PITTSBURGH — Larry Eustachy’s players call the Southern Miss coach’s brutal honesty his most endearing quality.
Maybe it’s because Eustachy has spent the last nine years taking a long, hard look in the mirror each morning being just as hard on himself.
“There’s nobody that’s got more scars on their fanny than me,” Eustachy said.
And they’re still fresh.
A decade ago, Eustachy was one of college basketball’s hottest commodities after leading Iowa State to consecutive Big 12 regular season championships in 2000 and 2001, heady territory for a program that’s traditionally flip-flopped between middling and mediocre.
The fall was swift and severe.
Pictures surfaced in 2003 showing Eustachy partying with college students. He was quickly out of a job and in rehab then spent a season out of coaching before resurfacing at lowly Southern Miss in 2004.
Eustachy never wavered in his belief he could turn the Golden Eagles into contenders in Conference USA just as he’s never wavered in his vow to stay sober.
Eight years later, Southern Miss is dancing and Eustachy is resurrecting his reputation one victory at a time.
The ninth-seeded Golden Eagles (25-8) face eighth-seeded Kansas State (21-10) in the second round of the NCAA tournament on Thursday, the culmination of years of patience and progress for a man and a program that’s no stranger to adversity.
Luring good basketball players to Hattiesburg, Miss., can be a difficult task, so Eustachy took a different tack. He’s relied on junior college transfers and players who have struggled elsewhere to fill in the gaps.
In the process, he’s developed a team that mirrors its coach. The Golden Eagles are gritty and tightknit. They’ve had to rely on that closeness during a trying 12 months.
Senior forward Angelo Johnson lost his 4-year-old daughter last July to complications from Sickle Cell Anemia.
Guard LaShay Page received a phone call in his hotel room while preparing to play at UTEP last month telling him his mother died at age 38.
The junior took a few days off to be with his family but missed just one game before returning, a testament to the toughness he’s developed while playing for Eustachy.
“The situations coach put me through helped me deal with (her death) better,” Page said. “There were points after I got here like ‘What have I got myself into.’ But he stuck by me and he promised me it would pay off and it has.”
While Eustachy would love to put the focus on the players who have guided Southern Miss to the tournament for the first time since Brett Favre was still on the football team 21 years ago, he understands his perseverance can send a message.
“I think my story’s a neat story, I think it’s a great story,” Eustachy said. “I think it inspires people.”
Consider Kansas State coach Frank Martin among the believers.
“He’s one of those guys, he was sitting on top of the mountain and some unfortunate things took place,” Martin said of Eustachy. “He was kind of left out in the corner somewhere.”
Something Martin’s been able to do with a bit more regularity at Kansas State. The Wildcats are the only team to beat Missouri twice this season and have thrived while freshman point guard Angel Rodriguez learns on the job.
Martin joked Rodriguez has brought “an acceleration of gray hairs on my head” yet also knows Rodriguez’s speed and playmaking give his team a dimension it lacked early in the season.
The Wildcats have been a steady 9-6 since Rodriguez became a starter. Though he leads the team in turnovers, he also leads them in assists and steals. It’s a tradeoff Martin can live with for the moment.
“I don’t want to say (he) changed our season around, because we were pretty good before,” Martin said. “But it’s given us an opportunity to do some things that we couldn’t do early in conference play.”
Like Eustachy, Martin coaches with a gruffness designed to strip his players of ego. Not everyone warms to the system. Those that do, however, thrive.
Forward Jamar Samuels called himself “one of the most immature guys you ever met” a year ago. Now, he’s a veteran leader on a team that’s won at least one game in the NCAA tournament in each of its three previous appearances under Martin.
“You have to have thick skin to be one of his players,” Samuels said. “He’s just telling you what is real. If you can take that, you should be fine at the end of the day.”
The Wildcats play with a tenacity that helps them overcome their deficiencies. When Martin looks at the tape, he sees the same thing from Southern Miss and its resilient coach.
“They’re tough, they’re athletic, they grind out,” Martin said. “It’s got Larry Eustachy stamped all over it.”