By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, March 18, 2010; D03
Todd Bozeman is on the other end of the phone and he wants to talk about the team he's coaching right now, Morgan State, which is a perfectly reasonable request since this Bears team has one of the best players in school history, a kid named Reggie Holmes, and it's 27-9 and heading into the NCAA tournament for the second consecutive season.
But I was a whole lot less interested in Morgan State than I was in talking to Bozeman about Bozeman, mostly about what happens from here going forward, about reputations and second chances and whether he'll ever coach on the big stage again.
See, it's no surprise to anybody that Morgan State won the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference for the second straight year to get to the NCAAs, or that Bozeman won the league's coach-of-the-year award for the third straight time, or that he's got a couple of really big-time players in Holmes, a 6-foot-4 senior guard, and Kevin Thompson, a 6-9 sophomore forward.
Bozeman, a Washington native, can recruit and he can coach and anybody who tells you anything else is a fool. In 7 1/2 years as a Division I head coach, at the University of California and Morgan State, Bozeman has been in five NCAA tournaments and an NIT.
But it's those two forfeited seasons and vacated NCAA tournament appearances at Cal, and the "show cause" stipulation brought about from paying a player's parents $30,000 while coaching Cal that served as essentially a coaching death penalty to his career. Bozeman will tell you five times in 30 seconds how grateful he is that Morgan State threw him a lifeline four years ago, and he ought to be.
But my question now, given that college basketball is full of cheats and scoundrels who simply don't get caught, is how long is long enough for Bozeman to be -- and I mean no disrespect toward Morgan State or any mid-major -- relegated to the undercard. In the interest of full disclosure, I hardly ever write about Boze because we're friends. But whether as reporter or buddy, we talk about basketball, college and the NBA, where he worked after being effectively (and justifiably) banned from coaching in college. He's got about as good a mind for basketball, for evaluating and preparing and strategizing, as you could ask for in a head coach. And he's 46.
So I wanted to know how he really feels about being in the tournament again, even though his Bears have to play No. 2 seed West Virginia, and what if anything he thinks he has to do to take a team to the tournament that can beat, say, Duke, as his Cal Bears did back in a tournament game in 1993.
"I can't put it into words," Bozeman told me the other day. "It's fun. I can't really put into words how good I feel about it. It's so difficult, to live through that period when nobody will take your calls. Look, I love coaching. My mom comes to a lot of my games. My friends [from D.C.] are around. We've lost only four conference games in the last two years. I'm just happy to be in [the tournament]. It's not like our seeding is going to give us the chance to win a national championship. But we [meaning the MEAC] have gone from the play-in game, to a 16 seed, to a 15 seed this year."
And because Bozeman has taken a school at the bottom of the league to the top in no time, and because he hasn't been involved in a hint of controversy at Morgan State, he's become -- how should I put this? -- a person of interest again in some circles. Question is, will it ever be more than that?
"I understand," he told me, "that some people won't ever forgive me. But I hope that not everybody will lock me out. I don't need for everybody to want to give me a chance, just one somebody, like Morgan has done. . . . Look, I admit what I did. I've paid the price. One person advised me to act as if what I did at Cal never happened, to not talk about it with my kids now. And I said, 'Hold on. One of the lessons here is that there are consequences and repercussions for your actions, but you can recover from your mistakes . . . that life isn't over because you stumble.' I don't want to ignore that."
I wonder if a good showing against West Virginia on Friday will make athletic directors start wondering about Bozeman's viability again, maybe staying within a dozen or so points of the heavily favored Mountaineers and their coach, Bob Huggins, who nobody would confuse with a choirboy.
Bozeman understands the process. First it was, "You'll never get back in the college game." Then it was, "Only a black school will hire you." Then it was, "You have to reach the NCAA tournament for anybody to notice." Then, "You have to get back."
Bozeman laughs. "Somebody told me last week, 'Well, you've got to win a game in the tournament.' And I said, 'What? Win a game when you're the number 15 seed?' They keep raising the bar on me."
And he keeps clearing it. Morgan was 13-18 his first season, then 22-11, then 23-12 last year, and 27-9 overall and 15-1 in MEAC play this season. This, remember, is a man who coached Jason Kidd in college, a guy who had people far from California wearing Cal sweatshirts for a couple of seasons. Bozeman still has that combination of cockiness and preparation that recruits find charismatic.
I ask Bozeman about his conduct as a head coach, the reality and the perception in the profession, and he said: "There's no sniff of impropriety at Morgan. None. There's no way I'd put myself in a position like that. There's no way I'll get a third chance -- Listen, Martha Stewart is back -- I'm not about to downplay anything, but some people do come back."
He talks passionately about coaching the team he has right now. But who could possibly blame Bozeman for daydreaming? I think there are schools -- DePaul, just to name one -- where Bozeman could wake a sleeping giant.
He worked the AAU scene and knows it cold. The kids 9 to 15 years old that he coached are now in the college recruiting pipeline.
"I don't need everybody to be okay with me," he repeated, "just one . . . I'm not that guy you can tell I can't do something."