The cigarette dangled from Dwane Morrison's mouth as he leaned forward in his seat, head bobbing, eyes dancing. He was excited.
"I've been fired up since I saw that guy," he said. "I mean, he is a stud! He can do it. I could watch him before practice, during practice, after practice."
Dwane Morrison wasn't talking basketball. He was talking about Itzak Perlman. He had seen the violinist on television the night before and now, sitting in his L-shaped office in Georgia Tech's Alexander Memorial Coliseum, he seemed to still be on a high from watching Perlman perform.
Cynics might say it is understandable that Morrison would be excited about a violinist, because his basketball team has not given any virtuoso performances.
Georgia Tech is 3-3 going into its first Atlantic Coast Conference game of the season, here Tuesday against Maryland. The Yellow Jackets have beaten Flagler, the University of the South (by three) and Presbyterian (by three). Their most recent game was a 49-44 loss to Wofford. That's right, Wofford.
Now, with all five starters gone from a team that was 1-14 against ACC competition in its first year in the league last winter, Morrison embarks on his second campaign with four returning players who, together, scored 7.5 points a game last season.
"If you're trying to put a square peg into a round hole, you know it's impossible," he said. "But if you look closely, maybe the hole isn't entirely round and the peg isn't completely square.If you believe there's a chance of that, maybe there's a way, maybe it's not impossible.
"It's when you start believing it's impossible that you have no chance."
Morrison answers many questions like that. Ask him what he thinks when people say Georgia Tech is an embarrassment to the ACC and he'll say, "Do people say that?"
It is not a wise-guy answer. It is part of the Morrison philosophy of not hearing the bad and accentuating the good. It is not so much a belief in the power of positive thinking as a belief that all negative thinking must be avoided.
"My job is to teach the players and to put positive thoughts in their minds," he said."They can't possibly succeed thinking negative thoughts. Look, every person is a beautiful thing, but every person has weaknesses. I try to teach them to work on their strengths and not try to be great at their weaknesses. No one can do that."
When Dean Smith talks, people listen. When Dwane Morrison talks, people often laugh. With his crew cut, his way of greeting people by saying, "Bless you brother," and his bent for giving lengthy answers to direct questions, he is viewed by some as an eccentric.
By his own admission, he has a team of players no one else in the ACC would take, "based on talent." So, the Morrison image as a countrified patsy in fast lane basketball league is accentuated.
But talking to Morrison it quickly becomes apparent that the man knows basketball. And, watching his team improve from a December embarrassment to the point where it took Maryland into overtime in the ACC tournament in March, it also is obvious he can teach.
"People look at his crew cut, hear his country philosophy and laugh," said junior guard Stu Lyon. "Well, he may not be the smoothest guy around but he's shrewd. He's dumb like a fox."
Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell, a friend, puts it more succinctly: "Ol' bless-you-brother ain't near as dumb as he makes out. He can coach."
In fact, Carolina's Smith said last year that Morrison should have been ACC coach of the year for winning one game and coming close in several others. But all these words of praise must be taken with a large grain of salt.
"Nobody's going to say anything bad about the guy," said N.C. State's Jim Valvano, who has yet to face Morrison, "because if you do and then you lose to him you look like an idiot."
Last year the only ACC coach who lost to Morrison was Virginia's Terry Holland. But Driesell, Smith, Wake's Carl Tacy and Clemson's Bill Foster all had anxious moments. Morrison's teams hold the ball when they have it and play aggressive, clawing defense when they don't.
But Tech definitely lacks talent. And fans. The first six games were at home and just one, against Georgia, drew more than 1,000 spectators to the 6,900 seat arena. Tech is in the ACC, but no one believes it belongs. So no one comes.
"When they came to me and asked me if we should join the ACC I said no," Morrison said. "In the Metro (Tech's former conference) we could compete with St. Lois, Memphis State, Cincinnati. In the ACC it will take five years for us to be competitive."
Morrison may not have five years. Although he turned a 5-21 team into an 18-10 winner in his first four seasons and had three straight winning records before last year's 8-18, his job may be on the line this season. New Athletic Director Homer Rice, who was North Carolina's athletic director during the early 1970s, isn't likely to sit still long in the face of crowds of 600 and losses to Wofford.
Is Morrison worried?
"Everytime I've been fired, I've gotten a better job," he said. "Getting fired can be an opportunity. All I can do is the same thing I ask my players to do, work hard, try to do what I do best and enjoy myself. My life is watching people, watching them overcome things and get better."
Morrison is going to have plenty of chances to watch his players try to overcome adversity in the next few months. He knows he doesn't have the talent, he admits Tech has been outrecruited for good players in recent years. tBut, he refuses to worry. In fact, he appears almost relaxed.
"I get frustrated, but I haven't got any fear," he said. "Last year when my players went to Maryland, North Carolina, Duke, Clemson, they walked in there and they were in fear.
"I told them that those people were cheering for them, that their timing was just a little bit off. When Buck Williams dunks, and the Maryland fans cheer, they're cheering for my guy's shot a minute before. They're just slow thinkers."