Beard searches for a way to turn key at Morgan State

College Basketball

January 02, 2003|By Laura Vecsey

SOMEONE AT MORGAN State University ought to think seriously about giving Butch Beard a key to the gym. Fast. That would mean a change in the school's security policy, but then, name another Division I basketball coach who gets locked out of his own gym, whose trainer goes on Christmas vacation when the team has practices and games?

Something better change, fast.

The longer Morgan State makes its head basketball coach wait in the rain for campus security to open his office, the more time Beard has to draft in his head his letter of resignation.

"Dear Earl S. Richardson, President:

"You said you wanted to get to the NCAA tournament once before you retired. You thought maybe I was the guy, just like I was the guy at Howard, taking that school to the Big Dance in 1992. I am your guy. I'm hard-headed and committed -- especially to a basketball program at a historically black school. But this, sir, is a thankless task.

"Sayonara.

"Alfred `Butch' Beard."

Of course, Beard will only actually write that letter if the 20-year NBA player and coach doesn't just walk out -- frustrated, crushed and angry -- on one of the most downtrodden and demoralized Division I basketball programs in the nation.

"These kids have the lowest self-esteem I've ever been around. It's been hell, trying to change a program that hasn't had a winning season since 1979," Beard said.

This is the flip side of everything you usually read about so-called big-time collegiate athletics. Morgan State is 1-10, at the bottom of one of the weakest conferences in Division I hoops, the MEAC. There are no ESPN highlight clips coming out of this Baltimore campus.

Worse, Beard can't stomach the way the story about Morgan State's struggling Division I program is footnoted down to a single line of newspaper agate. It looks so cruel.

This week, Morgan State stands at No. 326 in the Sagarin ratings index, a nationally recognized system that ranks every single NCAA Division I basketball program.

News that bad seems like it might be wise to avoid, but Beard can't do that. He is competitive, feisty, driven. He also is alternately crushed and boiling mad, especially when he sees Creighton is rated No. 1 in the country, then scans down past No. 10 Louisville, his alma mater, down past defending NCAA champion Maryland at No. 37 and then keeps going, down, down, down to the very bottom.

Finally, just ahead of Savannah State at No. 327, sit his Morgan State Bears, who are mired in another season of frustration and futility.

"I hate that computer ranking. It really upsets me. As far as I'm concerned, we're at rock bottom. That's what I tell the players," Beard said.

How does this happen? How does a school like Morgan State continue its whirlpool of self-defeat? Beard isn't shy about saying his players are mired in a losing mentality, that they're so far from feeling good about themselves that they accept losing too easily.

The former New Jersey Nets coach is troubled by the fact that for his players, it's all about playing time, about how the jersey looks. It's not about the hard work, the mental toughness it takes to start a tradition, to turn this thing around.

Then there are the outside forces.

"Here's a scenario," Beard said yesterday as Morgan State prepared for Saturday's home game against South Carolina State.

"I go to play a Christmas tournament at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. It's their second year in Division I and they're looking for some games at home. So we go down and play them because they'll give me a little money to play the game," he said.

"Now, I've been around, but before the first four minutes, they've called 10 fouls on us. That was B.S., pardon my French. They took the heart out of these kids. That's why those rankings aren't worth a damn. That computer looks at the final score [98-65], but it doesn't see those fouls. This is what I hate about college athletics. It's not pure."

This season, Beard took a new approach. He figured that by giving up road games and sacrificing the money Morgan State gets paid to go get beat somewhere, he would instead attempt to establish a home-court presence, a home-court advantage.

Turns out there hasn't been much of either for the Bears.

"We've played five games at home. We've won one," Beard said.

That's discouraging enough. What's worse is knowing that next season, Morgan State will have to go back out on the road again, fulfilling the other end of those home-and-home deals he struck.

"I didn't bring back as much money this year as I did last season. That means next year we'll have to go out and get our brains beat out," he said.

"Next year, we'll have to go play Seton Hall, Virginia Tech. Rick Pitino has always been gracious. Pitino wants me to come down there and pay us $50,000 for a game at Louisville, but I'm not going to do it. I wouldn't do it for $2 million. It would be too embarrassing to go."

Beard admits to a twisted little fantasy working inside his mind. It goes like this: Even if Morgan State doesn't win another game the rest of the season, Beard can still prime his players to win three straight during the MEAC tournament, earning an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

"Then the committee would stick us far away, against a No. 1 seed, and we'd get the pants beat off of us by 60 or 70 points and I'd laugh all the way to wherever," he said.

It's not pretty down here at rock bottom. Beard is now the 13th head coach who wonders how long before Morgan State will have to go find No. 14.

Not long, unless something changes. Fast. Someone better give the man a key to the gym, for starters.

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