Under twin stress, Chavez still delivers New UMES coach has turned out respectable team

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PRINCESS ANNE -- Five months and 15,000 miles ago, Rob Chavez discovered a new definition for stress.

When Chavez was named basketball coach at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore last June, he took over a program with no continuity, a decade's worth of losing and one eligible player. The package also included the scrutiny that came with being the first white coach in the historically black Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.

Chavez became a father Oct. 5, when his wife, Susie, gave birth to twin daughters. Born two months before term, Lindsay and Carlyn weighed 3 pounds each. Their first six weeks were spent in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at University of Maryland Hospital, and the Ronald McDonald House became home.

Pardon Chavez if he shook his head at the major conference coaches bemoaning the loss of two weeks' practice last October.

"The Honda was new when we got here," said Chavez, who moved 3,000 miles from a junior college in Oregon to the Eastern Shore. "We were able to bring the girls home two days before Thanksgiving, but between Nov. 1 and then, I usually drove to Baltimore after practice and came right back, or spent the night there and came back here in the morning.

"It's been a trying year, but it's also been very gratifying. With the time we had to put in here and the recruiting we needed to do, the basketball program needed a lot of 80-90-hour weeks, but the girls also required attention."

At a Feb. 18 checkup, Carlyn (10 pounds, 12 ounces) and Lindsay (10, 10) were actually overweight.

"The girls are still on monitors, and the stress has been unbelievable," Susie Chavez said. "Rob's remained calm through it all, but he's always been that way. Rob's prepared for anything. He's very meticulous, and he plans everything."

The numbers for UMES are just as encouraging. The Hawks take a 12-14 record and the No. 6 seed into the MEAC tournament in Norfolk. UMES will play third-seeded South Carolina State on Friday at 8 p.m. It's the most wins since UMES rejoined the MEAC in 1982.

Man with a plan

Chavez, 35, was in junior high when he knew he was going to be a coach, but the bug bit him earlier. His father won 486 games, the second-highest total in Colorado high school history, and Chavez said: "I remember sitting on the bench in my little shirt and tie at the Denver Arena when one of his teams went to the state finals. I was probably 8-9 years old."

Chavez was the point guard in 1975 on one of his father's three state championship teams, and then explored western college basketball. He was an NAIA star for Mesa (Colo.) College, and saw the Big Sky Conference (Montana State), the Western Athletic (Colorado State) and Pacific-10 (Arizona State) as an assistant.

He went to Chemeketa (Ore.) Community College for head coaching experience, and was 136-24 in five seasons. But the quickest way to a Division I job was to go east, where there's an abundance of small, struggling programs.

"I wasn't going to walk into the University of Oregon right away," Chavez said. "I knew that if I ever got a Division I job, it would be like this, at the bottom of the totem pole."

There has been too little to cheer about at UMES since the Hawks reached the NAIA final in 1973 and played in the NIT the next year. The football program was dropped in 1980, and the basketball team hasn't had a winner since 1981. During the past eight years, the Hawks never had finished higher than next-to-last in the MEAC.

Chavez's background with junior college players who needed to get their academics in order was helpful, because one player, reserve guard Mike Arnold, was eligible for the 1992-93 season at the conclusion of the spring 1992 semester.

"The wild thing is that we all left school thinking we were eligible," said Marlin Kimbrew, a senior who is the first UMES player named MEAC first-team in seven years. "When Chavez called and let me know the situation, I got my butt back down here and took six credits. Right away, we knew the guy was on his p's and q's."

Chavez is the sixth UMES coach since 1984, and the program has gone through a commensurate number of players. No one from two seasons ago is still around. Chavez asked, "How many good, eligible players are available June 15?" But he, nonetheless, brought in six recruits last summer.

He rounded up three freshmen, including Aaron McKinney, who was tagged for Chemeketa. Dale Harrison came from a junior college in California, and assistant coach Jeff Menday brought Zack Allison with him from Salt Lake City JC.

All 11 carried 2.0 grade-point averages at the end of last semester, as did Duray Thirdgill, a transfer from Chemeketa who went back home in December.

Chavez is using seven men, and Allison, 6 feet 4, and Harrison, 6-2, came up big in what is usually a three-guard lineup. The flimsy mix was the preseason choice to finish last in the nine-team MEAC, but UMES won three of its first four conference games. Eight of its 12 wins have been by six or fewer points.

"There's absolutely no margin for error," Chavez said. "That's an

exaggeration, but it's not far from the truth.

play error-free, and have to win on the last shot. These guys have really accomplished a lot, and they need to be acknowledged. Hopefully, this season has given us some credibility. How much, I don't know."

Out on a limb again

Chavez wasn't the one whose credibility was being questioned last summer. His hiring was the second straight gamble taken by athletic director Hallie Essex Gregory, who, in 1990, had selected Bob Hopkins to oversee what had become an annual rebuilding job.

The NCAA found rules violations when Hopkins coached Grambling, and his duties at UMES were restricted. He resigned December 1991, two days after a 37-point loss to Division III Salisbury State. Bob Wilkerson, a former Indiana standout, was the interim coach the rest of the season and was one of the five finalists for the job, but UMES went with Chavez.

"I know we were going out on a limb again," Gregory said. "Rob came in and talked about first making the kids believe in themselves, and then getting greater participation from the community. Hopefully, we've quieted some skeptics."

Before coming to UMES, Chavez consulted Dave Robbins, who has built Virginia Union into a Division II and Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association power, about being the only white coach in a historically black conference. "When we go on the road, sometimes I hear people getting on me, but they're just getting on me as a coach. There hasn't been anything racist."

Howie Evans, the UMES coach from 1984 to 1986 and now the sports editor of New York's Amsterdam News, said there remains a strain of opinion asking that if black colleges won't hire black coaches, who will?

"Nobody wants to say it for the record, but there was resentment throughout the conference when Chavez was hired," Evans said. "I met some people from the school who said they weren't going to go to the games.

"I've seen his team play a number of times, and they play hard. It's not like he has any NBA prospects."

The talent has to get better for UMES to compete with the likes of Coppin State, which routed the Hawks, 75-51, Saturday, and three UMES coaches -- a first -- will hit the recruiting road after the MEAC tournament.

The commitment from the administration hasn't grown; it's just that Menday and Darryl Bruce are splitting what used to be Wilkerson's salary. There have been a few minor improvements, such as a rebuilt locker room and traveling to Florida A&M; and Bethune-Cookman by jet instead of bus, but Chavez said that UMES isn't going to outspend anyone.

"I've done everything I could not to get trapped in the past, but we've got to overcome a poor tradition," Chavez said. "We're trying to change the image of the program, and how coaches and players feel about UMES."

UMES in the MEAC

The 12 wins for first-year coach Rob Chavez are the most for UMES since the Hawks re-entered the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference in 1982.

Coach ...... ....... ..... Season .... Record

Rob Chavez ......... ..... 1992-93 ... 12-14

Bob Wilkerson (3-19) ..... 1991-92 ... 3-25

Bob Hopkins (0-6) ........ 1991-92 ...

Hopkins ..... ...... ..... 1990-91 ... 5-23

Steve Williams ..... ..... 1989-90 ... 10-17

Williams ..... ..... ..... 1988-89 ... 1-26

Williams ..... ..... ..... 1987-88 ... 7-20

Williams ..... ..... ..... 1986-87 ... 2-24

Howie Evans .. ..... ..... 1985-86 ... 4-23

Evans ........ ..... ..... 1984-85 ... 3-24

Kirkland Hall....... ..... 1983-84 ... 7-20

Hall ......... ..... ..... 1982-83 ... 9-18

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