unlike many of his peers today, Fuller is no sideline screamer, nor is he a tactical genius.

"For my college thesis, I asked the rhetorical question, 'Do you recruit players to suit your style or change your style to suit your players?' The answer, I discovered, is to always be flexible."

Fuller does not try to dazzle his players with X's and O's.

"We don't really have what amounts to a playbook," he said. "I try to keep things simple. I'm convinced that if you execute properly, the defense can't stop you."

Realistically, Fuller, minus a seasoned floor leader and front-line intimidator, also knows that he needs to recruit a wider talent base. In the meantime, he is winning over his players.

"Trust is where it all starts," he said. "I preach that a team is like a pyramid. We all start on the bottom. You can climb up one side or the other, but there are no shortcuts, and we all want to reach the apex together."

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