Paul Hewitt hadn’t planned to coach college basketball again so soon. His 11-year spell at Georgia Tech had left him emotionally bruised and financially secure. A few opportunities had surfaced but nothing piqued his interest.
“We had no intentions of getting back in,” he said, referring to conversations with his wife, Dawnette.
But then last Tuesday, Hewitt’s cellphone rang. He didn’t recognize the 571 area code and let the call go to voicemail. A few hours later, he checked the messages. It was Adam Brick, a senior associate athletic director at George Mason and among five university officials conducting a search for Jim Larranaga’s replacement.
By Thursday, Hewitt was meeting with Athletic Director Tom O’Connor and GMU President Alan Merten. By Friday, they had reached a deal.
“This is probably the only place I would’ve done it this fast,” Hewitt said Monday at a news conference introducing him as the ninth coach in program history. “I don’t mind saying, I was a little beat up after my last run, but that’s part of the game. This was just too good to turn down.”
Hewitt, who turns 48 on Wednesday, arrives with a portfolio not commonly found in the Colonial Athletic Association: 11 seasons in the Atlantic Coast Conference, national runner-up in 2004 and a current head coaching post with a U.S. national team (the under-19 squad that will compete at the world championship this summer in Latvia).
Hewitt, who agreed to a five-year contract, inherits a George Mason team that tied the program record for victories last season (27) and, with just two seniors departing, will probably emerge as the CAA favorite for 2011-12.
After Larranaga accepted the Miami job April 22, O’Connor modeled his coaching search after the system used by the NCAA tournament committee, which he once headed: automatic qualifiers, at-large candidates and those under consideration. With his background, Hewitt fell under the column of automatic qualifiers.
When Hewitt returned Brick’s call, it took time to warm to the prospects of coaching again right away. He and his wife were a few days from flying to the Caribbean to celebrate their 20th anniversary.
“You could definitely sense he wasn’t looking before that, but he was very curious about George Mason — very curious,” Brick said. George Mason made its pitch, but “I think he sold it to himself the more he thought about it.”
Hewitt postponed the trip to St. Maarten to finalize the deal.
“I traded one paradise for another, and here I am,” he said, drawing laughter and cheers from George Mason personnel.
Hewitt said he was drawn to the Washington area — his wife had fallen in love with Old Town Alexandria — and to the George Mason program, which, under Larranaga, advanced to the NCAA tournament three of the past six seasons. The veteran group that returns in the fall was also a selling point.
In a meeting with the players Sunday, “I told them, ‘Right now, this is your team. I’m going to try to put my stamp on it, but the most important thing is to keep the culture that you guys have established,’ ” Hewitt said.
“This year it’s important that we maintain some sort of continuity. You win 27 games, you don’t want to come in and change too much because I think the kids are comfortable,” he said. “Are we going to put some wrinkles in? Absolutely. [But] it’s more about making a gradual shift.”
Among the spectators at the news conference was Philadelphia 76ers forward Thaddeus Young, who played one season for Hewitt at Georgia Tech.
“Whether you’re with him at Georgia Tech or George Mason, you are part of his family,” Young said. “When I arrived there, I was a little boy. When I left, I was a grown man, even after one year. The players he has now, I hope they take some of his wisdom and put it into their hearts.”
Upon Larranaga’s departure, several George Mason players, as well as the two incoming recruits, wondered whether they should move on, as well. By finding a replacement quickly, the university seems to have stemmed possible defections.
“It’s been ups and downs not knowing if [the players] wanted to stay or leave,” sophomore forward Johnny Williams said. “But we’ve got a good coach, so I’m pretty sure everyone is staying. When we met him, everyone had a good feeling and felt that we could put our trust in him.”
Hewitt said he would visit the two New York area recruits, guards Corey Edwards and Vaughn Gray, this week.
“I am happy to be back in the game,” he said. “I thought I was out, they dragged me back in, and I couldn’t be happier to be back in.”