Robert Chavez was eager to travel more than 3,000 miles to grab one of the 300 coaching positions in Division I basketball.
Chavez was introduced yesterday as the new basketball coach at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, the sixth man to hold that position in the past decade. The Hawks have had just one winning season since the 1973-74 team entered the National Invitation Tournament, and Chavez is the latest to be charged with leading UMES out of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference cellar.
"I grew up in the West, and I thought I would spend my entire coaching career in that part of the country," Chavez said. "There are only so many of these opportunities."
Chavez, 34, will be the only white coach in the MEAC, a conference of nine historically black colleges.
He spent the past five seasons at Chemeketa Community College in Salem, Ore., compiling a 136-24 record that included a 33-0 season in 1990-91. Chavez's winning percentage at Chemeketa (.850) exceeded the 141-39 mark (.783) recorded there from 1977-83 by Rick Adelman, now coach of the Portland Trail Blazers.
Chavez was selected from a field of nearly 100 applicants. UMES athletic director Dr. Hallie E. Gregory said that list was whittled to five finalists, one of them being Bob Wilkerson, who finished the 1991-92 season as the Hawks' interim coach. Wilkerson could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Wilkerson had replaced Bob Hopkins, who resigned early last season after a 37-point loss to Division III Salisbury State that dropped UMES to 0-6.
Hopkins, who came to UMES under NCAA sanctions growing out of violations during his tenure at Grambling, was 5-23 in his first season in Princess Anne.
After Hopkins' resignation last December, Wilkerson, his top assistant, took over. UMES lost its next 10 games, won three straight, then finished with nine more losses for a 3-25 record. That team included just four returnees from the 1990-91 team, and Chavez said retaining players would be a priority.
"I haven't met any players, but I did get the chance to talk to most of them over the phone," Chavez said. "They're starting fresh, just like I am. With some, we have to get their academic situation straightened out, and it's unlikely all of them will be eligible to play next season.
"We're evaluating where each kid is to see what scholarships are available, and it appears I'll be able to bring in two or three new players."
Chavez said he wants to continue using the uptempo style he favored at Chemeketa, where his teams won Northwest Community College Association titles in 1989 and '91.
Chavez spent the previous eight years as an assistant coach at three Division I programs, including the 1985-86 and 1986-87 seasons at Arizona State, where the head coach was Steve Patterson. Chavez previously spent two seasons at Colorado State in the Western Athletic Conference, and three at Montana State, in the Big Sky.
He joined the staff at Montana State fresh out of Mesa (Colo.) State College, an NAIA program where he captained the team as a senior in 1979-80. He earned a bachelor's degree in biology from Mesa State.
"He [Chavez] exudes energy, and we need a lot of energy right now," Gregory said. "In the interview process, when it came time to ask prospects how they would get us on the right track, he already had a step-by-step plan to show me."
Born in Pueblo, Colo., Chavez played for his father at Glenwood Springs High School, where Robert Chavez Sr. won nearly 500 games, a Colorado record.
Robert Chavez Jr. and his wife, Suzie, are expecting twins Dec. 5, two days before the Hawks play at Maryland.