It reads well: aging favorite son returns with the fire and desire to lead a return to greatness, or create a path to a greatness that never quite really existed in the first place. His coming-back party is embraced by all who remember him, by those who have been informed about him by those who remember him, and by just about anyone linked to the equation who hopes for a better future than the recent past.
With Eddie Jordan’s decision, unofficially made Wednesday, to take a dribble down memory lane along the banks of the Raritan River in Central Jersey and grab the reins of the rubble that is the Rutgers University men’s basketball program, what we have is the positive, heart-tugging, pride-pumping beginnings of a great storyline. Following the Mike Rice instruction-by-intimidation (or, if you prefer, intimidation-by-instruction) fiasco, not to mention previous errant shots with coaches, the Scarlet Knights appear to have pulled off a slam dunk here.
Jordan brings a bond to their most glorious moments on the hardwood. He was the point guard on the 1976 Final Four squad and the key assistant on RU’s Atlantic 10 tournament championship team 13 years later. The Knights reached the NCAA tournament twice in his three seasons sitting next to Bob Wenzel, and the second time, occurring in 1991, was the last time they reached the Big Dance.
To call the RU basketball situation a barren wasteland since then is to insult barren wastelands everywhere. The Knights have been that dry, that dull … and that dead. Save for a run to the NIT finals in 2004, they’ve been completely nonexistent in the country’s hoops conscience. Well, aside from the juicy emotional and physical abuse scandals, along with a side order of blatant insubordination, that RU has served up the last decade and change, that is.
Thanks again, Kevin Bannon, Fred Hill … and, of course, big ups to Rice.
Jordan, meanwhile, has been the epitome of understated class. He may not have an eye-popping Xs and Os résumé, but it ain’t that shabby … and he’s never had anything pop up where a person would go, “Man, where is that nutjob from? Oh, Rutgers, it figures …”
Indeed, he would seem to offer the calm after the storm.
With Rice’s over-the-top, Bobby Knight-type tactics brought to light courtesy of videotape and the threat of ESPN unleashing it to the public before RU did, Knights basketball has gone from afterthought, or “no thought,” to absolute embarrassment. It’s one thing to be inept and handle things poorly. In RU’s eyes, it’s quite another to be inept and handle things poorly … and have everyone know about it.
School officials needed a balm to cover up that uncontrollable rash at this point. Initially, they opted for a splash, but swung and missed in landing Danny Hurley, currently the head coach at Rhode Island and part of the most famous family in Garden State hoops.
Before buying into a happy ending, though, it would be wise to remember that other parts to the story exist – and will factor.
Jordan is not a young man anymore. He’s 58 and facing a major rebuilding project at RU, where support always has been a tenuous proposition – his “more than $1 million” salary tops any awarded a men’s hoops coach at the state’s university and still will fall well short of what the Big Ten average is, just as RU’s facilities will. Oh yeah, about the Big Ten … Jordan faces the unenviable task of trying to get his program up to speed in short order unless it’s OK with RU officials and fans if the Knights get swallowed up and swarmed over starting in 2014. He must do so with a depleted roster as even Rice’s proverbial punching bags are bailing right and left, hoping to land in a safer, saner spot.
Keep in mind, Rice, Bannon and Gary Waters were hardly unproven when hired by RU. All had done well in previous stops, and could claim NCAA berths as head coaches before ever signing with the Scarlet Knights. Only Waters left unscathed.
Jordan, as a coach, is credited with much of the success RU enjoyed from 1988 through ’91 and with the New Jersey Nets reaching the NBA finals in 2002 and ’03 when he was an assistant at both spots. He led the Washington Wizards as their head coach to four straight playoff appearances, too.
Then again, the most wins under his direction Washington posted was 45, and that was with perennial all-stars Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison at their high-scoring best. He later coached the Philadelphia 76ers and was essentially laughed out of town for preaching such things as all players on the floor can be point guards in his share-the-wealth offense.
Ironically, his replacement in Philly – Doug Collins – just stepped down Wednesday for failing to produce … as a favorite son returning and hoping to guide the troops back to prior greatness.
The hope is that this tale turns out different.
Just don’t count on it.