Luke D'Alessio is pretty much everything that previous men's basketball coaches at Bowie State University weren't. He's 5 feet 9 inches tall. He's from central New Jersey. And he's white.
He runs the men's team, whose players all are black, at Maryland's oldest historically black college, where 92 percent of the students are African American.
Men's basketball coach Luke D'Alessio talks to his team, which reached the top ranking nationally in NCAA Division II for the first time in the school's history.
(Photos Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
To his players and fans, the most important difference between D'Alessio -- the school's first non-black coach of the men's team -- and his predecessors is this: He wins.
It doesn't matter "if he's white, black, orange or yellow," said Lee Cook, 24, Bowie State's star player. "As long as at the end, results are being made, and those results are positive."
The once-ragtag Bulldogs are a comeback story, powered by players who struggled at Division I schools but who have found a home under D'Alessio. Their success has boosted the school, which once was beset by budget problems and administrative turmoil but which is improving strongly.
For the first time in the school's history, the Bulldogs reached the No. 1 ranking nationally in NCAA Division II. As the top seed in their bracket, they gained home-court advantage in the South Atlantic regional championships that began yesterday in the tournament to determine the national champion.
The team continued its season-long roll, advancing in the regional tournament with a 91-88 overtime victory over Tusculum. For Prince George's County, which lately has been better known for car theft and homicide, the Bulldogs are a welcome source of pride. Students appreciate the school's brightening image.
"It's making a difference," said sophomore Renee Minor, 20. "We're finally getting attention for something we're good at."
When D'Alessio, 45, coached his first game in the fall of 1999, there were 25 fans in the bleachers. The team went 6-21 in 1998 -- its 31st consecutive losing season. Three of the wins came on forfeits.
During halftime, the band practiced for the main attraction: the women's team.
"A lot of friends told me Bowie is a graveyard for coaches," recalled D'Alessio, who, with his wife Jacqui, has three children -- ages 21, 20, and 9.
Five years later, D'Alessio and Bowie State (25-4) have risen from the depths. Each home game draws as many as 4,000 screaming fans, part of what D'Alessio calls "a rebirth on the campus." Students follow the team to away games, traveling by bus and carpool.
"I'm seeing a great increase in school spirit," said President Calvin W. Lowe, who inherited something of a turnstile for university presidents when he was appointed in 2000. The school had been through five of them in the previous nine years. Lowe went through his own hard times in September 2001 when he compared the school's marching band members to "terrorists" after they failed to perform their halftime show at a football game. He later apologized.
"We are trying to move forward from something secluded and obscure to becoming a force to reckon with," Lowe said in an interview this week. "We are doing it in basketball, and we are carrying the same over to academics."