Back in the game

Banned from college coaching for nearly a decade, Todd Bozeman is rebuilding his reputation at Morgan

March 07, 2007|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,Sun reporter

Do you care?

On a Thursday afternoon in mid-January, Todd Bozeman halted practice at Morgan State, tossed the basketballs aside, echoed a recurring theme about commitment and posed that question to his players.

Do you care?

The Bears, bad news for nearly three decades, had posted a few nice wins, but their first-year coach wanted to know if they yearned with their every fiber to do what he expected of a team.

That half-hour skull session led to a five-game winning streak in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and dreams of Morgan State's first berth in the NCAA Division I tournament.

It culminated in Delaware State's only home loss, a rally-'round-the-coach effort that came two days after an incident in rural Virginia that showed Bozeman cared plenty - enough to take a misunderstanding over a sandwich order for the two dozen men in the Bears' traveling party into his own hands.

That disagreement led to two misdemeanor charges against Bozeman and an April 24 court date - and diverted attention from the work he has done to restore Morgan State basketball and his own reputation.

If any coach in America needed to avoid controversy this winter, it was Bozeman, who was out of the game for a decade with a self-inflicted wound.

Bozeman, 43, made like Icarus at the University of California, where he ascended quickly and fell just as fast. In March 1993, in his second month as the head coach, the Bears beat two-time NCAA champion Duke to reach the Sweet 16.

Three years later, Bozeman was a pariah. He had paid $30,000 to the family of a recruit, and the NCAA essentially banned him from college coaching until 2005. The recruit's name was Jelani Gardner. Where did Gardner's father attend college?

Morgan State.

Lean years at Morgan

The Bears have been down and out much longer than Bozeman, who spent the past decade working as a salesman, NBA scout and Amateur Athletic Union coach. Morgan State and Marvin Webster won an NCAA Division II title in 1974, but the Bears have had one winning season since 1979.

They were the MEAC's worst program last year. The most talented player on campus was booted off the team by coach Butch Beard. You think Chris McCray's academic ineligibility hurt Maryland in 2006? Six Morgan State players flunked off last season's team.

"We lost three starters: the point guard, power forward and small forward," guard Joe McLean said of a group that started 0-18. "When we finally won a game, people reacted as if we had won the NCAA tournament."

Beard left, and athletic director Floyd Kerr, who has served on the NCAA men's basketball committee, hired Bozeman. Morgan State had nothing to lose, other than the nagging questions about why it couldn't win.

Bozeman was in his 20s when he recruited Jason Kidd and other NBA-bound talent to Cal. His powers of persuasion have not diminished.

Building a roster

The Bears' leading scorer is senior forward Ron Timus, the player Beard banished last season. Their leading rebounder is 6-foot-9 junior Boubacar Coly, who a year ago was getting a Xavier degree but riding the Musketeers' bench after a series of knee injuries.

Jamar Smith, an explosive wing, and point guard Jerrell Green (Southern) were junior college sophomores last season, giving Morgan State no thought until Bozeman was hired. He snatched three-point specialist Reggie Holmes (St. Frances) out of the Baltimore Catholic League.

Those five became part of a core that relies on three holdovers. McLean, who's listed at 6-2 but is closer to 5-11, was the leading scorer last season. Tim Berkley was the top returning big man. Rogers Barnes (River Hill), a junior guard from Columbia, first joined the program as a walk-on.

They opened in November with a 19-point loss at East Carolina. In December, the Bears, then 0-6, beat rival Coppin State and then that same East Carolina team. A group predicted to finish 10th in the 11-team MEAC finished in a five-way tie for third with a 10-8 conference record (12-17 overall).

"Todd has done a great selling job," Kerr said. "He's taken the old kids and merged them with the new. That jealousy, animosity between the old and the new is not there. The older kids are celebrating and cheering the new kids, and vice versa."

Bozeman's reference point was the Pacific-10. Did he experience culture shock in the MEAC?

"We have one secretary in this department," Kerr said. "There are a million administrative things for our head coaches to do so the team can get where it needs to be, to be fed, boarded. That falls on the coaches. That's something he's struggling with a little bit."

Bozeman balked at that observation.

"At Cal, I had two VCRs," Bozeman said. "I'm not a woe-is-me type. People tend to forget that I'm a roll-up-the-sleeves guy."

Shane Singh, a Bay Area attorney, spent four seasons as one of Bozeman's team managers at Cal, which was not your standard-issue, major-college jock factory.

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