UDC basketball coach Jeff Ruland gets another shot at redemption

By John Feinstein
Sunday, February 13, 2011

On one wall of the University of the District of Columbia's gym hang the school's two significant banners - one from the Firebirds' 1982 Division II men's basketball national title, the other from the program's runner-up finish a year later.

The banners serve as a reminder of past glories at UDC, bringing back memories of Earl Jones, Michael Britt and a packed Physical Activities Center. Now, as Firebirds Coach Jeff Ruland gave his team final instructions before their game Thursday night against Livingstone, his voice could be heard clearly in every corner of the near-empty gym.

"You have to get back on defense, work on defense," he said, repeating the mantra of almost anyone who has ever coached basketball on every level. "Have good ball movement. Let's go."

The hands went into the huddle and a few seconds later the ball went up to start the 21st game of Ruland's second season as UDC's coach. This is where his journey has brought him: from his mother's bar on Long Island; through a recruiting frenzy that included Bob Knight, Joe B. Hall and Jim Valvano; to three life-changing years in college at Iona; to eight NBA seasons in Washington and Philadelphia; and finally into coaching.

Ruland spent nine seasons as the head coach at his alma mater and thought he would spend the rest of his career there until he was fired in 2007. Now, after a stint in the NBA D-League and another year in the NBA as an assistant coach, he finds himself riding the buses of Division II, coaching in empty gyms and getting frustrated with the junior college referees who work a lot of UDC's games.

"Okay fellas, we got the three stooges tonight," he said to his players during one timeout. "Let me take care of it."

Said junior guard Brandon Herbert: "Coach Ruland has a way of putting things that gets your attention. He can be loud when he has to be and sarcastic but he's also funny. Whenever Ziad [Ashmawy, a freshman from Egypt] tries to dunk in practice he calls it 'riding the magic carpet.' He can be very serious but he's also funny which makes the game more fun."

If Ruland hasn't seen it all, he's seen a lot. His team was 8-13 after the win Thursday, which is a long way from 1-20 a year ago when he took the job the week classes began, didn't have time to put together a full schedule, spent a lot of the season practicing three-on-three and had only five available players the last few games of the season.

One more thing: UDC is on NCAA probation until 2013 because of "the single most egregious lack of institutional control ever seen" by the NCAA committee that investigated the school before Ruland arrived.

"I knew what the situation was when I came," he said. "I knew they were on probation and that there was a long way to go. But I'm a big believer in redemption. I think this is a place where people can come for second chances. I really like coming to work here every day." He waved a hand around his office, which sits in the basement of the athletic building. "Would I like a window? Sure. Would I have preferred not to have the injuries we've had? Absolutely.

"But I look at where we are now and where we were and I know we're going in the right direction. We've got good players now. We're getting more good players next year. We're in it with a couple of big guys and if we get at least one I really believe we can win a national championship."

He leaned back in his chair. "Now that would be some kind of redemption, wouldn't it?"

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