ST. LOUIS — St. Louis -- James Flint was an assistant coach at Coppi State back then. Todd Bozeman was a volunteer assistant at Potomac High School in Prince George's County, still trying to get into college coaching.
Their playing careers just had ended -- Flint's at St. Joseph's and Bozeman's at Rhode Island -- and these former Atlantic 10 rivals had become best friends. They shared their dreams of becoming Division I head coaches by the time they were 30.
"We talked about being part of the new wave of young, black assistants who would become head coaches. We even kidded about coaching against each other one day in the Final Four," Flint, now an assistant at Massachusetts, recalled earlier this week. "In this business, you have to think positive, and Todd has always been that way."
Five years later, Flint hasn't quite reached his goal. But Bozeman got his chance last month. It came when Lou Campanelli, the man who hired Bozeman three years ago at California, was fired Feb. 8 amid charges of verbally abusing his players.
The Bears, 10-7 and on a three-game losing streak at the time of Campanelli's dismissal, have won 11 of 12 games under Bozeman. With victories in the NCAA tournament over LSU and Duke, the two-time defending champion, sixth-seeded Cal will play second-seeded Kansas in one of tonight's Midwest Regional semifinals. Top-seeded, top-ranked Indiana meets fourth-seeded Louisville in the other.
"It's just a great opportunity for him," Flint, 27, said about Bozeman. "And he's made the most of it."
Indeed, Bozeman, 29, has risen from relative obscurity to become one of college basketball's hottest coaching commodities. And the spotlight that cooled shortly after he replaced Campanelli heated up again as his team -- and Bozeman -- became the talk of this year's tournament.
Despite Cal's success, not all the talk has been positive. Last week at the Rosemont Horizon outside Chicago, the apparent hostility toward Bozeman by coaches who questioned his role in Campanelli's firing came into view when LSU's Dale Brown eschewed the traditional post-game handshake. Lynn Nance, who since has been fired at Washington, had done the same during the regular season.
Brown called Bozeman earlier this week to apologize, and Bozeman tried to defuse the incident yesterday by saying: "There are other things to think about than to dwell on something so small."
But Bozeman still finds himself fending off rumors of being a participant in the players' revolt that led to Cal athletic director Bob Bockrath's firing of Campanelli.
Those who have known Bozeman say they don't believe that ambition got in the way of common sense when he chose to take Bockrath's offer to coach the Bears through the remainder of the season. (Bozeman was signed to a three-year contract right before the tournament started.)
"I think Todd is a very loyal and caring person," said Tulane coach Perry Clark, who hired Bozeman as an assistant in 1988 from George Mason, where he had worked briefly as a part-time assistant. Clark recommended Bozeman to Campanelli. "His loyalty stands out above everything," he said. "I can't believe he suddenly became disloyal to Lou."
Those familiar with the situation say that while Bozeman did nothing to enflame the players, he did little to discourage them from going to Bockrath to voice their complaints.
Bockrath took most of the heat initially, but lately it has been directed at Bozeman as the team continued to win. The National Association of Basketball Coaches decided to look into Campanelli's firing, but the NABC apparently found no improper behavior by Bozeman.
"I've been able to block all of that out," Bozeman, who grew up in Forestville, said yesterday after practice. "You have to be able to focus and concentrate on the present."
In a competitive business where many coaches get six-figure contracts and some make in excess of $500,000 a year through endorsements and camps, back-stabbing and rumor-mongering have become de rigueur. Campanelli's firing shook up the coaching establishment.
"A lot of times when there's anger, there has to be a target," said Clark. "He [Bozeman] was more a target of it than a cause of it."
Said Massachusetts coach John Calipari, who condemned Cal's action but has become one of Bozeman's confidants through their mutual association with Flint: "As the money coaches make increases, the jealousy increases and the paranoia increases."
Bozeman's friends in the coaching business say that his defensive posture these days is the result of the controversy he inherited. But they have confidence he will survive because Bozeman has a strong belief in himself.
As he said yesterday: "The confidence comes from my upbringing. My father always taught me to do my best. Every person on this earth is special in their own way. You can accomplish anything you want when you put your mind to it."
Six years ago, Bozeman put his mind to becoming a college coach. It meant delivering packages for Federal Express in the morning and coaching for little pay as an assistant at Potomac High School in Oxon Hill. It meant driving from camp to camp during the summer. He met Clark while working at Bobby Cremins' summer camp at Georgia Tech.
"He was a young man bubbling over with basketball knowledge," said Taft Hickman, the Potomac coach. "He asked me, 'Can you get me in with Five-Star [basketball camp]?' He knew the game very well. He related to the kids extremely well. I could see the potential."
It meant taking his first full-time college job at Tulane, which was in the process of reinstating basketball after the point-shaving // scandal in the mid-'80s shut down the program. It was there Bozeman began to build his recruiting reputation.
But it was the job he did getting local star and high school All-American Jason Kidd to reconsider staying home that gave Bozeman the most recognition. The Bears were not even on Kidd's initial list of schools. Kansas was his top choice.
"He was a big reason I went to Cal," Kidd said yesterday. "And he is a big reason why we're here. If it wasn't for him, we'd be home watching with everyone else."
Bozeman's closeness with his players, which made some suspicious after Campanelli's firing, is still very apparent. He eats with them. A former small forward whose playing career was curtailed by an injury in his junior year, Bozeman still joins them on the court occasionally.
"I think his mouth runs a little," said sophomore forward Alfred Grigsby. "But, seriously, he is a very good communicator. He lets us decide which offense to run, which defense to run. We give him feedback. He gives us confidence."
Said reserve forward Steve Johnson of Towson: "He's a very confident man, and his confidence rubs off on us."
As the players were ready to leave the arena yesterday, Bozeman was being pulled away for another interview. Johnson playfully snapped a jersey against Bozeman's leg. Is this a proper way to treat your coach?
"He's just one of the guys," said Johnson.
Just a lot more famous than he was a month ago.
The Bozeman file
Place of birth: Washington, D.C.
Playing career: McNamara High School, Forestville, Md., University of Rhode Island, graduated 1986.
Coaching career: Volunteer assistant, Potomac High School, Oxon Hill, Md, 1987-88; part-time assistant, George Mason University, 1988; assistant coach, Tulane University, 1988-90; assistant coach, California, 1990-93; interim head coach beginning Feb. 8; signed to a three-year contract March 16.
Family: Wife, TeLethea; son, Blake 10 months