A big man's big job on campus
Ruland tackles the challenge of coaching 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."

Ruland's ferocious style of play made him a force underneath the basket. No. 43 didn't just want to get to the rim; he wanted to hurt people on his way there. He played five seasons in Washington, leading the team in rebounding and field goal percentage each season. He was selected to the 1981-82 all-rookie team and appeared in the 1984 All-Star Game.

But years of playing on asphalt courts and the pounding he endured and delivered underneath the basket eventually took its toll. After missing only 10 games his first three seasons in the NBA, Ruland was plagued with knee, shoulder, ankle and Achilles' tendon injuries, ailments that eventually pushed him out of the league at age 28.

Ruland had few options, especially because he didn't have a college degree. He decided to return to Iona and, in a year and a half, completed 70 credits toward a degree in communications. Ruland, who at best could be described as an indifferent student during his first stint at Iona, was a much more dedicated scholar the second time around and made the dean's list.

Degree in hand, Ruland joined the Iona men's basketball team as an assistant coach and then became head coach in 1998 when Tim Welsh left for Providence. For the first few years, everything went well. The Gaels won three Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference titles and appeared in three NCAA tournaments.

The good times didn't last, however. Ruland enjoyed just two winning seasons in his last six years at Iona, going 81-99 during that span.

After a season that began 0-22 and ended 2-28, Ruland and Iona parted ways in 2007. As far as Ruland is concerned, the bitter rift with his alma mater hasn't healed.

"I got fired when I was on a cruise, and (his agent, Rob Ades) was the one who called me," Ruland said. "I have not spoken to anyone from Iona since."

The next move

Ruland spent last season as an assistant coach for the Philadelphia 76ers, but was not retained when the team hired Eddie Jordan as its new coach in May. Soon after that, he met a longtime friend, Linda Bruno, for lunch in Atlantic City. The former Atlantic 10 Conference commissioner had worked in Iona's athletic department during Ruland's playing days. The two had kept in touch over the years.

Ruland told her how much he wanted to get back into college coaching. Right away, Bruno thought of UDC Athletic Director Pat Thomas, whom she knew from Thomas's time at Georgetown. Thomas had told her she was looking for a men's basketball coach. Bruno called Thomas and put the two in touch.

"When Linda suggested Jeff Ruland, my initial reaction was: 'You're kidding. You're kidding, of course,' " Thomas said. "I knew who he was. I had followed his career. I was instantly intrigued by his interest."

Having felt betrayed by Iona's administration, Ruland wanted to make sure UDC would be a good fit for him. He met with Thomas and UDC President Allen Sessoms and was immediately won over by their visions for the program. Sessoms wants to move the school's athletic programs from Division II to Division I. After meeting them, it didn't take long for Ruland to agree to become UDC's next coach, signing a five-year deal with a base salary of $190,000 per year.

"I was very impressed with Pat and then she introduced me to Allen," Ruland said. "I was like, 'This is the reincarnation of Jim Valvano.' This guy here is wow. I was blown away by him. He's a great guy. I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for him and Pat. I had a very bad experience at the other place. It was very important."

As far as Ruland was concerned, as long as he could work well with Thomas and Sessoms, UDC's plight didn't matter. But others wondered why Ruland would take over such a troubled team.

"You've got to realize, Jeff's always been a little bit of a risk taker," Bruno said.

When he took the job, Ruland wasn't sure how many players he had on the team. (There are four returning players, according to Thomas.) Because of NCAA sanctions, Ruland is forbidden from inviting recruits to make official visits to campus. He is, however, allowed to recruit off campus. UDC also is banned from the postseason and has self-imposed a reduction in scholarships, giving Ruland seven for the upcoming season.

The NCAA sanctions are not the only hurdle Ruland faces as he tries to raise the Firebirds from the ashes. The school's facilities have all the charm of a drab industrial park without the technological advances. His first week in his office, in the basement of khaki-colored Building 47, neither the phones nor the Internet worked.

None of this seems to have deterred Ruland, who since he was hired in August has been throwing himself into the rebuilding project with all the gusto he once showed driving to the basket. He hired former Maryland standout Terrell Stokes as an assistant coach and has been signing players, most sight unseen, just to fill the roster. Among the players Ruland brought in are former DeMatha All-Met Nigel Munson, who played one season at Virginia Tech; freshman Keith Brooks of Monsignor McClancy High in Queens; and freshman Dyrek Jones of Bedford Academy in Brooklyn.

"A couple of these kids I would not normally take," Ruland said. "Not that they're (poor players); I haven't been able to see them play. We have to be careful of fielding a competitive team. . . . We'll have enough to practice, I hope."

'Softie at heart'

To look at him, all 6 feet 11 and a good 20 pounds above his playing weight of 270, Ruland appears as intimidating as he once was in the NBA. In truth, not far below the surface lies a vulnerability that comes out when talking about the women in his life, particularly his mother.

"Let me tell you a story," he begins. Suddenly his eyes are wet. His voice catches. "Excuse me," he says. "Just a little emotional."

When Anita was 75 years old, the doctor told her she had bone cancer and recommended chemotherapy. "She looked at him in the face and said, 'I think I'll die with my hair,' " Ruland said, choking out the last part and rubbing the tears out of his eyes. "She got up and walked out."

Strong and determined as she was, Anita couldn't beat cancer. She died in 1996, and 13 years later, the pain of her death remains fresh for Ruland.

"He's a softie at heart," said Ruland's daughter Brittney, whose mom, Ruland's ex-wife, died in September 2008 of a heart attack while being treated for leukemia. "He's really stepped it up and he's really been there for us."

Brittney, 19, is a sophomore at Loyola in Baltimore, and Ruland's other two daughters -- Courtney, 25, and Whitney, 22 -- also live within driving distance, another reason why Ruland took the UDC job. He speaks with them by phone almost daily.

Said Ruland: "I always wanted kids. I've got three daughters, then every year I get to have 10 sons."

And just as he tries to teach his daughters the lessons he has learned throughout his pertinacious life, he hopes to impart those same teachings to the players on his team.

"These guys will find out," Ruland said. "You're in charge of your own destiny. There are choices in life. You're not always going to make the right one. But that's the great thing about the United States: You get a second chance.

"Life is about making mistakes and learning."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company