Return to sender: The Mailman heads back to La Tech
When future NBA Hall of Famer Karl Malone agreed to return to Louisiana Tech, his alma mater, as a part-time strength coach and director of basketball promotion, there was a sigh of relief.
But it wasn't from the fans in Ruston, La., eager for their program's quick return to prominence.
It certainly didn't come from Tech's returning players, who should find new head coach Kerry Rupp's regime -- with Malone's assistance -- to be demanding in all aspects.
No, the most relieved party around might be the state's wildlife, because every day Malone spends with the Bulldogs is one fewer that he's out hunting. Malone is an avid sportsman, but these days he is a bit more interested in bagging some WAC pelts -- and teaching some life lessons along the way.
"We have a great staff here that's going to work our butts off, and we're going to demand a hell of a lot from our athletes," said Malone, just back in Ruston after -- yup -- an extending hunting trip. "We told them it's going to be one of the hardest things they've ever done, and we mean that. We're going to do it the right way, and we're going to do it in a way that people can be proud of what we're trying to do here."
It's not so long ago that people were proud of the Bulldogs. In 2005-06, led by three-time NCAA rebounding king Paul Millsap (coincidentally now with Malone's former team, the Utah Jazz), the Bulldogs went 20-13 and made the NIT. Alas, last season's 10-20 campaign led to the firing of coach Keith Richard and the hiring of Rupp, an assistant under Mike Davis at both Indiana and UAB who has had a friendship with Malone since Rupp's high school coaching days in Utah in the early to mid-1980s.
One of Rupp's first goals was to bring Malone, a generous benefactor of Bulldogs athletics after playing there for three seasons until 1985, more closely into the fold and allow him to use his stature and work ethic to help mold the program. Rupp has witnessed Malone's legendary personal workouts in the hills of Utah, and Rupp wants his players to understand why Malone worked that hard -- and why they need to.
"We want our team to be conditioned for success," Rupp said. "You may have great skills, be a great shooter, but if all you are worried about is your next breath, you can't showcase those abilities."
For now, Malone is not showcasing all of his abilities. He's not doing any on-court work, and he's very open about wanting to keep limits, for now, on his overall participation.
"I ain't made no bones about it," he said. "I told them I love to hunt; I love to fish. I've got a family I'm going to spend time with. I'm not, this year, saying I'm going to do [coaching] all the time. When I'm in town, [though], I'm going to give it all I've got."
Early indications are that his presence, as limited as it has been, is already having the desired effect.
"Everybody's eyes were on him. It was shock. It's an NBA Hall of Famer that just walked in," junior forward Adrian Rogers said of the team's initial meeting with Malone. "If you were in there, you could look at everyone's eyes. They were gleaming looking at him, listening to every word he says."
Here are some other former players who have made their way back to the college bench in recent years:
Doug Overton, Saint Joseph's
Miles Simon, Arizona
Doug West, Villanova
Corliss Williamson, Arkansas Baptist
Malone's buzz also has helped out in recruiting. His arrival, along with some nudging from Rogers, helped Tech land LSU transfer forward Magnum Rolle.
"That impacted [my decision to come to Louisiana Tech] a lot, because I had a chance to work out with an All-Star, better myself individually and help benefit the team," said Rolle, a childhood friend of Rogers.
Malone is quick to say this isn't about him, that he's just a very-part-time contributor to what Rupp and former Tech teammate Rennie Bailey are building. At the same time, though, you can hear the earnestness in his voice. Malone is used to success on the court, and he cares about his alma mater. Now, back at home in Louisiana, he's determined to help meld those things.
"I just look at it as something that I want to do," he said. "I spent a lot of time doing things other people wanted me to do, so I'm doing what I want to do now. This is a good thing for everybody, and more importantly, it's a good thing for our athletes."
It certainly should be in the weight room, and by extension, on the court. Will those athletes, though, also get to learn from Malone in his preferred office, the one with streams and woods?
"I probably want to go hunting with Karl. I do have a whole year to sit out. It would be my first big-game experience," Rolle said with a chuckle.
If Rupp and Malone have anything to say about it, that won't be the only kind of big-game experience the Bulldogs ultimately get.
Andy Glockner is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's college basketball coverage and is the host of the ESPNU College Basketball Insider podcast.