- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 14, 2000

Nearly 23 years after buying into and helping realize the Iona dream, Jeff Ruland has fashioned another one.
Ruland, the Gaels' most famous player and a former All-Star center for the Washington Bullets, has coached Iona's basketball team into the NCAA tournament in just his second season. The 14th-seeded Gaels (20-10) won the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference and play third-seeded Maryland (24-9) on Thursday night in a Midwest Region first-round game at the Metrodome in Minneapolis.
Ruland was one of the nation's most promising post players in 1977 when he committed to Iona, a 5,400-student private school in New Rochelle, N.Y. A Long Island native, Ruland had offers to attend national powerhouses like Kentucky, Maryland, Syracuse and North Carolina. But 30-year-old Iona coach Jim Valvano had passion.
In Ruland, Valvano found a dreamer to bring the Iona dream to life.
"Coach Valvano brought me in and told me, 'Come make this place a national power. Come dare to dream,' " Ruland said yesterday. "I've been doing it ever since."
Ruland began his Iona career by leading all Division I freshmen in scoring and rebounding, and he finished it by guiding the Gaels to a No. 6 national ranking (in Sports Illustrated) and a victory over No. 1 Louisville at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 21, 1980.
Ruland enjoyed his greatest NBA success with the Bullets, his first team and the one with which he spent the most time, five seasons. He was an All-Star in 1984 and '85 but suffered a knee injury in the latter season that limited his production and eventually forced his first retirement.
"[The D.C. area] has a special place in my heart," Ruland said. "I consider myself a Bullet and a Wizard."
Ruland shrugged off academics during his college career, leaving school as a junior, but returned to Iona during his five-year layoff. He was living in South Jersey at the time, just outside Philadelphia, where he had been traded from Washington. So he commuted 107 miles each way and earned his degree in 1991.
Ruland still makes that commute so his daughters can stay in the same school district. He keeps an apartment in New Rochelle, which lies 25 miles north of New York City. A Toyota Land Cruiser already is history after racking up 150,000 miles, and an 8-month-old Nissan Pathfinder presently has 47,000 miles.
"That's a lot of traffic, a lot of road rage," Ruland said about the drive up the Jersey Turnpike. "My oldest daughter is in high school, and it wouldn't be fair to her [to move]. So I make the sacrifice."
Ruland made a second stab at the NBA in 1991-92 and 1992-93, then joined the 76ers' staff as an assistant coach under Fred Carter. One season later he returned to his alma mater to be an assistant under Tim Welsh.
Welsh, in turn, left in 1998 following three 20-wins seasons. Upon being named Welsh's replacement, Ruland announced he had no desire ever to accept another college coaching job.
"I meant that," Ruland said. "No disrespect to anyone, but I don't need to go to the Atlantic 10 or Big East to validate myself. This is where I met my wife; this is hopefully where my children will go."
Ruland managed only a 15-13 record during his first season, when he learned his style on the job. Star player Tariq Kirksay now calls Ruland "more of a screamer and a yeller" than Welsh, but Ruland responded, "I yell and scream, but I also hug."
Kirksay told of a game in Hawaii last season, when Iona was beating Virginia Commonwealth at halftime. VCU was rallying, though, and Ruland came into the locker room determined to make a statement. He hauled off and punched a chalkboard.
"He didn't know it was like three or four layers thick," Kirksay recalled. "He broke his knuckle and tried to cover it up, but we could tell he was in pain. But we didn't do a thing. We knew the first person to smile was going down."
Ruland differs from other disciplinarian coaches in his stature. Whereas most coaches scream up at their players, the 6-foot-11, 290-pound Ruland "is bigger than you," Kirksay said with a laugh. "You're like, 'I better watch what I do.' "
But Kirksay, the MAAC player of the year, appreciates Ruland's style.
"It is a driving force for us," Kirksay said. "He's helping build us as people. We need the discipline to further our life."
And perhaps maximize the Iona dream. Valvano, a Queens native, is remembered fondly for his stunning 1983 national title at N.C. State and his fatal battle with bone cancer in 1992. His inspiration lives on in Ruland, who thinks the hype generated from this year's trip to the tournament just might help "put us over the top."
"Say I'm crazy like you want, but Jim Valvano believed we could win a national championship here," Ruland said. "Hopefully there's another crazy kid like Jeff Ruland who will dare to dream."

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