- The Washington Times - Friday, May 12, 2006

BALTIMORE — It was late on New Year’s Day, and Todd Bozeman was anxious. A nurse had yet to arrive to administer medication to his father, and Bozeman grew weary of the wait.

Surely, it could come faster, he thought. Surely, it should be here by now.

Finally, a frustrated Bozeman declared he planned to head out and return with the medicine himself.

“Be patient,” Ira Bozeman quietly counseled his son.

It would be the final words between the two men. Ira died later that night after a short battle with cancer. And Todd Bozeman, who already knew more than enough about waiting, received another reminder events don’t always unfold as quickly and efficiently as hoped for.

It has become easier for Bozeman to talk about the loss of his father, perhaps because of the ample opportunities to discuss his family and life in the last two weeks. Buried amid the high-profile coaches and hot young assistants in the annual coaching carousel was Morgan State’s decision late last month to hire Bozeman to turn around its moribund program.

Usually, a school coming off a 4-26 season playing in a conference ranked next to last in the ratings percentage index does not merit much attention for its coaching search. But Morgan athletic director Floyd Kerr has fielded calls from national as well as local media outlets, all curious about his decision to hire a man who was once one of the nation’s up-and-coming coaches.

That was more than a decade ago, when Bozeman was the coach at California and trotted out lineups that included the likes of Jason Kidd, Lamond Murray and Shareef Abdur-Rahim. But a show-cause penalty from the NCAA for recruiting violations chased him out of the college game and into a circuitous and rewarding journey to eventually get back in.

Act I

Bozeman’s rapid ascent in the coaching ranks would have been remarkable even without his eventual tumble.

A 1986 Rhode Island grad, the energetic Bozeman surged from an assistant at Potomac High School in Prince George’s County to a three-week stint as a George Mason assistant to a full-time gig under Perry Clark at Tulane to an assistant’s job at Cal in just five years.

The rise was completed when Cal fired Lou Campanelli on Feb. 8, 1993, and promoted Bozeman — a move that provoked suspicion toward Bozeman from some in the coaching fraternity that may still linger today. Nevertheless, he guided the Bears to their first regional semifinal appearance since 1960 a little more than a month later.

That would be the highlight of Bozeman’s four years in Berkeley, a tenure derailed when the parents of point guard Jelani Gardner accused Bozeman of paying them $30,000 over two years. The NCAA came down hard on Cal, stripping the school of its 1996 NCAA tournament appearance while handing it three years probation and a one-year postseason ban.

Bozeman’s punishment was harsher. He was ousted at Cal after the accusations were made public, and the NCAA slammed him a year later with an eight-year show-cause sanction. The ruling forced any school that was interested in hiring Bozeman to appear before an NCAA panel and explain how it would monitor him to ensure he would follow the rules.

In essence, it was the coaching equivalent of the death penalty, a strong enough deterrent to keep most schools away.

“If they said, ‘In order for you to hire this guy, you have to let us look at your taxes.’ ” said Bozeman, who went 63-35 at Cal. “If the IRS came to you and said that, you’d probably go, ‘Uh, no thanks, I don’t want that, just in case.’ …

‘Show-cause is something that always became a road block. Whenever I would talk to people I would say, ‘You have to talk to your president because you need to find out if this is going to be a stumbling block or an obstacle we can’t overcome. Once they did that, it was like clockwork. You didn’t hear from them anymore.”

Bozeman is thankful his former assistants were not scarred by the scandal. But while they all continued their basketball careers, Bozeman returned east to live near his parents’ Forestville home, eventually settling in Bowie to wait out his penalty.

Family first

Bozeman never strayed far from basketball. He started the Maryland Select basketball club, which eventually became part of the D.C. Assault club. He spent two years as an advance scout with the Toronto Raptors, worked out players during summers, and traveled to Argentina, Brazil, Nigeria and Europe conducting camps and clinics.

His day job — selling pharmaceuticals for Pfizer — also was rewarding. Bozeman, whose recruiting skills proved he was a natural salesman, was asked to sell a bottle of water on his job interview and flourished in an environment that required him to persuade doctors to prescribe a specific drug.

The part Bozeman cherished most, though, was the newfound time for his family. His son Blake, 14, and daughter Brianna, 12, have both grown up with their dad regularly fixing them breakfast and picking them up and dropping them off at school, something that most certainly would not have happened had Bozeman remained a college coach.

“You could say part of it’s been as a bus driver,” Bozeman said. “Watching them play sports, teaching my son how to ride a bike. I can’t tell you the joy I get out of that. Talking to other coaches, they haven’t the opportunity to teach their kids to ride a bike.”

He also spent more time with Ira, a former office manager at the National Gallery of Art who had long been Bozeman’s biggest supporter. Ira Bozeman was a fixture at Todd’s games growing up, including Todd’s prep career at Bishop McNamara High School.

