C-USA: Land of second chances
Eustachy and Doherty are among several who have found peace in Conference USA
HATTIESBURG, Miss. -- Your first thought as you approach Southern Mississippi's Reed Green Coliseum: The Golden Eagles play in a yurt.
Your second thought, as you enter the gym: The environmentally conscious, amenity-eschewing people who live in actual yurts would be aesthetically offended. The walls, presumably, were once yellow but now sit on the color spectrum somewhere between dirty mustard and old oatmeal. Three-quarters of the seats are old wooden bleachers that have seen a few decades worth of derriere wear and tear.
The lighting would be welcome in prison.
Thirty minutes before tipoff, 19 people are in the stands -- a pack of kids behind the basket, a collection of older folks toting their own chair backs opposite the benches, and a handful of locals spread across the rest of the building.
Student section? Haven't found it.
Pep band? No sign.
Cheerleaders? Not yet.
By tip, the place fills out a little, and when the players take the court -- with a recording of their fight song piped over the loudspeaker (which, more accurately, is a kind of a quiet speaker) and dry ice foaming at their feet -- there is a smattering of distracted applause.
Here in this dim yurt in a town now known for a pair of major sports stories -- the collegiate career of Brett Favre and the reported sex rehab of Tiger Woods -- two former national coaches of the year come to work.
On this side, visiting from Dallas, is Matt Doherty, who nine years ago led North Carolina to a No. 1 ranking and the ACC title in his very first season. On the home bench sits Larry Eustachy, the former rising star who around the same time was leading Iowa State to back-to-back Big 12 titles and an Elite Eight appearance.
Their meteoric rises up the collegiate coaching ranks were outdone only by their dizzying collapses. Doherty crashed and burned at his alma mater after three seasons amid rumors of player revolt. Eustachy, caught drinking and partying with students, was suspended (and later resigned) three seasons after that 32-win team fell just short of the Final Four.
Yet the two have landed in perhaps the best league to rejuvenate a sullied career.
If Conference USA is in need of a motto, might we suggest: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me."
If the league isn't the Ellis Island for wayward coaches, it is at the very least the Island of Misfit Toys.
Eustachy and Doherty are joined by Houston's Tom Penders, who was dogged by player scandals in his previous stops at Texas and George Washington; UAB's Mike Davis, who stepped down from pressure-packed Indiana only four years after taking the Hoosiers to the national title game; and Rice's Ben Braun, who went from Pac-10 Coach of the Year at Cal to one league win with the Owls last season.
If you mix in the football side of things, there's Mike Price, who was fired at Alabama after allegedly partying at a strip club and is now at UTEP, and George O'Leary, whose résumé-fudging knocked him from Notre Dame to Central Florida.
Even the conference's most successful coaching alum, John Calipari, came to Memphis only after crashing and burning in the NBA.
"I've sat in conference meetings and thought, 'This is some frigging broken-down, dead refugee camp,'" Eustachy said. "It's kind of like Afghanistan."
That's probably not the marketing campaign that conference commissioner Britton Banowsky is looking for, but there is no denying C-USA has become the perfect spot to launch a career (Tony Barbee at UTEP, Josh Pastner at Memphis) or relaunch one.
It is close enough to the big time to attract name coaches, but far enough from the spotlight to keep endless media scrutiny away. A good coach can win in Conference USA, but a tarnished coach can also find a sufficiently remote outpost to lick his wounds.
The budgets aren't lush with football money, but they aren't quite bake-sale-based either.
All of which makes the league an ideal hoops purgatory.
"We're not a BCS league, but we're not a mid-major," Doherty said. "We're the next best thing."
The next best thing, though, takes some getting used to. The word that Doherty and Eustachy use to describe their spiral back to reality: humbling.
At Iowa State, Eustachy was literally run off the road by pursuers eager for an autograph. In Hattiesburg, he walks undetected.
Doherty went from one of the five best jobs in his profession to a state where football is king and a school where basketball success is fleeting. There was also that one-year pit stop at Florida Atlantic.
"My first day on the job at Florida Atlantic, I opened the desk drawer and it fell on my lap," he said. "I was coming from a place where I flew on private planes and stayed at the Ritz."
The truth is, each man needed the schools more than the schools needed the man. By the time they were hired -- Eustachy one year removed from his nadir at Iowa State and Doherty three seasons from his resignation at Carolina -- their names were less radioactive but nonetheless eyebrow-raising.
They needed universities willing to take a risk, campuses where there was a desire to win but that were far enough off the hoops highway that the announcements wouldn't make a national ruckus.
And when they signed on the dotted line, they were more contrite and appreciative than galled by their change in scenery.
"I miss the money," Eustachy said with a smile. "But I'm grateful to be here. I'm sure Matt is, too. I look at other people -- my good friend Kelvin Sampson, for instance -- who I know would be thrilled to be where I am."
Seven years sober after facing an alcohol addiction he had run from most of his life, Eustachy might just be the last honest man in college basketball.
He also might be the most content.
