tampabay.com

Abandoned just afterthoughts

By DAVID MURPHY
Published April 8, 2007


One day, maybe 10 years from now, Alex Ruoff will pick up his phone, look up John Beilein and ask him a question that still hasn't been answered.

Why?

"It really does feel like a dad leaving you," the West Virginia sophomore says.

It has been two years since Ruoff left Brooksville to play basketball at West Virginia, but during that time the former Central High star has learned much about the way the real world works.

Last year, he and his Mountaineers teammates listened as their coach's name was linked to a coaching vacancy at North Carolina State. This year, even as the Mountaineers were cruising to an NIT title, rumors were flying about Beilein's future.

So when Ruoff learned Sunday night that the man who recruited him and coached him his first two years of college was leaving to take a job at Michigan - through a report on ESPN no less - he wasn't entirely surprised.

Still ...

"Initially, I'm just upset, terribly upset," Ruoff says. "Then the question comes in your mind, 'Why? Why would you leave something like this? We have a young team, and it's only going to get better.' "

Ruoff pauses.

"He wouldn't tell us why in the meeting. I really didn't get any answers. That sad feeling kind of turned to anger."

The words are weighty, and they are a powerful reminder that for every Billy Gillispie, Dana Altman and Beilein moving up the coaching ladder, there is a kid peering incredulously into the exhaust fumes.

See, Ruoff never really had a father in his life. During high school, long-time Central coach John Sedlack filled that role, and when he moved on to college, he looked to Beilein to fill some of the void.

The 2006-07 school year has been one of the greatest of Ruoff's life. He flourished on the court, averaging 10.3 points, 5.3 assists and 2.0 steals for a WVU team that won 27 games. He flourished in the classroom, earning a 3.9 grade point average while majoring in history. And he flourished in life, joining a dynamic nondenominational church in Morgantown and meeting his girlfriend of five months, Sarah.

Through it all, Beilein was there.

"I don't have the same relationship with Beilein like I do with Coach Sedlack," Ruoff says, "but with me on a personal level, not having a father, to get close with the dominant male figure in your life - I mean, you are with them for six hours a day -and to have them leave ..."

Earlier this week, Ruoff exchanged text messages with Central athletic director Jeff Spivey, who was an assistant on Sedlack's staff during Ruoff's career with the Bears. Spivey said he encouraged his former player to take a few weeks to clear his head before making any decisions about his future.

But it would have taken a monumental set of circumstances for Ruoff to leave Morgantown, and when the university announced it had hired legendary coach Bob Huggins, any thought he might have had of transferring disappeared.

"It's Bob Huggins," Ruoff says of the coach, who built Cincinnati into a powerhouse and spent last season at Kansas State. "I don't know how you can't be happy."

Ruoff says Huggins called him late Thursday night. He was surprised how much the coach knew about him. Though he is curious to see how his game fits the new system - Huggins' offense is predicated on athleticism; Beilein's was a purer ball-movement system - he says he is confident he'll continue to thrive.

"Coming out of high school, I wasn't good enough to play for a coach like Bob Huggins," Ruoff said. "Now I have that chance."

As for Beilein, Ruoff bears no ill will. He understands the zaniness of the coaching profession. He understands a man must look out for his family. He understands a sophomore in college can't possibly understand all the circumstances a grown man like Beilein must consider.

Still ...

"I'm past it; I wish him the best; I care for him as a person," Ruoff says. "But 10 years from now I might give him a call and ask him.

"Why?"

David Murphy can be reached at dmurphy@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1407.