By John Feinstein
Sunday, February 13, 2011; D06
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?"
Ruland isn't kidding about second chances.
One of his assistants is Tony Iati, a former teammate at Iona. Iati was a successful banker until the market crashed and a number of his deals went bad. He landed in jail for 11 months and is now living with Ruland while trying to restart his life.
Four of the current players are former Division I players, including Nigel Munson - who played at Virginia Tech - and Herbert - whose last game before his UDC debut this past fall was in an NCAA tournament game for Binghamton at Greensboro Coliseum against Duke. "I went from playing in front of 23,000 people to playing in front of 100 people," he said with a laugh. "Quite a transition."
Said Ruland: "Life in D-II is a little different in every way. The recruiting, the things you took for granted in D-I, the fast food, the seven-hour bus rides. Hey, it's a beautiful thing."
Life hasn't been all that beautiful for Ruland in recent years, even after taking the head coaching job at Iona in 1998 and leading the Gaels to four NCAA tournament appearances.
Ruland split from his wife and college sweetheart, Maureen, because he says neither he nor their three daughters could persuade her to get help for a drinking problem. In 2007, coming off a trip to the NCAA tournament in 2006, Iona went 2-28 and Ruland was fired.
"In a way I saw it coming because the president and I hadn't seen eye-to-eye on a lot of things," Ruland said. "On the other hand, we'd had a lot of success and it was my school. So it hurt. It still hurts."
That pain was nothing compared with the phone call he got almost a year later while coaching the Albuquerque Thunderbirds in the NBA Development League. Maureen had gotten sober after the divorce and she and Jeff had stayed close.
"My daughters called," he said, his voice getting very soft. "They said: 'Mom doesn't feel well but she won't go to the hospital to get a checkup. You have to come home and talk to her.' "
He paused and laughed for a moment. "Maureen was 5 foot 3 and I swear she was the only person in the world I've ever been scared of. My girls said I was the only one she'd listen to, so I went home to talk to her."
Maureen went to the hospital, where the news was very bad, but not all bad: leukemia, but it had been caught early enough to be treated.
"She breezed through the first two rounds of chemo," Ruland said. "Didn't even lose her hair. Then, during the third one she had a massive heart attack. She was gone like that."
For a moment, Ruland sat silently in the tiny office, putting a hand inside his glasses to quickly wipe away tears. He reached inside his shirt and pulled something out. "My wedding ring," he said, breaking down as he held it in his hand.
A few seconds later, he was on his feet, moving lightly for someone so big and someone who has had so many knee and foot problems in his life. "We've got a recruit on campus," he said. "I want to make sure everything's all set up right for him."
He walked quickly down the hall, his journey continuing as he headed into the cold night, convinced that redemption was out there and not that far away.
For more by the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com.