He doesn't filter his comments or edit his thoughts. Instead, he speaks from a gut exposed by a public flogging at Iowa State.
"You know, I can speak to the Tiger Woods stuff to some extent, I think," he said. "The world you're in seems surreal. People think you're a rock star. You go out, you drink, and you do that every night. People buy you drinks. It's a crazy world, but you don't realize it's crazy because it's what you do. You're in this little bubble, and all of a sudden you realize this bubble is absolutely not normal."
In Hattiesburg, Eustachy found peace. He gets the joke. Here he is, a national coach of the year prowling inside a building whose renovation started with a new heating and cooling system five years ago -- but upgrades to the coaches' offices, the players' locker room and the training facilities are still pending.
He's leading a program with two NCAA tournament appearances in its history and one shining moment -- the 1987 NIT title.
But Eustachy also looks around at some of his colleagues in the business, the ones constantly on television, and realizes he doesn't really miss it.
"I've been on TV enough -- sometimes for good, sometimes for bad," he said. "That part of might just be over for me, and I'm OK with that. It's about acceptance -- accept who you are, accept what you're doing and enjoy it. I know a lot of people in this business who are making more money than me and doing bigger jobs, and they're miserable as hell."
It took Doherty a lot longer to accept his fate.
He left North Carolina angry and bitter, having been administered the double-dose shot of being fired as a coach and being canned by his alma mater.
Doherty likens the split to a "nasty divorce," and he purposefully stayed away from the program for years.
"I was dealing with the funk of not just losing my job but then watching those guys, my guys, go on and win a national championship," he said. "Plus, there were people there that knew me intimately, and I knew them. It was really bad for a while."
Doherty arrived at SMU in 2006 after his one-season swing through FAU, signing on to a program that had endured three straight losing seasons and hadn't sniffed the NCAA tournament since 1993.
It was a step up and step down all at once.
"What I've learned is I like to coach basketball," he said. "That's what this is about. It doesn't matter what hotel you stay in. The quality of life I have now -- I have a job I love, we live in a great city, my kids are in good schools -- what's missing? Nothing."
Nothing now that he has finally come to peace with the missing piece.
In September, Doherty went back to Carolina for a sit-down with Roy Williams.
"I talked about my disappointments in what happened and with some of the people involved," he said. "I told him everything. It was like a big weight was lifted off my shoulders."
Neither coach kids himself.
These aren't easy jobs.
There is less eye candy in the buildings to attract recruits and less money to build the eye candy.
Calipari used to argue that it took a village to raise his "mid-major" Memphis program, but in all honesty, if the Tigers didn't win the league going away every year, it would have merited investigation.
According to the equity in athletics statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Education, Memphis' 2008 men's basketball revenues of $6.54 million nearly doubled those of its closest competitor -- UTEP's $3.6&nsbp;million.
Most schools in the C-USA landscape spend little and make less. Only five of the member schools have operating expenses topping the $1&nsbp;million mark, and three don't even approach seven figures in revenues.
Equally difficult, there are fewer chances. Memphis' dominance of the league gave C-USA a flagship program, but the Tigers also ran roughshod over the competition. Conference USA hasn't merited an at-large bid since 2006, a year after Louisville, Marquette, Cincinnati and South Florida bolted for the Big East. Even this season, without a dominant Memphis, prognosticators are arguing just how many bids the league could score.
In his latest Bracketology, Joe Lunardi has UAB and UTEP in but also lists the Blazers as one of his last four teams in the field.
Along the way, the coaches learned that being off-Broadway has its benefits.
"If you're in it for the right reason -- and that's to help the kids -- then this is the kind of place you want to be," Eustachy said. "Here you can make a difference. Look at a kid like John Wall -- and I'm not picking on John Wall, because he's a great player. It's not his fault, but kids like him, everyone is telling them they're a top pick. He's got agents pulling at him and John [Calipari] is trying to help him. How much can you do for him?"
And most of all, whatever drama, strife, losing streaks or challenges a coach may go through, most aren't played out on a constant television loop.
Fan bases are no less itchy for success and coaches no less overwrought with losing, but there is at least lip service to patience. Eustachy is in his sixth year at Southern Miss. At 16-10, the Golden Eagles are dreaming of the postseason. And while that might mean CBI, no one there is complaining.
Doherty, in his fourth season at SMU, finds his seat slightly warmer.
After capturing what Doherty termed a "signature win" against Memphis on Jan. 30, the Mustangs have dropped four of their last six, including a payback loss to the Tigers during which Doherty lost his composure and exchanged verbal barbs with Memphis fans sitting near courtside.
But there is no public flailing or fans' frothing at the mouth. The domain name firemattdoherty.com, in commission while he was at UNC, is currently for sale.
As Doherty goes through his own challenges and watches from afar as the Tar Heels sink toward their lowest spot since 2002 and flirt with only their seventh losing season in 90 years, he wonders who is worse off.
Asked whether he felt badly for Williams, Doherty nodded his head.
"Sometimes," he said.
And then he added with a slight grin, "Careful what you wish for."
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.