Kevin Nickelberry cleans house -- literally -- at Howard

"I am not here to rebuild," Howard's Kevin Nickelberry said of his new team. "I am here to renovate."
"I am not here to rebuild," Howard's Kevin Nickelberry said of his new team. "I am here to renovate." (Nick Wass/associated Press)
By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Kevin Nickelberry sat at a large desk in front of a wall that bore the scars from the recent removal of a chalkboard. His surroundings were mostly barren, save for scattered materials, in an office that had been gutted since Nickelberry took over the Howard University men's basketball program May 4.

One of college basketball's most difficult rebuilding projects this offseason began with the new head coach making wholesale cosmetic changes, a first step toward refurbishing the perception of a program that has endured seven straight 20-loss seasons.

"I'll show you all the stuff we just threw out of here," Nickelberry said. "We have someone coming to redo the floor, redo the walls, redo all of it. That's all part of the perception. I could talk, or come in here and do. I have to be the guy who is painting, I have to be the guy who is part of it. People around here need to see me knocking walls down."

Nickelberry's success with other reclamation projects -- most notably as an assistant at Holy Cross and Clemson, as a head coach at Hampton and with the Libya national team -- was a prime reason why the 45-year-old was tapped to return to his native city for what he has called a dream opportunity. But he is fully aware that he confronts his most daunting challenge as a head coach.

In addition to on-court struggles -- the Bison finished 7-25 last season -- Howard has been rendered irrelevant in the D.C. area. Nickelberry said there have also been concerns about the team's performance in the classroom, which he deems unacceptable at a school with an otherwise strong academic reputation.

"It's embarrassing," Nickelberry said. "Howard is known for academics and we should not have [those] problems."

Nickelberry's familiarity with Howard -- he was an assistant for four seasons from 1994 to 1998 -- was one of the reasons he emerged from a trio of finalists for the job. But Athletic Director Charles Gibbs was also impressed with Nickelberry's track record at programs in need of significant makeovers.

The task of remolding that culture began with Nickelberry's first meeting with his team, when he offered a blunt assessment of the perception of the program, telling players that outsiders viewed the team as an undisciplined group that struggles in the classroom and on the court. But Nickelberry also made sure to explain that the current players would be active participants in solving those problems.

When the meeting began, he said, it resembled a funeral because players had experienced so much losing. As Nickelberry articulated his vision, one skeptical player asked, "Are you going to be saying these things if we lose 10 straight?" Nickelberry said he had no plans for such a losing streak, but that speed bumps are part of the process. By the next day, players were popping into his office with questions and feedback, and he was told everyone showed up on time to lift weights.

Nickelberry's philosophy comes directly from the head coaches whom he worked under at Holy Cross, Charlotte and Clemson. There was the analytical Ralph Willard, who showed Nickelberry the value of a long-term vision and step-by-step business plan to achieve that vision -- starting with an office makeover -- when Willard built Holy Cross from rubble more than a decade ago.

There was Bobby Lutz, the fiery former Charlotte coach whom Nickelberry recalled could make every game personal and challenge players to do the same. That mentality comes naturally for Nickelberry -- a former college walk-on who struggled to make his high school team as a 5-foot-4 guard -- who has already challenged his players during his first meeting.

And then there was Oliver Purnell, who exuded calm and poise during the gradual emergence of the Clemson program over the past decade. Nickelberry now understands that there is a place and time for a demonstrative demeanor, and that patience and a steady hand are prerequisites at the helm of his current program.

"You're asking these kids to get in the boat with you, you can't be the one shaking it," Nickelberry said. "There has to be calm, they have to know -- the waters may be choppy -- but we're going to get through this thing."

Nickelberry has no illusions: He needs players, and, in turn, needs to strengthen his area relationships that have existed for years. With two available scholarships and a need for size, some of Nickelberry's first phone calls were to influential summer-league team coaches, Curtis Malone of D.C Assault and Keith Stevens of Team Takeover, and several prominent high school coaches.

Nickelberry rattled off the home towns and countries of his players -- Indianapolis, Belgium, New Orleans, Brooklyn, etc. -- to illustrate that none of his returning scholarship players have local roots. So intent on stockpiling his roster with area players, Nickelberry has already offered a scholarship to a local 10th-grader.

Nickelberry said he is not after the quick fix. From remodeling the office to meeting with players, each day offers an opportunity to take a step toward building upon what he calls the Howard brand.

"I am not here to rebuild," Nickelberry said. "I am here to renovate. I am ready to paint the house, let's put a new door on. I am not here to knock the house down and build a new one. I believe in what we already have. We're trying to build a program."

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