Is Jeff Ruland in charge of the Iona basketball team, or is it "Coach McNasty"?
In his second season with the Gaels, Ruland has guided his alma mater back to the NCAA tournament with the same no-nonsense style of his Washington Bullets days.
The Long Island native likens himself more to the mob boss in the HBO series, "The Sopranos," than John Wooden. Looking down at every one of his players, the 6-foot-10, 295-pound Ruland orders each one to follow two off-court rules -- go to school and be on time -- or he'll kick them off the team despite joking that he majored in cutting class and minored in bar-hopping as a student.
But that's the regimen at the New Rochelle, N.Y., school under Ruland, who keeps his players in line with his hands-on approach and then cracks them up with his no-holds-barred humor. And really, what should the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference champs expect from their 41-year-old coach, who teamed with Rick Mahorn in the 1980s to form the Bullets' duo "McFilthy and McNasty"?
"The intensity has to be there," said Ruland, who makes his tournament head coaching debut against Maryland in Thursday night's NCAA first round. "If the kinder, gentler me doesn't work, I'll be General Patton if I have to."
The Gaels called him on that in his first month as coach.
Disgusted that Iona allowed a 17-point lead over Virginia Commonwealth to dwindle to seven by halftime, Ruland punched a 5-inch-thick blackboard, breaking a couple of knuckles. He simply picked up a bag of ice for his hand and the Gaels picked up the victory, 73-66.
"The kids got the message," associate head coach Craig Holcomb said. "He demands respect and he gets it by where he has come from."
After a 332-game NBA career that was stopped by injuries, Ruland contemplated a move to courtside with then-Florida State coach Pat Kennedy, a former Iona assistant.
"That's terrific," Kennedy said to Ruland. "There's only one small detail: You need to get your college degree."
Ruland passed up his final year at Iona after a three-year career under coach Jim Valvano that included a 69-21 record, and an upset of eventual national champion Louisville in 1980. On the court, he raised Iona to a level it never reached before or since, averaging 20.8 points and 12 rebounds.
"I remember watching him taking layups and saying how can this guy be at our school?" said Iona athletic director Rich Petriccione, who was a team manager during those days and met Ruland for the first time after Valvano had him clean out Ruland's apartment. "It was a special time."
Petriccione would help Ruland again. After Ruland graduated with a communications degree, Petriccione cleared the way for him to return as an assistant in 1995. Three years later, he became the 10th coach in school history.
"Every big decision ever in my life has been around Iona College," said Ruland, who is 36-24 in two seasons. "I met my wife here. I met Jimmy V here. It's a fairy tale; it really is a fairy tale."
While Ruland might be relatively new to the Road to the Final Four, he has the New York Thruway memorized by heart.
When he was hired as an assistant, Ruland and his wife, Maureen, decided not to move from their Medford, N.J., home, which would have disrupted the schooling of their three daughters, Courtney (16), Whitney (13) and Brittany (9). From October to the middle of March, he sees his family only once or twice a week, putting 214 miles round trip on his Pathfinder.
"It's tough on her [Maureen]," said Ruland, who stays at an apartment near campus when he's not commuting. "She raises the girls during the season. It's a great sacrifice for her."
Then again, Ruland has his other 13 "sons" to handle at Iona.
If a player is late to a class, he has 5 a.m. study hall. Slip up a second time, Ruland forces the entire team to run wind sprints at 6 a.m. on the football field.
Test him repeatedly, and he'll ask you to leave the team. Just ask Florida State transfer Devonaire Deas, who blew off classes and was then dismissed immediately.
"I'm just trying to get these guys to skip some of the mistakes I made," said Ruland, who also monitors some study halls. "If somebody had said to me: `If you don't go to class, you're not going to play,' that would have gotten my attention."
Rebuilding and rebounding
Although a perennial contender for the MAAC title, Iona has yet to match its success during Ruland's heyday. The Gaels (20-10) have won 14 of their last 15 games for their sixth NCAA tournament bid, but most Division I players couldn't locate Iona on a map.
Petriccione refers to the program as a "Mom and Pop-type environment." All the lights don't come on for every game, and its trainer will celebrate his 90th birthday next year.
Ruland, too, will never be accused of sugar-coating any situation.
When one of his players asked about his chances of making the NBA, Ruland said, "You have a better chance at a winning lottery ticket at 7-Eleven."