Jeff Ruland is back in town - and he claims to have mellowed.
“I’m more of a lover than a fighter,” he said with a cheery smile.
But even with his deep summer tan, even at 50, Ruland still resembles the rough customer who bumped, banged and often flattened opponents as an All-Star center with the Washington Bullets, teaming with Rick Mahorn as the pair known around the NBA as McFilthy and McNasty. He once confessed after blocking an Isiah Thomas shot that he “tried to put Isiah in the children’s hospital.”
Ruland, who was McNasty, now has other obstacles to knock down. On Tuesday, he was introduced as the new men’s basketball coach at the University of the District of Columbia, an institution fighting a persistent image problem fostered in part by its athletic program enduring extreme penalties administered by itself and by the NCAA.
“I have a yeoman’s task in front of me,” said Ruland, an unmistakable presence at 6-foot-11 and 290 pounds, which is somewhat over his playing weight. “School starts in about a week, and I don’t have a team. Because of sanctions, I only have five scholarships. I’ve got to find a starting five in a week.”
Ruland said he was under the impression that only one or two players were returning. Informed of his comment, athletic director Patricia Thomas said she spoke with Ruland afterward and told him that was not the case. But she said she could not provide an accurate number of returning players.
Ruland was let go as an assistant by the Philadelphia 76ers after former Wizards coach Eddie Jordan took over in May. He has another year left on his contract, “but I kind of didn’t want to sit on the couch,” he said.
A friend, former Atlantic 10 commissioner Linda Bruno, put Ruland in touch with Patricia Thomas. Thomas was “absolutely inundated” with applications but was wowed by Ruland, who coached at Iona for eight years, because of his coaching expertise and his name, she said.
“I realize that folks in this town, in particular, would rally around Jeff,” Thomas said. “It’s a very positive statement for the university.”
Added UDC president Allen Sessoms: “There must have been 70 resumes Pat had to go through. I talked to a half-dozen finalists. Some of them were extraordinary. But Jeff Ruland, if you can get him, you get him.”
Eventually, UDC plans to move up from NCAA Division II to Division I, “but it’s not gonna happen overnight,” Thomas said. “My job is to come in and clean up the program and make sure we are not viewed in the NCAA’s eyes in terms of infractions, but to develop a program that any university would be proud to call its own.”
Since winning the Division II national championship in 1982, the program sank to the lowest depths imaginable in 2004 when UDC canceled men’s and women’s basketball after an internal investigation revealed widespread abuses in several sports in recruiting, financial aid and academic eligibility.
In 2006, the NCAA additionally put UDC on five years’ probation, banned postseason competition in all sports for a year and reduced recruiting and scholarships. The report called it “the single most egregious lack of institutional control ever seen by the [infractions] committee.”
Making it worse was that UDC had been penalized for similar infractions in 1991.
D.C. native Julius Smith, a former Archbishop Carroll High School classmate of Jordan’s, was hired as coach to oversee basketball’s return in 2005. After a 1-22 season, Smith seemed to turn things around. But in April, he mysteriously was no longer the coach. Thomas wouldn’t say whether he resigned or was fired, calling it “a personnel matter.” Other than ads posted for Smith’s replacement, few outside the university knew about it.
“That was [Smith’s] choice,” Thomas said.
Even at this late date, Ruland isn’t sure how many players he has.
“But I have to be careful because I don’t just want to take guys to fill out the roster, either,” he said. “I want to do this the right way and build something right. We might have to take a step back before we go forward.”
Ruland excelled with the Bullets from 1981 to 1986 before going to Philadelphia as part of a deal that brought Moses Malone and draft picks to Washington.
At Iona, he led the Gaels to three NCAA tournaments. But a messy incident involving the firing of his entire staff and a lawsuit filed by a former assistant coach charging racism paved the way for Ruland’s firing in 2006 after an injury-riddled 2-28 season.
He said he wouldn’t mind restoring his own reputation as well as that of UDC.
“This is the first step toward doing something special,” he said.