- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 2, 2005

Luke D’Alessio was livid.

His Bowie State Bulldogs just had been ranked No. 1 in the nation in Division II for the first time in school history, and here they were playing like one of the dreadful teams the school used to field season after season.

The Bulldogs were losing to a Columbia Union team they beat by 52 earlier in the season, and D’Alessio had had about all he could take.

“Halftime was Coach’s show,” Bulldogs swingman Isaiah Johnson said. “He basically went off on us for not having the effort, us not playing like a championship team. He was singling guys out, questioning our hearts, questioning our toughness.”

Message received.

The Bulldogs unleashed a second-half barrage of 3-pointers and used dominant play in the post to score an easy 17-point win.

The outburst was rare for D’Alessio, who in five seasons has taken a low-key approach in remaking Bowie from D-II bottom feeder into national force.

The Bulldogs are ranked No. 1 in Division II for the first time in their 33-year history. They bring a 24-3 record into the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association tournament, in which they will play tomorrow against the winner of today’s game between Fayetteville (N.C.) State and Elizabeth City (N.C.) State.

The game marks the Bulldogs’ first postseason step toward their second final four in three seasons.

D’Alessio has made his progress unconventionally, turning Bowie State into a Second-Chance U. located midway between the hubbub of Washington and Baltimore.

His team is a mishmash of Division I transfers and former junior college stars.

Letheal Cook, the CIAA player of the year and a 6-foot-10 NBA prospect, arrived from Division I Alcorn State in Mississippi.

Attila Cosby spent one season at George Washington — and 21/2 years in a District prison for assaulting a prostitute — before landing at Bowie.

Derick Payne is a former junior-college star and a one-time Georgetown recruit.

Johnson, a senior, had Division I stops at New Mexico and the College of Charleston.

“Luke D’Alessio gave me that chance,” said Johnson, who also had a stint at Palm Beach (Fla.) Community College. “He is real down to earth. He understands players. He knows how to bring the best out of you. He lets you be a grown man. He is not on you too much. But when he has to be on you, he is.”

D’Alessio told a player to “keep his mouth shut” before entering a game last week. The player simply responded, “Yeah, I know.” The coach ripped into Johnson for being late for warmups but let him play.

D’Alessio admits he has adjusted to a different kind of kid after starting his career as an assistant for six seasons at his alma mater, Catholic University. At Catholic, doing class work and showing up on time were a given.

“It can’t just be clear-cut, ‘If you don’t do this, you are off the team,’” D’Alessio said. “I wouldn’t have had a team. A lot of people like to work in black and white. A lot of times you have to work in the gray area. ‘Why wasn’t this kid at practice? Is something going on at home?’ You have to get more into the person.

“But if you give them some structure and pay attention and stay on top of them, it can work.”

Cosby occasionally misses practice to care for his 4-year old son, Malik, who suffers from spinal muscular atrophy and is wheelchair-bound. The coach only requires that Cosby call in and let him know what he is doing.

Two players were late for Friday’s game because their car broke down.

“As long as I know somebody is trying and wants to do the right thing, I will work with them,” D’Alessio said. “I have to be understanding, but I also have to decide when it’s hurting the team.”

D’Alessio occasionally suspends a player or benches a player as punishment, but he doesn’t do so often because his athletes are a little bit older than the typical college player. They also understand that this is their final stop in college basketball and that they are being closely monitored.

D’Alessio spent six seasons as an assistant to Jack Bruen and then Bob Valvano at Catholic. He applied for the coaching job after Valvano was fired. When Mike Lonergan, now an assistant coach at Maryland, got the Catholic job, D’Alessio’s career took an unlikely twist.

D’Alessio took a year off and concentrated on his full-time job as an accountant, then took the coaching position at Catonsville (Md.) Community College. The job was part time, and keeping his full-time job as an accountant was important because he had a wife and two (now three) kids.

“I would have been happy being a coach at Catholic,” he said. “At Catholic, kids had money, and you never had to worry about academics. That’s all I knew. I didn’t really know about the inner city, those players’ issues and things like that. It was a very important stage in my life.”

D’Alessio began recruiting in some of the roughest neighborhoods in Baltimore, where he looked for players with Division I talent who weren’t recruited because they didn’t have the grades to go to a four-year school or because they had other troubles.

That produced some unusual situations: Former high-school star Omarr Smith played with a bullet lodged in one leg — doctors felt it was too dangerous to remove it — at Catonsville, and the bullet was still there when he helped Bowie to the final four in 2003.

Smith’s father was in and out of prison, and Omarr would be on the streets at all hours. It is a familiar story for many of D’Alessio’s recruits.

“I had to do it for the talent,” D’Alessio said. “Our athletic director was a little leery of me recruiting in the inner city. In the past, those kids got in trouble or flunked out of school. The kids in Baltimore County weren’t good enough to make us a national power like I wanted. Baltimore was a tremendous talent pool.

“It was a learning process for me and made me understand something besides basketball, the tough life they had to go through. But the good ones who want to get out of there will do anything you want them to do.”

D’Alessio closely monitored his players, making sure they behaved and did their schoolwork. He made some recruits take summer school to prove they were serious about academics before giving them a tuition-only scholarship. The coach and his wife, Jacqui, gave players rides back home after night practices.

“To help that kid is more important than helping a kid at Catholic University,” he said. “Because that kid at Catholic doesn’t really need my help to succeed in life. The kid from inner-city Baltimore, that gives me great satisfaction. You want to help kids who want to do the right things.”

It paid off on the court: Catonsville won a Maryland junior college championship, advanced to the juco’s Division II final four and was ranked No.1 during his six-season span.

In 1999-2000, he moved to Bowie again as a part-time head coach for $20,000 with no benefits. D’Alessio remained a full-time accountant.

It was not until after his second season — a 19-9 effort, the first winning season in school history — that he was hired full time and could concentrate entirely on basketball.

He earned $60,000 that season and soon got a full-time assistant. He got a raise following the 2003 final four season to $82,000.

D’Alessio credits two early transfers, Tim Washington from American and Delonte Hill from Charlotte, for letting others know that Bowie State was a safe haven for talented transfers.

The coach patterned the program on that of CIAA power Virginia Union and coach Dave Robbins, who before D’Alessio was the only white coach in the conference of 12 historically black colleges. Robbins, in his 26th season at the Richmond school, has won two national titles and built a D-II titan.

Division II programs appeal to Division I players because they can transfer down without having to sit out a season, as is required of transfers within D-I.

“I always look at the top programs and see how are they winning,” D’Alessio said. “When I got this job they asked, ‘How would you compete against Virginia Union?’ They got like 15 guys in the pros: Ben Wallace, Charles Oakley, Terry Davis, A.J. English. I said, ‘I will get the same kind of players they get.’

“They all looked at me like I was crazy.”

Not anymore.

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