- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The snub, it turns out, was a good thing for Karl Hobbs. A very good thing.

Hobbs spent seven seasons next to Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun on the Connecticut bench, helping recruit and tutor the likes of future NBA stars Ray Allen and Richard Hamilton. He helped guide the Huskies to the 1999 national championship.

Hobbs had the experience, connections and limitless energy to be the leading man of a college basketball program. He also had a promising interview and the status of finalist for the coaching job at American.

Then the school told him it was no longer interested.

“That was disappointing,” Hobbs said. “It was such a good school, and I liked the athletic director [Lee McElroy] at the time. Then again, fate is a funny thing.”

Is it ever.

George Washington hired Hobbs a year later. And as he starts his fifth season at GW, Hobbs is running a Top 25 program coming off its first NCAA tournament berth in six seasons.

The 21st-ranked Colonials are expected to be even better this season, thanks to the return of four starters and a wealth of depth.

“We have all the pieces,” said Mike Hall, who, like teammate Pops Mensah-Bonsu, declared for the NBA Draft but later returned for his senior season. “There is no area on our team that is really lacking. We just have to put it all together.”

Hobbs transformed the scandal-ridden, losing program left him by Tom Penders into a mid-major power, complete with an Atlantic 10 championship and NCAA berth last season.

“Boy, life has changed from when I first got here,” said Hobbs, whose team had a 22-8 record last season. “When I got here it was almost like I walked into a battle, and there were shots being shot all over the place and I am ducking just trying to avoid bullets.”

The Colonials struggled on the court and were embarrassed under Penders. Star Attila Cosby was convicted and imprisoned for sexually assaulting a prostitute in a GW dorm room. Players illegally used the phone card of assistant coach Tom Penders Jr. to make long-distance calls.

“A few days after I was hired, the whole thing with Attila blows up,” Hobbs said. “I am just thinking, ‘Wow, welcome to being a head coach.’ It is late in the recruiting process. I am looking at the roster, and no one played more than six minutes. We are small. We have no size. There was a lot of talk about Val Brown putting his name in the draft.”

Brown left his name in the NBA Draft pool, but he was not chosen. Penders had been expelled from the downtown campus, but the trouble remained.

“You mention GW basketball, and it was kind of like, ‘Ewww,’ ” Hobbs said. “That was kind of the general feeling. It was different. There definitely were a lot of problems that had to be solved — and they weren’t just basketball. There were perception issues. There were discipline issues. There was attendance at games issues. There were a lot of things going on.”

There still are a lot of things going on — good things, this time — thanks to the 44-year-old coach.

Hobbs’ holding pattern

Hobbs had been denied a move to Washington even before he was passed over for the job at American.

Hobbs did not intend to be a coach. He spent three years working in real estate, determined to be the “Donald Trump of Boston.”

Then, coach Mike Jarvis put him on the bench as an assistant at Boston University in 1987. The relationship between the men was deep: Hobbs played point guard for Jarvis at Cambridge Rindge & Latin High School, where they teamed with eventual Georgetown and NBA star Patrick Ewing to win the Massachusetts state championship.

Jarvis moved to George Washington as coach in 1990, and it seemed natural Hobbs would come along.

“He didn’t bring me with him,” Hobbs said. “He felt he needed somebody from this area. We were coming off being in the NCAA tournament. It was obviously disappointing, but it ended up being a blessing in disguise.”

Bob Brown took over the Terriers, and Hobbs became Brown’s top student.

“I got my style from Bob Brown,” said Hobbs, who spent three seasons with the Terriers’ new coach. “I copied everything from him. That was the best thing that could have happened to me. He really taught me how to teach basketball.”

Building a winner

Hobbs began his first season with the Colonials with a simple goal: “not getting blown out.” He succeeded, at first: The Colonials started with a surprising 10-5 record. The lack of talent was exposed during a 10-game losing streak late in the season, however, and the team finished 12-16.

Hobbs and Co. planted the seeds for success on the road.

“I understood that this recruiting class was going to be critical,” Hobbs said. “It was going to determine our fate. We had to be careful because we had to make sure the guys we brought in were above reproach. Omar [Williams] was the most important recruit because we were so small and so weak that we needed to bring in all big guys.”

The 6-foot-9 Williams passed on scholarship offers from Villanova, Saint Joseph’s and La Salle in his hometown of Philadelphia. Hobbs and then-assistant Kevin Broadus, now at Georgetown, put on the fullcourt recruiting press.

“Every day that they were allowed to call, I heard from either him or Coach Broadus,” Williams said. “[Hobbs] is a very charismatic person. He really sells GW and what he is trying to do here. He does it very well. He said he would make us fast-paced, pressing the ball on defense and getting out on the break. It’s all come true so far.”

It was a sales pitch Hobbs perfected at Connecticut.

“He can charm people,” Huskies coach Jim Calhoun said. “And he can charm people really without a lot of [nonsense]. It is more just him being him. He has life. He has enthusiasm. He is funny even when he doesn’t mean to be funny. He has that electricity. He is kind of like lightning in a bottle.”

Williams was the perfect fit for Hobbs’ vision of the Colonials: a team stocked full of athletes who love to run and jump and play fullcourt basketball. The coach felt he could mold them into a fast-breaking, pressing group with largely interchangeable positions.

Mensah-Bonsu, a 6-9, 240-pound Londoner by way of a New Jersey prep school, joined Williams in Hobbs’ first class. Hall, a 6-8 Chicago native who wanted to study pre-med, chose GW over Princeton. Alex Kireev, a 6-foot-9 Ukrainian, and 6-9 Dokun Akingbade (Bladensburg High School) rounded out the class.

“There is a prototype to play in this system and the way that I like to play,” Hobbs said. “We have done such a good job of it that I like to say now we have been ‘branded.’ You can almost look at a guy and say, ‘No, he can’t play at GW. Oh, but the guy can.’ That is kind of what we have done. That’s a good thing.”

One final delay

It all started when Hobbs was hired May 7, 2001. Of course, that landing in Washington came with turbulence, as well.

George Washington administrators were uncertain who could best clean up the program. They seriously considered UNC Greensboro coach Fran McCaffrey, Hobbs and GW women’s coach Joe McKeown.

The process dragged on. It was two months after the season before a coach was announced — and that happened only after McCaffrey withdrew his name because GW was taking too long.

“I was thinking, ‘Can’t you all make a decision and put me out of my misery?’ ” Hobbs said. “It was long. And it was a very frustrating process for me. Because I kind of felt like this was the right fit, and it was going back and forth. It was a frustrating process.”

That frustration gave way to optimism.

The Colonials could threaten the program’s record of 24 wins this season, thanks to their talent, a weak nonconference schedule — Maryland and N.C. State are the only big-time opponents — and a league stocked with plenty of inferior foes like Duquesne, Saint Louis and St. Bonaventure.

If that happens, this might be Hobbs’ last season at Smith Center.

“I think eventually he will have his choice of jobs,” Calhoun said. “There are probably him and two other guys that I would say if I left could come here tomorrow and run the UConn program. And it would stay at least at the same level.”

Hobbs said he has not given his next job much thought.

“When it comes, I will deal with it,” Hobbs said.

For now, he is dealing with a season full of promise.

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