Commentary

Tim Floyd gets another chance at UTEP

Originally Published: September 10, 2010
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

Fittingly, Tim Floyd's favorite Mexican restaurant in El Paso, Texas, is called Casa Jurado, which roughly translated means Jury House.

Floyd knows well of juries.

He spent some time before a sort of de facto jury, the NCAA's Committee on Infractions, and even more time being judged by just about everyone else in college basketball.

There is little gray area where the new UTEP coach is concerned. In one corner are those convinced he not only knew exactly what O.J. Mayo, Floyd's marquee player at USC, was up to, but also was complicit in the cheating that led to the sanctions against his former team.

In the other are those who insist Floyd was as much a victim as the Trojans, done in by the unscrupulous agents and runners who have taken over college sports.

[+] EnlargeTim Floyd
AP Photo/El Paso Times/Victor CalzadaThe widow of Floyd's mentor, Don Haskins, showed her support the day Floyd was hired.

Amid such turmoil, it is little wonder that Floyd has taken refuge on America's edge of the Rio Grande.

Floyd got his first coaching job there. He spent 10 years working alongside the legendary Don Haskins before jetting out on his own.

Floyd's father played basketball at what is now UTEP and his grandparents were raised there. Their friends and his parents' friends are still in town, as is Haskins' widow, Mary. And Casa Jurado, with its enchiladas nortenas, is still open.

"It's just comfortable,'' Floyd said. "Everything about it is comfortable. All of the things that I've always loved about this place are still intact. It's not just about me and what I went through, it's about working at a place that has always been special to me. It's about Don Haskins' memory and how he wanted the place represented. I feel a very big responsibility to hold that up.''

The naysayers, of course, will snicker at that last remark, at the notion of Floyd holding up any sort of moral responsibility.

Quite frankly, Floyd couldn't give a damn about those naysayers. This past year has worn him out, but it has not changed him. Floyd has never been one to worry about currying favor, even in a profession in which image can be everything.

He is a straight shooter, a man who insists he left USC not because he was guilty, but because he wouldn't work where he wasn't wanted.

He is not at UTEP because he is in search of or in need of vindication. He's there because he wants to be there, and more, they wanted him to be there.

Athletic director Bob Stull and Floyd go back more than 20 years, back to Floyd's first go-round at UTEP when Stull was the football coach. Theirs is a longstanding relationship built on trust and friendship -- a departure, Floyd says, from what he had under Mike Garrett at USC.

"That was a big part of the equation for me -- who I was working for,'' Floyd said. "Bob is a guy I've known for 25 years and that was a big, big, big part of this.''

It cut both ways.

Everything about it is comfortable. All of the things that I've always loved about this place are still intact.

-- UTEP coach Tim Floyd

Despite the stain of scandal, Floyd's name surfaced on more than a few short lists in this past coaching cycle. Houston athletic director Mack Rhoades said he considered hiring Floyd, who reportedly was also on Central Florida's short list.

That's not surprising considering the history of Conference USA.

The league is nothing if not a destination for coaches looking to start over. Larry Eustachy came to Southern Miss after his downfall at Iowa State and Matt Doherty resurfaced at SMU after he was fired from North Carolina. Ben Braun (Rice), Mike Davis (UAB) and Jeff Lebo (East Carolina) are following similar paths.

Even John Calipari originally came to Memphis to regroup after things fell apart in the NBA.

But none of those hires required the leap of faith that Stull had to take.

Floyd was hired on March 30, nearly three months before the NCAA's infractions committee revealed its findings on USC (and amid more than a little public flogging).

Had the committee hit Floyd with a show-cause penalty, he would have been little more than a well-paid administrative assistant. Under NCAA rules, coaches with show-cause bans are not allowed to participate in any basketball-related duties unless the university can win an appeal.

Stull said he did his due diligence -- he spoke with Floyd's lawyers about the case -- but really there was no way of knowing what the NCAA would do.

"Until the thing is final, nothing is final,'' said C-USA commissioner Britton Banowsky, who serves on the infractions committee. "It's impossible for even me to know for sure how people are leaning. I'm just one of many people who serve on the committee, with one of many opinions.''

Banowsky said because the committee's hearings and deliberations are private, he wasn't able to offer any real insight to Stull other than to do his homework.

[+] EnlargeTom Floyd
AP Photo/El Paso Times, Victor CalzadaHaskins' memory still resonates with Floyd and the UTEP program.

Which Stull did, to the extent that he could, but ultimately he made the hire -- a critical hire for a Miners team coming off its first NCAA Tournament bid since 2005 -- by trusting his gut.

"This was not an out-of-the-blue hire for us,'' Stull said. "We've known each other a long time and we've kept up with each other the whole time. We knew it was somewhat of a risk, but with his history -- he's never had an NCAA violation -- and us knowing him as well as we did, we felt like it was a risk we could take.''

Now the question: Will there be a reward?

Whatever questions people may have about Floyd's scruples, no one questioned his coaching acumen. From his first job at Idaho through his final year at USC, Floyd has had exactly one sub-.500 season as a college coach: in 1997-98 at Iowa State, right after leading the Cyclones to the Sweet 16.

(Granted, his NBA run wasn't quite so stellar; he was 90-231, but that only puts him in the heap of college coaches who failed miserably in the NBA.)

He has never been one for the easy road -- Moscow to New Orleans to Ames is not exactly the gilded path of college basketball -- and he will find no waltz in El Paso.

The Miners, like everyone else in C-USA, are fighting for an identity. For years the conference was Memphis & The Pips, labeled a de facto one-bid league because of the Tigers' dominance. Once John Calipari left for Kentucky, the Pips started jockeying for position. UTEP jumped right to the front of the line, finishing 15-1 in the conference last season and earning its first NCAA bid in five years.

"Memphis has been so good, it's really overshadowed the quality of our league,'' Banowsky said. "But I get the sense that most of our programs are making the investments in facilities and coaches to catch up with where Memphis has set the bar.''

One year does not a foundation make and with Josh Pastner reloading with a top-five recruiting class, UTEP can't afford a slide back to mediocrity. This year shouldn't be a problem -- the Miners return three of their top six players, including C-USA Player of the Year Randy Culpepper.

Not that the year has gone entirely smoothly. Floyd already has had his share of tumult.

Rashanti Harris, a former top-50 recruit, did not meet his academic requirements and won't play for the Miners.

Big man Arnett Moultrie, who averaged 9.3 points, transferred to Mississippi State and guard Myron Strong was booted from the team for violation of team rules. On his way out, Strong took shots at Floyd, hurling unsubstantiated accusations about his ex-coach on his Facebook page.

Floyd brushed off Strong's accusation, saying simply, "It's never frustrating when you do the right thing for your program.''

In other words, he's not ruffled.

Not by Strong and not by his critics.

"It's already behind me,'' he said. "The NCAA cleared me. This is a new job and a new team.''

In an old and familiar place.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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