Jeff Ruland doesn't shrink from adversity, and he'll get it at probation-saddled UDC

By Kathy Orton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 5, 2009

To better understand why Jeff Ruland became the latest men's basketball coach at the University of the District of Columbia, you have to go back to his mother's bar on Long Island. Anita Ruland was a tough, no-nonsense woman, and she passed on those values to her youngest son. In the 25 years she owned a bar, first in Bay Shore then later in Farmingville, Anita taught her son that overcoming obstacles sometimes requires an ornery contrariness that flies in the face of convention.

"I saw her knock a guy off the (bar) stool with a right cross," Ruland recalls with a laugh. "Ass over backwards."

Her lessons served Ruland well as he played for Jim Valvano at Iona, became an NBA all-star with the Washington Bullets and then a college basketball coach. Along the way, whenever he encountered adversity -- some his making, some not -- Ruland would fall back on Anita's teachings.

It is only by going back to Ernie's Tavern on Long Island that it is possible to understand why Ruland, at age 50, took a job at a school that is on NCAA probation until October 2013 because of, as the infractions report detailed, "the single most egregious lack of institutional control ever seen by the (NCAA) committee."

UDC, a once proud program that won the Division II national championship in 1982, canceled its men's and women's basketball seasons in 2004 after an investigation revealed recruiting, financial aid and academic eligibility irregularities.

"I want to turn it around," Ruland said. "I want to leave a lasting impression, a legacy so to speak. . . . It's a challenge. Why stop (coaching) now? I think I've got a couple more years left in me. As far as I'm concerned, it keeps you young."

Bruise Brother

When he wasn't at Ernie's Tavern, Ruland spent countless hours on playground courts turning himself into one of the top recruits in the country. All the top schools -- including Kentucky and Indiana -- pursued the 6-foot-11 bruiser. One school, he claims, offered his mother a house, a car, a bar and $10,000 if he would play for its team.

"The guy offered my mother that and she turned to him -- even though we weren't very well-to-do -- she said, 'It's my son's decision,' " Ruland said with great pride.

Ruland, true to his antithetical nature, chose Iona and its brash young coach, Jim Valvano, over more well-known programs, and it didn't take him or Valvano long to vault the sleepy Christian Brothers-run school in New Rochelle, N.Y., into the spotlight. In 1979, they led the Gaels to their first NCAA tournament in school history.

When Valvano bolted for North Carolina State in 1980, Ruland felt abandoned by the man he had come to consider a father figure. After promising he would return for his senior season, Ruland left school in disgrace when it was revealed he had signed with an agent. He declared for the NBA draft, was taken in the second round by Golden State and immediately traded to Washington for a second-round draft pick.

Miffed that he wasn't drafted in the first round and knowing that his playing time would be limited as a backup to future Hall of Famer Wes Unseld, Ruland signed with a team in Barcelona. He lasted a year overseas before joining the Bullets and teaming with Rick Mahorn to form the "Bruise Brothers," a pair legendary Boston Celtics announcer Johnny Most dubbed "McNasty and McFilthy."

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