Here's How the Mighty Have Fallen

Times Staff Writer

Reversing years of prosperity, a high-profile college basketball program sinks to historic lows, triggering disbelief among agitated fans and alumni. Many begin calling for the coach's head.

Sound familiar? It should to anyone who follows North Carolina, which endured an uncharacteristic collapse last season, much like UCLA's under embattled Coach Steve Lavin.

UCLA -- and North Carolina, which didn't make the tournament field this season either, even though it appears the Tar Heels are on the road to recovery -- are only the latest in a long line of top-shelf programs that have suffered through barrel-scraping seasons. Duke, Maryland, Kentucky, Arkansas and Michigan are among the basketball bluebloods that, for a variety of reasons, fell on hard times.

Some recover after making coaching changes. Rick Pitino probably could be elected governor after returning Kentucky and Louisville to prominence.

Arkansas is hoping that Stan Heath, who coached Kent State to a 30-6 record and Elite Eight appearance last season, eventually can steady the Razorbacks after they tumbled to 14-15 in Nolan Richardson's final, fateful season.

But changing coaches doesn't guarantee success. Brian Ellerbe proved he wasn't the answer to Michigan's problems, and Craig Esherick of Georgetown and Paul Hewitt of Georgia Tech are struggling to return their teams to former glories several years into their tenures.

Some schools just weather the storm. Purdue Coach Gene Keady considered quitting after his program went into a free fall last season, finishing 13-18 and in eighth place in the Big Ten. But he stuck it out and this year has the Boilermakers back in the NCAA tournament.

Likewise, there was no need for Duke to make a coaching change after it slipped to 13-18 in the 1994-95 season. That's because it already had a proven winner, Mike Krzyzewski, who quickly restored the Blue Devils' winning ways.

A few miles down Tobacco Road, another coach remains on the hot seat.

When Matt Doherty became North Carolina's coach in 2000, it was a dream job for the former Tar Heel player. North Carolina was 26-7 and co-champion of the Atlantic Coast Conference in his first season.

Last season, though, Doherty was close to being run out of Chapel Hill after his team finished 8-20. The unraveling included losses to Hampton and Davidson and a last-place mark of 4-12 in the ACC.

What happened to North Carolina was unfathomable to fans weaned on success. It marked the end of an era -- and the end to some of the nation's most revered streaks: 27 consecutive NCAA tournaments; 31 consecutive 20-win seasons; 91 consecutive seasons with fewer than 20 losses.

Perhaps the change in coaches -- from the legendary Dean Smith to Bill Guthridge to Doherty in four years -- exacted more of a toll than expected.

"We can't lose sight of the fact that we've had a major transition in one of the biggest programs in the country," Doherty said after last season.

The fallout was immediate. Three North Carolina players transferred and several others talked about doing the same. Doherty listened to the complaints and acknowledged that he needed to do a better job of communicating.

With a team featuring several touted freshmen, Doherty preached patience before the start of this season. Things appeared back to normal after North Carolina equaled its eight wins of last season by Dec. 28, including a victory over Kansas.

But a nine-point loss to Iona was an early sign that the Tar Heels still weren't ready for prime time. North Carolina, 17-15 overall, struggled in the rugged ACC, finishing tied for sixth with a 6-10 mark that included an embarrassing 96-56 loss to Maryland on Feb. 22. The Tar Heels gained a measure of revenge by upsetting Maryland in the first round of the ACC tournament before losing to Duke in a semifinal.

Doherty deals with the criticism and pressures by adhering to his belief that he's doing his best to turn around the program.

"There are so many other people who will judge you, but you just have to be true to yourself, work as hard as you can and keep chipping away," he said.

Doherty said he empathizes with what Lavin has gone through at UCLA, though he sees his situation as different.

"This is my third year here, as opposed to Steve, who's in his seventh year," he said. "My second year was an obvious rebuilding stage. As a result, I think our fans have been a little more understanding, a little more patient."

Maryland fans needed patience after their team slid into an abyss following the cocaine-related death of Len Bias in 1986, shortly after the Boston Celtics had made the Terrapin star the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft. The tragedy exposed problems in the basketball program and led to Lefty Driesell's being forced to resign as coach.

Driesell's replacement, Bob Wade, came from Baltimore Dunbar High and was overmatched from the start. After eight consecutive postseason appearances, the Terrapins fell to 9-17 in the 1986-87 season, losing all 14 of their ACC games.

Wade was fired after three seasons and left Maryland on NCAA probation for two years because of recruiting violations.

Enter Gary Williams, who left Ohio State to return to his alma mater as coach in 1989. His impact was felt immediately and Maryland continued to progress until peaking last season with a 32-4 record and the school's first national championship.

As Williams showed, getting the right coach can make all the difference. Just ask Louisville, which is enjoying a revival in Pitino's second season in charge.

Likewise, Tommy Amaker is doing a commendable job in his second season at Michigan. The former Duke player appeared to be at the helm of a sinking ship after the Wolverines started 0-6 for the first time in their history.

But Amaker remained optimistic.

"I really felt at that point that we were going to be better," he said. "I didn't think we were as bad as everyone made us out to be."

Amaker was right. Michigan won its next 13 games and finished 17-13 overall and tied for third in the Big Ten at 10-6.

The turnaround is all the more impressive when you consider the challenges that Amaker faced before the season.

By then, Michigan's once-proud legacy was already badly damaged. A recruiting scandal dating to the Fab Five's high-flying era, when the Wolverines played in NCAA finals in 1992 and '93, cast a shadow over the program and resulted in the school's forfeiting all the victories and taking down the banners from those seasons. It also imposed a ban from the NCAA tournament.

Michigan also stumbled on the court. Although the Wolverines won the Big Ten title in 1997-98, Ellerbe's first season as coach, they were stunned in the second round of the NCAA tournament by Lavin's under-siege UCLA team. Michigan opened the next season with a loss to Florida International and wallowed in mediocrity for four seasons -- posting a combined record of 48-69.

A loss to UCLA had knocked the Wolverines off course, so it's perhaps fitting that a victory this season over the Bruins would get them back on track. Michigan, in front of a national television audience, defeated the Bruins, 81-76, Dec. 28 to become the first Wolverine team to win at Pauley Pavilion.

"Certainly that was significant for our team," Amaker said. "It really gave us confidence to win away from home."

Never mind that UCLA was slumping. Amaker believes the Bruins fell into a cycle of losing similar to what his team experienced at the start of the season.

"I certainly understand what Coach Lavin is dealing with, and it's not easy," Amaker said. "I think he's done a heck of a job of keeping the team in the right frame of mind."

Amaker welcomed the challenge of straightening out a once-proud program that had lost its way.

"It's an honor to have been asked to help lead us through very difficult moments," he said. "That challenge was very exciting for me."

Whoever is coaching UCLA next season will need similar resolve.

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