University of Portland players learn coach's `life lessons'

Updated: November 13, 2004, 2:21 PM ET
Associated Press

PORTLAND, Ore. -- The University of Portland men's basketball team listened intently. No, the latest episode of "Fear Factor" is not appropriate dinner conversation.

And, in case the players needed reminding: Keep those elbows off the table!

Wearing dress shirts and ties, the players visited a crowded suburban restaurant for much more than a fancy preseason meal. They were there for an etiquette class, a requirement imposed by a coach who is as concerned with developing fine young men as he is with winning.

In a city where the NBA team down the road has developed a reputation for misdeeds and even trouble with the law, Portland coach Michael Holton runs a disciplined program where players are held accountable for their actions on and off the court.

"He wants all of us to succeed in life, not just in basketball," guard Pooh Jeter said. "That's the great thing about it."

A former UCLA star who had a stint in the NBA (including two seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers), Holton says he is not just building a team, he is building a family.

Holton requires his players to sign a performance agreement that stipulates: "As a team, we will live together, eat together, study together, condition and play together, and weight train together. Teamwork requires sacrifice."

The agreement covers four areas of commitment, including class attendance and punctuality, required study hall time, adherence to the team's monthly calendar of events and a commitment to the game. Repeat offenses can lead to dismissal from the team.

Holton said the main goal is to help graduate his students. The basketball is a bonus.

"Any lack of academic effort is met with a lack of athletic participation," he said. "Most students only have to experience that once."

Holton's etiquette seminar, in its second year, is just one part of his overall team strategy. The idea formed after years in the NBA, where players basically lived their own lives off court.

"I missed the days we had at UCLA when we did everything together as a team," Holton said.

There were no boys-will-be-boys antics as the players filed quietly into the Hall St. Grill in Beaverton. After being seated in a back room, they were treated to manager Mike Rowan's lecture about appropriate behavior, which he prefaced by saying it was not nearly as intimidating as northwest rival Gonzaga could be.

"The biggest thing about etiquette is treating everyone like you'd like to be treated," Rowan said.

After explaining which fork or spoon to use -- "The rule is real easy, outside-in" -- he addressed proper conversation topics. No "Fear Factor." And politics should also be off-limits.

"Unless you're sure that everyone at the table is like-minded," he said.

"I don't think a lot of other schools do anything like this," sophomore guard Sean Smith said. "I didn't have a clue about some of these things, and now I think I can carry myself on a date or a special occasion. This is something that I'll be able to use for the rest of my life."

Holton was a starter under coach Larry Brown at UCLA in 1980, when the Bruins went to the NCAA championship game. He has kept in touch with his coach, whom he refers to as his mentor.

"He was very good about having orientations about life," Holton said. "We would meet in his office and we would talk about everything, dressing, dating. Not just basketball."

Later, when he was offered the head coaching job at Portland, Brown asked Holton: "What am I going to do to move the game of basketball forward?

"It was humbling, I thought, `How can I forward the game?' It wasn't until I went to his induction into the Hall of Fame that I realized the importance of the question and how he cares about the game itself," Holton said.

But he credits the idea for the performance agreement to Memphis coach John Calipari. Two years ago, Holton attended a coaching conference in Memphis with Brown, Jerry West, Jeff Van Gundy and others.

On the wall of Calipari's locker room was a similar contract with players.

The message was simple, Holton said: "It ensures students-athletes always stay committed to a degree."

But even Holton acknowledges that basketball, and not so much academics, is what got many of his players to this small Catholic school, with a student body of about 3,000.

The Pilots finished 11-17 overall and 5-9 in the West Coast Conference last season, the team's fourth under Holton. The team was picked to finish last this season in the West Coast Conference, which includes perennial favorite Gonzaga, ranked No. 25 in the nation.

Holton doesn't hold much stock in preseason predictions, insisting that Portland is on the right track.

"At the end of the day we're trying to create a team, a group of guys going in the same direction," Holton said.

According to Holton, that direction is elementary.

"Forward," he said.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press

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