He looks like Joe Namath, with a bigger nose. He acts like a vaudevillian. But Iona's Jim Valvano gets the job done like nobody else, a cutup coach with a radical approach to major college basketball.
"We," says Valvano "are the alternative school."
"I approach kids and say, "If you're turned off by these (high-powered, high-pressure) schools, come and spend a little time with us. We don't have everything they do, but our people are the best."
Jeff Ruland, the team's 6-foot-10 star center, opted for the small New Rochelle, N.Y., school instead of bigtime Kentucky mainly because Valvano uttered two words to him -- "You stunk" -- after a convention-sized group of recruiters at one game went through the ritualistic, "Great game, Jeffrey," pitch.
"It was true," Ruland said, "I did stink that game."
Valvano's style excited Ruland about as much as anything excites the quiet, bearded Long Island native.
"You don't have to make an appointment to see him. I don't like that stuff. It's not what turned me off at Kentucky. It's what turned me on here. I'm near my family and friends. I like the man. I respect him. He's fun to be with. When he rolls out of bed, he never rolls out on the wrong side. He's got a lot of energy to burn. He's always up."
After the Gaels, who play Georgetown today at McDonough Gym in a 1 p.m. regionally televised game (WRC-TV-4), defeated St. John's last season for the ECAC Metro-New Jersey championship, coach and players went out and drank beer together -- a six-pack each.
And one day, when Richard O'Connor of Sport magazine visited practice, Valvano grouped his players under a basket and told them O'Connor had to make four of five, instead of the customery two.
In unison, the players booed and hissed.
"Now wait." Valvano said. "Let me finish. I am so confident he will make them, that if he doesn't, I will run the sprints."
The players cheered.
To make a long story short, O'Connor made the first two, missed the next two. Valvano, mockingly, glared at O'Connor and said, "Who the hell invited you up here, anyway?"
His friends say this is vintage Valvano. Later, he said, "We overcoach -- we coach diets, we coach curfews, we coach dress . . . I'm surprised we haven't made the kids paranoid. Anybody can call you 'coach.' I'm Jim, my wife is Pam."
Valvano lives around the corner from the Mulcahy Center gym on campus. The players spend a lot of time with the 33-year-old son of Rocky Valvano, a high school athletic director on Long Island. In fact, the coach at times is not beyond asking, in fact, demanding, that one of his players baby-sit for his two children.
It's all part of the soft-sell in which Valvano, who was a walkon at Rutgers, tried to prepare his players for the day when they are no longer in the spotlight, when as he puts it, "No one says, 'Playing left desk, No. 45 . . .'"
If a player has a problem, Valvano listens, gives his advice, then grabs a pen and scribbles on a board placed on an easel next to his desk, a favorite prop. "You think you've got problems," he will tell the player. "Well, listen to mine . . ."
And he lists his mortgage, his bills, etc. "You've got problems," he says sarcastically. "You're going to be here four years and the worst thing that's going to happen to you is that you graduate and get an education. The worst thing that can happen to me is that I get fired and don't have a job.Then, who pays the bills?"
Later, he says, "it isn't a one-way street . . . I want them to understand I'm playing in the real world . . . The worst part of being a coach is being in the final year of your contract."
Valvano does not have that problem.
And the academic scorecard for his first two classes of seniors reads this way: Three are working for IBM, two are pursuing master's degrees and the other is working for the Exxon Corp.
There is some deception in the man, who in 13 years of coaching has turned around sagging programs at Johns Hopkins, Bucknell and Iona, which was 4-19 the year before he took over and had trouble beating good Division II and III teams.
The deception mainly concerns Valvano's statement that he and his team have no discipline. The Gaels survive on self-discipline.
Amazed at the way his team was so casually dressed on the road, a reporter once asked Valvano, "Don't you have a clothes' requirement?"
"Yes," Valvano replied, "you have to wear them."
As far as drinking beer or a couple of cocktails, Valvano's only rule is that his players follow his father's only rule: "Don't embarrass the family. That basically means it's okay to drink a six-pack, just as long as you don't tear up the bar doing it."
"The pressure here is self-inflicted because we're such achievers," said senior guard Glenn Vickers. "We have peer pressure to conform to acting like a winner, to being a winner.
"This is big-time basketball, but at some places, it becomes 'Fantasy Island.' But here . . . just look at our locker room. It's a cage."
The lockers are about six inches wide. There are bleacher benches up and down either side, with little room to walk in the middle. There are no fancy chairs or plush carpeting. It is out of a bygone era, when college athletics was fun. It is refreshing.
The latest Eastern rankings list Iona (8-2) third with Georgetown (8-3) fourth. Iona's only losses were to Kentucky in the final of the Great Alaska Shootout -- after the Gaels beat Texas A&M and Long Beach State -- and at San Francisco.
Today's game figures to be a test of Georgetown's quickness and strength against Iona's brute strength. The Gaels' team weakness is overall speed. They play zone defense well, but do not have the ability to play good man-to-man defense.
So, both coaches figure that tempo will be all-important. Valvano said he fully expects Georgetown, if the Hoyas stay ahead, to spread their offense and try to force this team out of the zone.
Also, there is a question how well the Gaels can handle a full-court pressure defense.
Other games tonight include American (5-5) at Gettysburg, a 1-7 team that lost four of its first five games by two points or less, and George Mason (0-5), seeking its first victory in the opener of a four-game round trip at North Carolina A&T.