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I was down to my last dress shirt, and it was not a great shirt. I guess that is what happens when you never have been to the final game of the Final Four. You simply don't know how to pack. Other things seem more important.
The sleeves on the shirt were about an inch too short. The collar on the shirt simply wouldn't settle, the white wings on either side of my tie looking like they had started to fly out the windows of the suite at the Hyatt Regency Westshore in Tampa and into the Florida sky. I was not a picture from Gentlemen's Quarterly.
"You don't have something else?" my wife, Pat, asked as I finished dressing.
"It's all that was left in the bag," I replied.
There was no debate about the tie. It was the same patterned purple tie I'd worn nine days earlier at the America West Arena in Phoenix, Arizona. It was a match for the black suit I'd also worn at the America West Arena. A friend, Bill Mitchell, a clothier in Westport, Connecticut, had given me three suits to wear for the weekend, but I was sticking with what I knew.
Pat was worried that the suit might have shrunk from the water dumped on top of me at the end of that Arizona afternoonUniversity of Connecticut 67, Gonzaga 62but apparently it had come back from the cleaners in fine shape. If it had shrunk, well, it would match the shirt, then, wouldn't it?
This was not a time for great changes.
I was the lead character in the storynot a story, really, but a sagathat was going to be played into the Neilsen-rated homes of America on this night of March 29, 1999. The Coach Who Couldn't Get to the Final Four. That was me. Now not only was I at the Final Four, I had a shot to win the damn thing. A 9 1/2-point underdog's shot, perhaps, but a shot.
The University of Connecticut vs. Duke.
NCAA Championship Game.9:18 P.M. (EST)
The Tropicana Dome, St. Petersburg, FL
CBS (Jim Nantz and Billy Packer).
I was cast as the coaching veteran of 27 years, the new grandfather, 56 years old, who had shown the patience of Job, the perseverance of Sisyphus, pushing that boulder up that long, torturous hill. I had reached the summit at last. The chains were gone; the great cloud had lifted.
I, to tell the truth, was less charmed by the tale than just about anyone. I gave no time to it. None at all.
I simply wanted to win that damn game.
The question had been coming at me for almost ten years now. Yes? The stocky gentleman in the back of the room with the notebook and the mustard stain on his shirt? Yes? How do I feel about not going to the Final Four? Well . . .
I always had refused to be judged by whether or not my teams from UConn advanced those last couple of steps. Would I have been a better coach if the shot by Duke's Christian Laettner had rimmed out or fallen short in 1990 . . . if Donyell Marshall, our best foul shooter, had made one of two against Florida in 1994 . . . if we hadn't been sent to play UCLA in 1995 in California, or North Carolina in 1998 in North Carolina . . . if and if and if? Nonsense.
That litany of doom had grown longer and longer with the end of each season, but I never changed my explanation. The NCAA tournament was a tightrope, understand? One subtle push, one unforeseen rush of air, and you can be sitting at home with your mending clavicle, your surgically repaired pelvis. Your broken heart. Anything can happen in a single-elimination tournament. Excellence was climbing back on that tightrope, again and again. Excellence was inching forward, step by step. Excellence was a long-term proposition. I didn't feel any differently now.
"It's great you've finally made it after all you've been through," people would say, meaning well.
"Thank you" was the answer I gave. But what I wanted to say was, "What do you mean, 'after all I've been through'? Do you mean six Big East championships in the nineties, five in the last six years? Do you mean seven trips to the Sweet Sixteen in the past 10 years? Do you mean the four 30-win seasons, an average of 26 wins every year in the past decade? Yeah, it's a bitch. I make over $500,000 every year, my physical health is fine, and my mental health, while always questionable, at least seems to stay the same. Yeah, I've been through a lot."
I was the same coach I always had been, the same guy. I had the same values, same ideas. The perception that I was better, that I somehow had changed, that I had done something differently this time was ridiculous. The package might have changeddifferent styles for the nineties than the seventiesbut the contents were the same. I was the same guy who had watched Laettner's shot go through the basket at the buzzer, making it Duke 79, UConn 78 in overtime. Maybe a little older, but probably not much wiser.
"This Is Our Time" was the message I had written on the blackboard again and again during our long season.
Maybe it was as simple as that. Maybe this was our time.
I would still be the same coach I always had been.
The University of Connecticut might never have been to another Final Four, but it had been at this one forever. I had brought the team into Tampa on Wednesday night, a day before Duke and Michigan State and Ohio State arrived. It was silly, I suppose, a little bit of gamesmanship that probably meant nothing, but I liked the idea that we were already there on Thursday morning, when the other teams were just getting ready to make the trip. On my personal scoreboard, that gave us the early lead. It let us establish our patterns, our routines, first.
I am a believer in routines.
I like familiarity.
I had talked with a few coaches who had taken teams to other Final Fours. There are different strategies about whether to let the kids go, let them enjoy the event, or to hold the reins in a tight grip and be all business. I probably chose a path somewhere in the middle, but I did have hold of those reins. No doubt about that.
I picked the Hyatt Westshore, near the Tampa airport, from a list of hotels offered by the NCAA. I liked the idea that it largely had been booked by CBS, so it wouldn't be filled with fans. I liked the idea that it was away from the action downtown. It had two pools, the second one hidden and private. I liked the two pools.
The first thing we do on any road trip, even a bus ride to Boston College for an overnight, is meet in the captain's room (we had co-captains, Ricky Moore and Rashamel Jones, but mostly always we met in Ricky's room). I like the way everyone is crowded together. I can see all the eyes.
I start by laying out the schedule for the rest of the night and the next day: up at 7:30, breakfast at 8:30, bus for practice at 9:30, practice at 10 . . . it's all out there, bang, bang, bang. I then deliver a message of some kind.
"You're going to really enjoy this week, but the reason we're here is to win a national championship," was this message. "Every team hereDuke, of course, and Michigan State, Ohio Stateis on a roll. But the opponent doesn't make any difference. We're here to win a national championship."
The hotel becomes your home pretty quickly. The arena becomes your place of work. The 30-minute trip from hotel to arenain this case on a long causeway between Tampa and St. Petersburgbecomes your commute. By the sixth day, when the championship game arrived for us, we couldn't have been more settled if we had a second mortgage and crabgrass.
Example 1: On Friday night we ate a team dinner in the hotel dining room. It was a terrific restaurant, good food, but too good for the kids, if you know what I mean. When the chicken cordon bleu arrived, they all looked at it as if it were food for aliens. Most of the team went out for fast-food replacements as soon as the meal was done.
On Sunday night we ate again at the restaurant. We thought about taking the kids somewhere else, but decided against it because we wanted to conserve all energies for Monday. We did talk to the restaurant about the menu, though, and this time the chicken was fried, brought in from outside with burgers and fries and hot dogs. Everybody loved it.
Example 2: Probably the moment it hit me first and best that we were playing for the national championship came on Sunday, when we went to practice at Tropicana Field. The dressing rooms for Ohio State and Michigan State were now empty. The little signs with the names were still on the doors, but the people were gone. Duke and Connecticut were the only ones left.
"You can switch to the Michigan State room if you'd like," an NCAA official said. "It might be a better room."
"Noooo," I said. "We'll just stay where we are."