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morgan state men

Bozeman, Bears finally return from basketball desert

March 19, 2009|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,ken.murray@baltsun.com

When Todd Bozeman turned water into proverbial wine and delivered Morgan State to the NCAA men's basketball tournament last week, it ended one of the longest, most withering droughts in history.

Not only had the Bears not reached the tournament since joining Division I in 1983, but they had also enjoyed just one winning season over the next 23 years before Bozeman arrived as coach in 2006.

On Sunday, an hour after Morgan received the 15th seed in the South Region - and a date tonight with No. 2 seed Oklahoma in Kansas City, Mo. - Bozeman paid homage to the school's long-suffering basketball fans.

"All around the country, Morgan alums were watching that selection show," he said. "And I think how, for years, they're looking at it and have no chance of being up there, knowing you didn't win the regular season, much less play in the finals. I know that had to be a great experience."

Once a Division II power, Morgan State lapsed into a basketball wasteland between the successful eras of Nat Frazier and Bozeman. Frazier produced a national championship (1974), two Final Four bids and 123 wins in Division II during a six-year run. He left Baltimore after the 1977 season to become a bench coach for the New York Knicks and Willis Reed. And he left enough talent behind that Morgan still won the next two years.

But the basketball program soon hit the rocks. From 1978 through the Butch Beard era that preceded Bozeman, the Bears went through 11 coaches, including a second stint by Frazier, and suffered 15 20-loss seasons.

Frazier, now 72 and living in Columbia, said yesterday that integration and recruiting played key roles in the demise of the program.

"In the '70s, you had more black players going to black schools because they didn't have the choices they have today," he said.

But it was more than that. In 1984, Morgan appointed Earl S. Richardson as president. His immediate priority was to address academic and financial deficiencies and point the historically black school in a new direction. Athletics were an afterthought.

"The university had to first focus on righting the academic side of the institution," Richardson said this week. "We have invested enormously in that. Now we are known for our production of scientists, teachers, engineers and architects."

In the process, the school became known as a last stop for basketball coaches. Aaron Johnson, Frazier's former assistant and his successor in 1978, lasted one year (Morgan went 15-12) because expectations were so high. Nathaniel Taylor in 1990 and Lynn Ramage in 1995 were removed after one season.

Tom Dean got only five games in 1984-85 after it was found he had used ineligible players. Richardson fired Dean as basketball coach but kept him as athletic director in a 3-25 season. (Nathaniel McMillian finished the year as interim coach.)

After Beard endured his third 20-plus loss season in 2005, he resigned and Morgan was looking again.

Desperate for change, Richardson hired a coach who had been out of the college game for 10 years after serving an eight-year ban by the NCAA for paying a player at California. No other school would touch Bozeman. But Richardson perceived in a long interview Bozeman's genuine wish to make amends.

"I was persuaded by the conversation," Richardson said. "Yes, he was a young man who wanted to get back into coaching. But more than that, he was someone who made a mistake and didn't want that mistake to define the rest of his life. I have not regretted" the decision.

Bozeman, a celebrated recruiter, worked his magic. After a 13-18 debut, he went 22-11 last year and just missed an NCAA berth. The Bears take a 23-11 record into tonight's game.

"He's built a solid foundation," said Joe McIver, who played on Morgan's national title team in 1974 and is assistant athletic director. "Todd Bozeman had something to prove, and he worked hard at it. His goal goes much further than Morgan State University. He wants to get back into major college basketball, and I think he can reach that."

The Bears hope it's later rather than sooner. Bozeman's contract ends after the season.

"I think I would not be president if I did not expect or want to keep him," said Richardson, who is retiring after 25 years at the school. "For anyone to have that much success in a short time, you would naturally want to keep him."

losing history

Since 1982, Morgan State has had 15 seasons with at least 20 losses. The five worst:

Season Record Circumstances

1982 4-23 Morgan's final season in Division II

1985 3-25 Tom Dean fired after five games for using ineligible players

2000 5-24 Came after a 14-14 season and got Chris Fuller fired

2001 3-25 Butch Beard lost his first 15 games

2005 4-26 Beard lost his first 18 games

MORGAN STATE (23-11) VS. OKLAHOMA (27-5)

Today, approximately 9:40 p.m.

Kansas City, Mo.

TV: Ch. 13

Radio: 88.9 FM

Line: Oklahoma by 16 1/2

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