Hahn a sounding board no more

Coach: Billy Hahn, after being Gary Williams' Terps bench mate for 12 years, now is making some noise of his own, reviving La Salle.

College Basketball

November 24, 2001|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

PHILADELPHIA - Billy Hahn has recruited in this city for nearly a quarter-century and been a head coach, but the credentials that led La Salle to hire him for its rebuilding job weren't evident to the casual Maryland basketball fan.

Those who knew Hahn only as the first guy in the line of fire when Gary Williams spun from the floor and verbally exploded would be surprised to learn what unfolded when the crowds left and the television cameras powered down.

"You had someone who knew the game, a guy you could bounce ideas off of," Williams said of Hahn. "Billy has a strong enough personality. He wasn't a `yes man.' You don't need everyone saying, `Right, Coach.' He would tell you if something was screwed up."

Hahn spent the past 12 seasons helping Williams right the basketball program at their alma mater, but he became a hot commodity overnight as a result of Maryland's first Final Four. His sweat ruined just as many suits and ties as Williams'.

"People would ask, `How can you put up with him?' " Hahn said. "He would vent his frustration at the people on the bench, because he doesn't want to yell at the people playing the game. There were a few times when I said, `I don't want to hear it, I'm an adult, enough already,' but as soon as the game was done, Gary never carried that over.

"If it was all that bad, if it was absolute misery, then surely I wouldn't have stayed there for 12 years. We did a hell of a job. I don't think people understand, from the beginning to where they are now, where we took that program. To this day, I shake my head, to think about everything we went through."

La Salle is a small private institution and Maryland a sprawling public one, but Hahn found the same task in both basketball programs: Remove the tarnish and restore the glory days.

Big Five basketball is woven into the local fabric like cheese- steaks and the Penn Relays, and three of that informal circuit's all-time leading scorers played for La Salle. One of them, Tom Gola, led the Explorers to an NCAA championship. When Hahn pitches Explorers history, he leaves out that it came in 1954. Current events show that La Salle is coming off eight straight losing seasons and is stuck on the wrong side of the Atlantic 10 Conference.

The Terps' misery was more concentrated in 1989. Len Bias had been in the ground only three years, and there was the dread of NCAA sanctions to come.

"There are big differences between La Salle and Maryland, but a lot of similarities in terms of what has to get done in basketball," said Hahn, who will take a 2-1 team to Delaware today. "The greatest thing that I learned from Gary Williams is that he fought to get things done for the basketball program and change the way people think. He told them that they should be proud to say that they are Maryland grads.

"It's the same thing here. I had to fight to have the offices renovated, and I have to change the mind-set of people. Losing stinks, and the alumni are down on La Salle."

Speedy Morris was fired last March, after his 15-season stay ran out of steam. Penn's Fran Dunphy, a La Salle alumnus, was among the coaches who had turned down the Explorers before athletic director Tom Brennan, who was at Loyola from 1986 to 1990, called Hahn three days after the Terps lost to Duke in the NCAA semifinals.

"I didn't realize the power of the Final Four," Hahn said. "That is a powerful thing for your career."

There were off-seasons when Hahn sat by a silent phone, or regretted answering it.

A reserve guard on some fine Maryland teams in the early 1970s, Hahn spent a season on the staff at Morris Harvey, an NAIA school in West Virginia, then cut his honeymoon short in 1976 to join Dave Pritchett's staff at Davidson.

Hahn didn't get a guarantee about his salary, which turned out to be $1,200. He put 98,000 miles on a Ford LTD in nine months worth of recruiting, then tossed the keys on Pritchett's desk and told him he was looking for a higher-paying job. That turned out to be mowing lawns and hauling trash until the week before Labor Day, when Jack Kraft hired him at Rhode Island.

Kraft had taken Villanova to the NCAA final in 1971, and he pointed Hahn south to Philadelphia. As an assistant at Rhode Island, Ohio University and then Maryland, Hahn blended into the scene like Sonny Hill. His top assistant is Roland Houston, a Philadelphian whom he recruited to Rhode Island. La Salle's best player is former Roman Catholic star Rasual Butler, whom the Terps were after until they got Danny Miller.

"One night in the 1980s, Billy said he was going to a court at Eighth and Diamond," said John Hardnett, the college commissioner of the Sonny Hill League. "I told him that it wasn't the safest place in the world, not a neighborhood I would get caught in. He went. Billy goes places in the city even I don't go to."

That zeal helped Hahn move into the head coach's office at Ohio U. in 1986, after Danny Nee - now the head coach at A-10 rival Duquesne - left for Nebraska.

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