Midway through his first year as George Washington University's basketball coach, Gerry Gimelstob met with Lloyd H. Elliott, the school president. "I asked him if he had any suggestions," Gimelstob recalled. "He said, 'Yes, one. I think you should try to behave better on the bench.' "
Gimelstob listened and adjusted. Today, he still won't win any awards from Miss Manners for bench decorum, but he's come a long way.
In the same sense, so has the basketball program. GW, which is 4-2 this season going into tonight's game at Smith Center against 15th-ranked Kansas, isn't being mentioned in the same breath as Georgetown, North Carolina or Kentucky, but it isn't being laughed at, either.
"When I first came here, it was a big gamble because no one had any idea where the program was headed," said Mike Brown, the senior center who is the cornerstone of Gimelstob's team. "Now, when we recruit players, we can show them evidence of where we're going. A lot of the questions have been answered."
Gimelstob took over a program in 1981 that had foundered after several good seasons in the mid-1970s, dropping to a low of eight victories in 1981. After that season, Elliott and Bob Faris, then the athletic director, decided to fire Bob Tallent. In their search for a new coach, they contacted Indiana Coach Bob Knight, who had just won his second national championship. Knight recommended Gimelstob, then on his staff.
"We wanted someone who was really going to work hard, an eager beaver," Elliott recalled. "Gerry was just that."
He was 30, brash and full of himself. Some people found him difficult to deal with. Others saw him as a poor man's Knight. But basketball players liked him, and they began coming to GW.
Gimelstob's first significant act, 11 days after getting the job, was to sign Brown. He since has become an all-America contender and came close to making the U.S. Olympic team last summer. But just as important, he has helped bring other quality players into the program.
"I figured if GW was good enough for a player like Mike Brown, it was good enough for me," said Darryl Webster.
"I knew with Mike Brown playing center, they had a player to build around," said point guard Mike O'Reilly, also a junior.
Brown also was the kind of person GW wanted. He is friendly, outgoing and popular on campus. "Mike Brown is the kind of kid people would like if he never played basketball," Athletic Director Steve Bilsky said. "We want athletes here who can fit into the student body, not be apart from it."
With Brown the key man even as a freshman, GW improved to 13-14 in Gimelstob's first year and won an Atlantic 10 Conference tournament game for the first time since the league was formed in 1976.
Still, there were rough spots.
Most of the players on that year's team had been recruited by Tallent. They were used to his more laid-back style, to playing a lot of zone defense, to not being yelled at. "Everyone had to adjust," Brown remembered. "He (Gimelstob) had to learn what the players could take and what they couldn't take. The players had to get used to new expectations from a new coach."
"I've grown up as a coach as these guys have grown up as players. We've all had to learn," Gimelstob said. "I think now, with all the players in the program being guys I recruited, they understand exactly what I want from them.
"Now, the older guys teach the younger guys and there's less reason to get on guys. What's more, when I first got here, if a kid made a mistake once, I corrected. If he made it twice, I corrected. If he made it a third time, I corrected. Now, if a guy can't correct, there's someone behind him who can. That gives me more flexibility in my coaching and in my teaching."
Bilsky, who came to GW a year after Gimelstob, recently gave him a new multiyear contract that is renewed automatically at the end of each season. The contract was more for the potential Gimelstob has brought to the program than the Colonials' 45-40 record during his first three seasons.
"I don't think you can really judge a program until you've been through two full recruiting cycles. I'm talking like seven or eight years," Bilsky said. "I think Gerry has grown in this job. He's brash sometimes and he's very aggressive. He's extremely intense about basketball.
"But I think he realizes now that there's more than one way to skin a cat. He played a little zone defense last year (going against one of Knight's coaching commandments) and he's really learned to understand that you can do things differently and succeed."
When Gimelstob was asked about playing zone, he smiled sheepishly and said, "We only played it a little." Asked what he told Knight about it, Gimelstob smiled again and said, "That was no problem. I just did what the guy who cheats on his wife does: I denied it."
While Gimelstob has sought players, Bilsky has tried to build the rest of the program. GW has 18 cheerleaders this year; a few years ago it had none. "We even have a waiting list for cheerleaders," Bilsky said.
