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Stan Heath remembers where he's been and the hard work he's faced before.
By GREG AUMAN
Published November 7, 2007
[Brian Cassella | Times]
His new job has been called the toughest in college basketball, but Stan Heath knows better.
Bulls fans know the USF men's basketball coach had success at Arkansas. Most can tell you how he took Kent State to the Elite Eight, and some remember he was an assistant on Michigan State's national championship team in 2000.
But the identity of the man now challenged to make USF relevant in Big East basketball wasn't forged in the NCAA Tournament or in any major program. Heath found himself at tiny Michigan schools you've never heard of, discovering what hard work, positive thinking and sacrifice can overcome.
"That's my education right there," said Heath, 42, whose Bulls debut Friday in the Sun Dome against Cleveland State. "My background is small schools, Division IIs, Division IIIs. That's my mentality, just try to outwork people, build relationships, do all the little things to give yourself an edge."
Want a tough job? You could start where Heath did, earning $300 a month as an assistant at Hillsdale College, an NAIA school in rural Michigan with an enrollment of about 1,300. He shared a house with another basketball assistant and the baseball coach.
"You learn a lot, and you appreciate what you have when you get older, because you remember," said Heath, who is working to help USF raise at least $30-million for upgrades at the Sun Dome, including an adjoining practice facility.
At Division III Albion College (enrollment: 1,950), Heath had to stock a varsity and junior varsity program, bringing in as many as 20 players a year despite having no scholarships to offer. At Wayne State in inner-city Detroit, Heath's coaching duties included driving a van to get players to road games, going as long as 10 hours for games in "the U.P.," Michigan's upper peninsula.
Now with a base salary of $675,000, Heath is making less at USF than he did at Arkansas, but that's hardly a sacrifice compared to the first time he took a pay cut.
Jim Larranaga, now at George Mason, remembers sitting down with Heath and his wife, Ramona, and offering him his first Division I job at Bowling Green, but one that paid $20,000 - less than he was making at Wayne State.
The couple's first son, Jordan, had been born, and Ramona was pregnant with their second, Joshua; Larranaga points out that Bowling Green, Ohio, is "not exactly a diverse town ... perhaps 99 percent white."
"Ramona said, 'Oh, Stan, you can't possibly pass up a $5,000 drop in salary,'" Larranaga said. "But his dream job was to coach at Michigan State, and I told him I'd do my best to advance him in his career."
Ask Larranaga his favorite Heath moment, and it's not a victory or the signing of a recruit. It's a phone call in the early morning of Feb. 8, 1996, when Larranaga learned that the brother of guard Antonio Daniels had died in his sleep of a heart attack.
Daniels' mother wanted Larranaga to tell her son the news, and Larranaga turned to his assistant to help him. He knew the two were close; Antonio had even babysat Jordan.
"He basically became Antonio's big brother right there, in one of the most tragic events an individual can go through," Larranaga said. "You saw his character, you saw his sensitivity, you saw the relationships he has with his kids. He's a far better person than he is a basketball coach."
Daniels, now with the Wizards in his 11th NBA season, said he and Heath remain close a decade later; their families met for dinner in Orlando this summer.
"People think coaching is about who can draw up the best plays," he said. "There's so much more to it than that. Coach Heath understands how to relate to his players. You can play him one on one, but he's somebody you can talk to, and not just about basketball, just as easily."
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, who would hire Heath from Bowling Green after that season, remembers how his players would congregate in Heath's office. They could be anywhere on campus after a long practice, but they wanted to hang out with their coach.
When Heath's Kent State team made its NCAA Tournament run in 2001, Izzo flew to watch their Sweet 16 victory against Kentucky and saw how well-prepared the team was.
"They were so disciplined, played so hard for him," Izzo said. "And he did a great job at Arkansas. The cupboard was bare there, and he went through what I went through here. (His firing) was the most bizarre thing. Their AD just made a decision. The hardest thing to do is replace a legend."
Heath's personal on-court basketball experiences allow him to relate to his players. Struggling to get in the game? He redshirted his first year at Eastern Michigan, fighting for minutes as a sixth man before stepping into a larger role. In 46 pages of records in EMU's media guide, his name appears once, in the all-time lettermen list.
Trouble adjusting? Heath went through a coaching change at EMU; his second coach, Ben Braun, would lead them to their first NCAA Tournament appearance the year after Heath graduated, and later the Sweet 16.
"You have to prove yourself again," Heath said. "It's out the door. You're starting from scratch, but that's okay."
His current players, trying to make the Big East tournament for the first time in three years in the league, say they feed off his positive but persistent approach.
"He wants to win. Whatever it takes to win, he's willing to do it," point guard Chris Howard said. "He's going to push you as hard as you can. The competitiveness he brings to practice, that fire, it's just the kind of guy he is."
Even as rebuilding jobs go, Heath has had tougher jobs. His first year at Arkansas, his top returning scorer had fiveper game; the top signee, Andre Iguodala, jumped ship for Arizona, and his first team, loaded with five seniors, went 9-19.
"Year 2 was almost as hard as Year 1," Heath said. "When I look at this, my returning guy back (center Kentrell Gransberry) is an all-conference player. That's a hell of a start. The other guys are unproven but young. We have this whole group coming back, and we can add guys to help us in some areas. You get two, three differencemakers your program can change like (snaps his fingers).
"Our starting point is a lot further along than what I had five years ago, and that basketball team at Arkansas is ranked in the Top 20."
Heath acknowledges he doesn't have Arkansas' tradition to sell to recruits, doesn't have the fan following he had there, and his team has been picked to finish last in what many think is the best conference in college basketball. His response?
Get in the van and we'll see how far we can go.
"I don't think anything much in life was really given to me. I always had to earn things," he said. "You learn to fight through adversity, not to be afraid of a challenge, to go after things. ... We've got a different job in front of us, but it's doable."
[Last modified November 6, 2007, 23:58:26]