Anniversaries for a college coach usually come during quiet times because most transitions take place in the offseason, when the new person can at least begin in an orderly way and with some privacy. That was not how Craig Esherick became the Georgetown men's basketball coach close to a year ago. And although the Hoyas are 3-3 this month and only recently crawled out of last place and into the middle of the pack in the Big East Conference, Esherick knows last January was much worse.
"The job is far more difficult in some ways and easier in some ways," he said. "But I remember looking back at some expense reports and thinking: 'No wonder I was exhausted.' "
There was so much to do after John Thompson announced his surprise resignation on Jan. 8, 1999, and Esherick was promoted from top assistant: See a few dozen important officials he'd known during his 23-year association with Georgetown, but needed to become even more familiar with in his new role; visit the five recruits already signed to a letter-of-intent, which meant trips to, among other places, Las Vegas and Daytona Beach, Fla.
Something along those lines happens with every coaching change. But Esherick also had to prepare himself and the team to play a Big East game the day after the change was announced. And after that there were the 14 remaining games before the conference tournament, with the goal of producing the school's 25th consecutive postseason appearance after a 7-6 start under Thompson.
It all got accomplished. The Hoyas won that first game. And they went 7-8 under Esherick during the remainder of the regular season, then split two games in the conference tournament. That 15-15 overall record earned a bid to the National Invitation Tournament, in which they lost at Princeton in the first round.
"The toughest part, and the thing I had to learn the quickest," Esherick said, "was getting over [each loss] quickly. Otherwise, I'd wither away and weigh less than 100 pounds. . . . As much as possible, you have to be upbeat. You have to know that players are going to look at you to determine whether or not they should feel confident for the next game, as well as for how they'll approach the rest of the season.
"This still is college basketball. They still have schoolwork to do. So you can't degrade them to the point where they can't function for the next game. And you can't degrade yourself to the point where you can't function."
The transition for the players was relatively seamless, with one major exception.
"We're more relaxed on the court," said senior center Jameel Watkins, "as opposed to being intimidated by Coach Thompson."
The changes mostly have been behind the scenes. Esherick said he would be foolish to alter the up-tempo style that emphasizes defense because, going back to Springbrook High School, that's how he grew up in basketball.
To replace Mary Fenlon, the school's longtime academic advisor who retired about six months after Thompson's resignation, Esherick is using assistants Mike Riley and Ed Spriggs and office manager Trina Bowman.
Riley, a superior defensive player for Georgetown during the mid-1970s who later taught at Gonzaga High and has experience as an assistant principal, has assumed the bulk of Fenlon's responsibilities, Esherick said, with Spriggs acting as the "dean of discipline."
Recruiting ultimately will determine Esherick's success, and his first class mostly is complete. It consists of 6-foot-6 forward Omari Faulkner, 6-6 wing player Gerald Riley and, the most highly regarded of the trio, 6-8 forward Michael Sweetney of Oxon Hill.
With a 6-10 Big East record last season, Georgetown was 10th in the league. With the entire starting lineup back and several promising freshmen, the Hoyas were picked to finish fifth in a preseason poll of Big East coaches and they were listed among the top 20 by at least one national publication.
After a 2-3 start in the Big East, those expectations have been lowered. One reason is that freshman center Wesley Wilson was declared academically ineligible by the NCAA. Also, promising front-court player Lee Scruggs was unable to complete his work at Daytona Beach Community College and transfer before the second semester. His first practice was Dec. 26, his first game four days later.
But the Hoyas' most significant problems have been shooting and ballhandling. In the five conference games, they have shot just 35 percent. They have 54 assists and 105 turnovers.
Shooting guard Anthony Perry's average of six points is less than half what he produced in nonconference games.
Sophomore Kevin Braswell still is adjusting to playing point guard, although Esherick said he has been the team's most consistent and productive player.
Esherick was encouraged with aspects of Tuesday night's 72-69 road victory over Boston College, especially the Hoyas shooting 50 percent (16 of 32) in the second half of a conference game and committing just six turnovers.
Overall, freshmen Demetrius Hunter, Victor Samnick and Courtland Freeman have shown much promise but also have flaws. Freeman has almost completely recovered from an Aug. 31 foot injury and seems the most versatile of the several players whose most comfortable position is power forward.
"My goal is the NCAA tournament every year," Esherick said. "And I don't want to just get in. I want to compete. For us to be that good, our ballhandling has got to get better. That's across the board. Kevin has had far too much responsibility. The ball at the end of games can't, by chance, be in the hands of one or two guys. Everybody's got to be able to make a play."
CAPTION: Under Coach Craig Esherick, Georgetown appears pointed in the right direction after slow start in the Big East.