This Todd Bozeman, now here's a guy who makes ever-hopeful Cubs fans look like pessimists, a guy who makes always upbeat Ernie Banks look like a venal misanthrope.
Give this guy Bozeman a crate of lemons, and he won't screw up his face in distaste. He'll take them and make a million selling lemonade. Put him down in the middle of a hurricane, he'll start pointing out the silver lining in the clouds. Sock him in with the season's worst snowstorm, he'll shovel himself out and start building castles toward the sky.
That, in effect, is just what he was asked to do last Feb. 8, which is the day California fired Lou Campanelli and named Bozeman his successor. He was 29 years old, had never been a head coach on any level, and here he was being handed a team that was so low it needed to stand on its tiptoes to just peek over a curbstone.
It was 10-7 then, 4-5 in the Pac-10, yet its mediocre record was not the worst thing about it. The players had been bruised verbally and battered by Campanelli, a gruff character who said this (for one example) after his then-19th-ranked Bears lost to James Madison in a Christmas tourney at the Meadowlands: "Whatever the New York press says about our defense won't be too harsh. That wasn't a Lou Campanelli defense out there. I'm embarrassed. This was very disappointing."
"Our confidence level was empty when he [Bozeman] took over," remembers Cal's star, freshman guard Jason Kidd. "We had confidence when the season began, but it started to fade in the middle of the season. And we were unhappy. Coach Bozeman reaffirmed his confidence in us and was just positive. He rejuvenated us."
"He instilled confidence back in us," adds forward Lamond Murray, "and once you have that confidence level in your head, you can do anything."
"All I've tried to do," concludes Bozeman himself, "is remain positive with them and stay focused on small goals. In life you're going to have some adversity, but you've got to try to find something positive in it. It might be a bad experience for you. But you've got to be positive."
Now all of this sounds like so much happy talk, like the precepts preached by some Dr. Feelgood on one of those PBS improve-yourself specials. But don't scoff. For under Bozeman the Bears have gone 11-1, and -- with their stunning upset of Duke last Saturday -- moved into a Midwest Regional semifinal Thursday against Kansas.
They are the mystery guests of that regional, which also pits Indiana against Louisville, yet their deep-seated belief in themselves now makes them the most dangerous kind of foe.
That Ya-Gotta-Believe message was instilled in Bozeman early in life, back when he was growing up in Washington, D.C. It came from a dad who held down three jobs and a mom who held down two.
He got his own first job at the age of 13, and then grew into a player good enough to receive a basketball scholarship from Rhode Island. He was its MVP as a sophomore, but that summer tore up ligaments in his ankle and never regained his former form.
"I wanted to be a yuppie then," he says of his goal when he graduated in 1986. "I wanted to get an apartment, drive a BMW."
He instead got a day job driving and delivering for Federal Express, and at night served as the assistant basketball coach for Potomac High in Oxon Hill, Md. He stayed there but two years, got hired by George Mason University, stayed there but two weeks, got hired by Tulane's Perry Clark.
At Tulane, he helped Clark resurrect the program, recruiting a pair of All-Metro players, and two years later he was off again, this time to Cal as Campanelli's assistant. He recruited Murray, the cousin of former UCLA star Tracy Murray; and starting forward Alfred Grigsby during his first season at the school, and during the next convinced Kidd to turn away from Kansas and to stay near his Oakland home.
So Bozeman helped construct this team, yet back in November he was merely an assistant in charge of the backcourt. But when the team struggled, Campanelli attacked its players personally, and the players' relationship with Campanelli deteriorated, and Cal fired Campanelli and promoted Bozeman.
He inherited a controversial situation, Campanelli's dismissal having stirred passions across the land, yet he also took over a team that was not without talent.
There was Kidd, of course, and 6-foot-7-inch Murray, an explosive performer blessed with a three-point shooter's touch. Murray emerged as the Bears' leading scorer (18.6 points a game) with an attitude. "I get my most fun out of a three-point shot, just popping a jumper in somebody's face," he says. "It hurts their ego when they turn around and watch the ball go through the hole."
There was 6-9 soph Grigsby, an active force underneath, and 6-2 freshman Jerod Haase.
All of them were invited to now hang around their head coach's office, to challenge him in a game of dominoes, and all were pushed constantly to believe as firmly as he believed. "This is going to work," declared Todd Bozeman in his first meeting with his team.
"But," says center Brian Hendrick, "at the time he took over, everyone on the team felt we were at a crossroads. We had to decide whether we were just going to play it through, or go after the goals we set at the beginning of the season. Obviously, we chose the second."
Kidd is asked whether he would be in the tournament if Campanelli were still his coach.
"No," Jason Kidd says bluntly, and without hesitation. "We'd be home watching it on TV."