Morgan State's basketball coach Todd Bozeman watches… (Baltimore Sun photo by Gene…)
Even after the severe NCAA sanctions, the cold shoulder from needy colleges and the long fall from grace to Morgan State, Todd Bozeman was in no mood to make concessions.
Especially not in the players he brought to the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.
If there was any doubt about his approach, it was dispelled in a phone conversation with a coaching rival shortly after Bozeman took over Morgan's struggling basketball program in the spring of 2006. The coaching rival had a friendly suggestion and the name of a marginal player Bozeman might want to check out. Bristling, Bozeman wanted no part of the suggestion or the player.
"He said, 'This is the kind of player you're going to be able to get in the MEAC,' " Bozeman remembered. "I said, 'I don't recruit like that. I'm going to recruit the players I want, [and] I want players who can play at a high level.' "
Four years, 82 wins and three regular-season titles later, Bozeman took the right track. When his top-seeded Bears (24-9) open defense of their MEAC championship in a quarterfinal at 7 tonight in Winston-Salem, N.C., the rest of the conference will be playing catch-up.
After a get-acquainted season in 2006-07, Bozeman's Bears have dominated the MEAC, going 42-6 in conference play over three years. They advanced to the NCAA Division I tournament in 2009 for the first time in school history and will play in a postseason tourney this year for the third straight season regardless of what unfolds in Winston-Salem.
It is the kind of run that normally springboards a coach to a new job, a distinct possibility for Bozeman.
True to his word, Bozeman's recruits at Morgan read like a Who's Who of MEAC basketball: Reggie Holmes (2010) and Jamar Smith (2008) are MEAC Players of the Year; Kevin Thompson (2010) and Boubacar Coly (2008) are Defensive Players of the Year; Dewayne Jackson is this year's MEAC Rookie of the Year.
And Bozeman, 82-50 at Morgan, is three-time MEAC Coach of the Year. Last season, he was recognized as the best mid-major coach in the country.
MEAC coaches have so much respect for Bozeman that before the 2008-09 season, Morgan was voted the preseason favorite in the conference despite losing Smith, Coly and point-guard Jerrell Green to graduation or the pros.
"Obviously, he raised the bar," Bethune-Cookman coach Cliff Reed said. "Now if you're going to beat him, you have to be at a different level."
Said South Carolina State coach Tim Carter, who inflicted Morgan's only MEAC loss this season: "The No. 1 thing is, he challenged every program to decide if they want to be better. I'm talking about making investments in the program. If you don't make a decision as an athletic department, they're going to keep winning championships."
Morgan's three-year run is the best in the MEAC since Coppin State's 1990s dynasty under Fang Mitchell. The Eagles won six straight regular-season titles from 1993 to 1998 and went to the NCAA tournament twice.
North Carolina A&T produced another dynastic team under Don Corbett, who won seven straight MEAC tournament titles from 1982 to 1988.
Just as Coppin's success in the '90s forced the MEAC to adjust, so has Morgan's. Coaches like Carter and UMES' Frankie Allen were brought in from outside the conference, bringing new ideas and methods.
"I've always had great respect for Todd," Mitchell said. "Before he got to Morgan, he was a great coach already. He had proven that. I look at when I've got to go up against him - maybe in the recruiting world as well as the basketball court - I'm always dealing with somebody that knows and understands what he has to get done."
Mitchell believes Bozeman's association with Washington Amateur Athletic Union programs during his eight-year show-cause ban from college coaching helped lay the foundation for the recruiting haul he has had at Morgan. The ability to recruit big men - such as the 6-foot-9 Coly from Senegal, the 6-8 Thompson from Walbrook, the 6-10 Rodney Stokes from Old Mill and the 6-8 Jackson from Bowie - also set Morgan apart.
Mitchell was one of the few coaches willing to offer a job during Bozeman's ban for paying money to a recruit's family at the University of California. Any NCAA member school that wanted to hire Bozeman needed NCAA permission. Mitchell and Bozeman talked but did not strike a deal.
"He took care of the punishment and still people wanted to crucify him," Mitchell said. "You have to allow a person to move on. ... The only thing that was lacking with Todd was the opportunity to coach. If you ask me, 'Did I expect this [success]?' the answer's 'Yes.' "
Bozeman never doubted he would win at Morgan. He used his own experience to educate his players. Before running afoul of the NCAA, he had taken Cal to the postseason three out of four years. Morgan was the equivalent of basketball purgatory.