So tight were the two that Bozeman had a ring made for his father to commemorate Cal’s Sweet 16 appearance in 1993. Ira proudly wore it, especially after Todd returned home.

“He would always wear it around,” Bozeman said. “He would hit people in the back and you would know that he had it on because it would sting your shoulder. He’d say, ‘Aw, I’m sorry, I had my ring on. My son gave it to me.’ You would have thought he played.”

Ira was uncharacteristically late for a morning golf outing just before Thanksgiving, prompting some good-natured ribbing from Todd. Ira talked of being tired and shrugged it off, but remained sluggish for another week.

Finally, family members convinced Ira to visit the hospital after he noticed two knots on his chest, figuring it would probably be routine. Instead, doctors found a mass on his chest on Dec. 1 and diagnosed stage four cancer.

The bleak news only made Bozeman further appreciate the man who always believed his son would receive a second chance. And it only made it more difficult to take when Ira died just more than a month later.

“All this stuff that I’ve been dealing with is nothing compared with that,” Bozeman said. “I’d do anything to see a smile on his face right now.”

Back in the game

Morgan State is no Cal-Berkeley. It is not ensconced in one of college basketball’s power conferences, and it is not assured of television exposure nearly every time it plays. On the surface, about the only thing the programs have in common is a nickname.

Both also have NCAA basketball titles, with Cal’s coming in 1959. Morgan State earned its championship in 1974 in the old College Division, and a banner still hangs in Hill Field House celebrating the accomplishment.

There is not much else to tout in the years since that tournament run. In the last 27 years, the Bears have posted one winning season, a 15-14 effort in 1988-89. The Bears have employed more coaches (10, plus Bozeman) in that span than they have 10-win seasons (six).

Last season was particularly dismal. Morgan State dropped its first 17 games, and academic ineligibility cut the team’s roster to six players in the middle of the season (“That wasn’t a happy part of the year,” Kerr said.) The Bears finished 329th of 334 Division I teams in the RPI.

Coach Butch Beard resigned in March, leaving Kerr to make his first major coaching hire since arriving at Morgan in July. Bozeman’s name came up early, and he discussed the show-cause situation with Kerr and how he matured in the years since.

Kerr eventually trimmed his list to three finalists: Bowie State coach Luke D’Alessio, Toledo assistant and former Southern coach Michael Grant and Bozeman. In the end, the man with more than three seasons of experience in a high-profile conference finally is a college coach again, less than 11 months after his penalty expired.

“We knew we wanted to get someone that had a good fit for Morgan and also for our strategic plan,” Kerr said. “Part of that fit was someone who had good local ties, good name recognition and, of course, could coach, and to re-establish Morgan in the local market. Going through the process, he rose to the occasion.”

He’ll need to do so for an extended period at Morgan, where winning will probably take time. But it would fit in perfectly at the East Baltimore school, where seemingly half the campus is under construction as part of a university-wide renaissance and a vibrant pool of high school basketball talent is within reach.

“People say, ‘Man, it’s going to be a tough job,’ ” Bozeman said. “I said, ‘I’m coaching. I don’t even care. I’m coaching.’ I’d have taken the job for two bags of M&Ms and a Twizzler. I’m just happy to be in the game.”

Second chance

Bozeman sat in his cramped office earlier this week, trying to sort through the mundane tasks any new coach faces. The walls are bare except for a generic photo of a packed Hill Field House that might have come from anytime in the last 20 years. Slapped on the side of a table is a 2000 calendar magnet.

But office decorating will have to wait. Bozeman’s notepad is scribbled with messages and phone numbers, and he allocates much of his day to trimming the list. He’s in the process of hiring a staff and expects to add a Morgan alum as a graduate assistant. Kerr notices players eagerly stopping by Bozeman’s office and a sense of excitement around the program.

His penance complete, Bozeman can easily relate personal stories to back up the mantra of perseverance and overcoming adversity. He also knows people will be watching him, even if he has no intention of repeating his past mistakes.

“Imagine a kid going and you’re saying, ‘Don’t touch that stove’ and then they go and touch it and it’s hot and burns their hand,” Bozeman said. “You can almost be rest assured they’re not going to touch it again. It’s a situation where I didn’t have to do it when I did it. I feel very comfortable with having success without doing it.”

Some of that outlook stems from maturity, the difference between a man who was 29 when he became a Division I head coach and is now 42. But there’s still plenty of coaching left in Bozeman, and he points out former Temple coach John Chaney was 50 when he received his first Division I job.

Still, Bozeman’s not in a hurry, especially since his father’s final words assumed greater value in the last two weeks.

‘Those two words mean a lot,” Bozeman said. “I’m going to be patient. As bad as I want to be successful, I’m going to be patient because it will all work out.”

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