Bozeman embraces second chance

November 10, 2006|By RICK MAESE

These days, his basketball office looks more like a closet than it does a shoebox, his gym more high school than it is NBA. There's a bit of gray in his hair now and a bit more age in his voice, which hasn't really softened a bit after a 10-year break. He's older now, too, of course.

And even though Todd Bozeman can't stop talking about the future ...

"I can't even put it into my words. I'm just so excited. Saturday can't get here fast enough for me."

... he also can't escape the past. "Always there," says the new addition at Morgan State.

Bozeman's path to becoming the key-holder of the Bears' program was hardly traditional - and I'm not talking about the eight-year sentence he served in coaching purgatory, busted for cheating at the University of California, forced to spend a decade running camps, scouting for the pros, coaching kids and most recently, working for Pfizer as a sales rep.

No, I'm referring to the way Bozeman has interjected a little bit of truth into the college game, a sport so rife in dishonesty and distrust that I'm not sure I'd let most coaches housesit my plants.

As the 42-year-old Bozeman, best known by many as the guy who discovered Jason Kidd, prepares to make his return to the college game tomorrow - Morgan State opens its season at East Carolina - the coach's sordid past has been everywhere: Sports Illustrated, USA Today, ESPN. And each time reporters approached him, repeating the same questions and giving the same skeptical looks, Bozeman has come right at them. He didn't sidestep what happened, didn't try to draw attention away from it or tap-dance around it.

Bozeman cheated. The NCAA ruled that while at Cal, he gave $30,000 to a player's family. It slapped him with an eight-year "show-cause penalty," which meant that any school that wanted to hire Bozeman would have to go before an NCAA committee to justify the move.

Looking back now, the infraction isn't surprising. The severity of the penalty might give you pause, but what's remarkable is that Bozeman handled it the way he did - and a decade later he's back.

Think about it: How many college coaches do you think cheat? How many are accused of cheating? And then how many actually admit to cheating?

Do you know what happens to most coaches under fire? They graduate to a headset and become TV analysts. Either that or they take a long Caribbean cruise, return to the States and accept a new job at a new school.

The fact is, in college sports, you stand a better chance of a career rebound if you deny every accusation thrown your way than if you stand up and admit guilt.

"Everybody has to do what they feel comfortable with," says Bozeman, who was just 29 when he accepted the Cal job. "When I first said I was going to address it, some people tried talking me out of it. I said, `Look, where I am in my life, I have to do this.' For me, that was the best thing that I could have done.

"I feel so much better that I told the truth. If I didn't and then I came back, there'd still be that cloud there, still people saying, `Man, he did this and he's so bad,' and everything else. Now what are they going to say?"

He's not trying to hide from the past, the good or the bad. His office is filled with photos from his Cal days, and it's clear he's embracing the path that led him here. There's also a big picture of Malcolm X, with the words: "Of all our studies, history is the best qualified to record our research."

Everything happens for a reason, he says, which is why other coaches deny their wrongdoing and Bozeman keeps reminding people of his. When his children make a mistake, he lets them know that no error is too big to overcome. When his players slip up, he lets them know how important it is to take responsibility. He's not teaching this stuff out of a textbook.

Bozeman is starting nearly from scratch at Morgan State. The Bears lost their first 18 games last season and finished 4-26. They haven't had a winning season since 1988-89. Yet there's suddenly a buzz around campus for team with a new head coach and 10 new players.

Bozeman brought back just four lettermen from last season's team, including only one starter. When you look over this group, there's a running theme and a whole lot of second chances. Ronald Timus was dismissed from the team last year. But he stayed in school, paying his own way. Bozeman liked that and welcomed him back.

Boubacar Coly transferred from Xavier University, where he missed the past two seasons because of injuries. He's no guarantee, but Bozeman thought he deserved another shot, too.

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