"You don't build a program just by getting players," he continued. "What makes college basketball is the atmosphere. You need to build tradition, improve your schedule, build up your booster program, improve your facilities."
Four years ago, according to Bilsky, GW received $12,000 in alumni contributions. Last year, the figure was $40,000. He hopes as the victories increase, so will the money.
"You have to take a long-range view, though," Bilsky said. "We could easily have scheduled 20 wins this year and it would have looked very good, going from 13 wins to 14 to 17 to 20. But Gerry and I talked about it and we felt in the long run that playing teams like Michigan State and Kansas would be more helpful. We need to see how our kids react to playing against that kind of competition. Some kids thrive on it, some get psyched out. We'll find out."
What Bilsky and Gimelstob must find out is how far GW can go, how much it can accomplish. The school has an excellent facility in the 10-year-old Smith Center, which seats 5,000. It plays in an up-and-coming league and has an aggressive young coach who has a recruiting budget that fits his needs for the moment.
"If we can be competitive in the East in basketball, that means we're competitive nationally," Bilsky said. "It isn't like baseball, where we could be one of the top teams in the East and not in the top 50 nationally. For now, we think finishing third in the conference (with an 11-7 record) last season was an accomplishment."
Many have picked the Colonials to win the conference this season. The team has a great center, depth, experience and, significantly, youth to push the veterans. "This should be the year to reap the rewards for the work we've done the last three years," Brown said. "This is the year we've been building towards."
One of Gimelstob's priorities is to see that there is no significant drop-off from this year to next.
"We're going to have a real hard time replacing Brownie," Gimelstob said. "He's done so much for us on and off the court. But he's the kind of player we have to go after and have to get if we're going to compete in this league. We can't win with second-line talent.
"The way we've gotten players is by telling kids that they make the program. We can only be as good as they are. Regardless of publicity, of television exposure, of coaching or of anything else, they will determine how good this team and this program are. I think now, we can compete for the league championship every year. That's progress."
Gimelstob also has been aggressive in dealing with the GW admissions office. Elliott said there has been no change in the standards for admission since Tallent was coach, but that Gimelstob has worked harder to convince the admissions office to look at more than numbers.
"What they've told me is that nothing is etched in stone," Gimelstob said. "As long as the guys we get do well in school, I think they'll continue to take that approach."
Gimelstob was relaxed before practice recently, a frame of mind he was rarely in three years ago. He still looks like a graduate assistant with his neat, short-cropped brown hair and boyish face. When Gimelstob first arrived, relaxed was a state in which he was rarely found. "Any first-year coach has to learn about his personality as a coach and about his team's personality," he said. "I don't want to say I'm more relaxed and have it come off as if I'm more willing to accept mistakes because I'm not. But I think I'm more flexible now. We run less drills because we have more experience and we need less drilling. I don't yell as much because I don't need to yell as much."
"He's completely different in practice now than my first year because we're a completely different team," O'Reilly said. "I think the atmosphere surrounding the team has gotten better each year. We have more good players every year and all of us, from the coaches down, have more confidence. That makes the atmosphere better."
Gimelstob and Bilsky are young and ambitious. That is part of the reason for this year's schedule. Another reason is the refusal by longtime rivals Georgetown and Maryland to play home-and-home series with the Colonials. Bilsky and Gimelstob say they would like to have those schools back on the schedule but will not bow to demands that GW play all games on the road.
"We just aren't going to do that," Bilsky said. "We may not be at their level but we have a very representative program. If Georgetown and Maryland won't play us, Kansas and Michigan State will."
GW has sold more season tickets this year than at any other time, it will have some games on television and Gimelstob has been successful in getting media attention. The program is stable, the players good, the schedule tough.
"This is a very ambitious program," Gimelstob said. "That's the way I've wanted it to be, not just for me but for everybody. Now we're at the point where we're going to find out if we can fulfill our ambitions. This year and next year will tell us an awful lot."
Is it possible, Gimelstob was asked, for George Washington -- an academically oriented school with a city campus -- to win a national championship some day? "Probably not," Gimelstob said. Then he smiled. "That's probably not, not definitely not."