PRINCESS ANNE -- By 1997, the University of Maryland Eastern Shore plans to break ground for a multipurpose, 5,000-seat recreation center. And if the UMES basketball team continues its dramatic turnaround, it just might be called Rob Chavez Arena.
Yes, it is quite unlikely. But so is the Hawks' record of 14-10 (9-5 in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference) less than two years after Chavez inherited a 3-25 team. The Hawks, who play at home against Coppin State on Saturday, have clinched their first winning regular-season record in 12 years.
Chavez, 35, had grown accustomed to success, compiling a 136-24 record in five years at Chemeteka Community College in Salem, Ore.
Friends and relatives wondered why he was traveling 3,000 miles to become the latest losing coach at a historically black school that had not had basketball success since the early 1970s, when center Joe Pace led the Hawks to the NAIA finals.
"Most of my best friends in the coaching fraternity thought I was crazy," said Chavez, who interned as an assistant at Montana State and Colorado State. "They told me UMES was a dead-end job and that I was committing occupational suicide."
But Chavez preferred viewing it as a challenge. Besides, it was not as if he had been besieged by offers to coach high-profile Division I teams.
"As a matter of fact, I applied for a number of Division I jobs, but UMES was the only interview I received," he said. "You can have great success as a junior college coach, but that rarely opens doors to big schools. Jerry Tarkanian, Lute Olson and Nolan Richardson were rare exceptions."
The odds were even greater for Chavez. Some research told him that there hadn't been a white coach in the MEAC since the league was formed in 1971.
But Chavez had a man who could empathize with him in Dr. Hallie Gregory, the UMES athletic director who had the option of retaining former Indiana University and NBA guard Bobby Wilkerson or seeking a new coach.
Gregory, who is black, could put himself in Chavez's shoes.
"One of my first jobs out of college was coaching a high school basketball team in Erwin, S.D., a town so small that it makes Princess Anne look like a metropolis," Gregory said.
"I don't think the people in Ervin had ever seen a black man before. But if you do a good job, you're fair with the kids and demand a lot out of them, it doesn't matter if you're white, black or polka-dot. And that is what Chavez has got across to our players. I'm really pleased with the results."
Gregory received more than 100 applications for the coaching vacancy. "There were a lot of assistant coaches, JuCo coaches and guys who were trying to leave other losing programs," he said.
There was pressure from several MEAC officials for Gregory to hire a black, but he interviewed only five men and was overwhelmed by Chavez's organization and precise outline for UMES' basketball future.
"He came prepared for the interview with a 12-page booklet entitled 'How to Develop A Winning Program at UMES,' and he has just about followed through on all his projections to date," said Gregory. "He's gained strong support from the faculty and students, and it's also building in the community.
"Before he got here, I couldn't give away our allotment of 100 tickets for the MEAC tournament. Now, I've got people begging me to include them in the trip to Baltimore in March."
One of Chavez's talents has been turning negatives into positives.
"The biggest thing we had to do in starting out was to change the image of high school coaches, JuCo coaches and the kids you were trying to recruit about UMES basketball," Chavez said. "Then, of course, you also have the location of the school in a real, small town."
But Chavez has made the location a plus in selling potential recruits.
"You stress that it takes a special student-athlete to make it here," he said. "There are no distractions and a lot less risks than being on a big-city campus, so there is a lot more time for academics. Plus, our recruits also have an opportunity to be part of history -- playing on the first winning team here in almost two decades."
Senior reserve guard Mike Arnold of Largo and DeMatha is the lone holdover from the 1991-92 Hawks, who were coached by former NBA forward Bob Hopkins and Wilkerson, his midseason replacement.
"That team was used to losing," Arnold said. "Under Coach Chavez, we've become used to winning, and when we lose, we really take it to heart."
Junior guard Terrell Harris, a transfer from Colby (Kan.) Community College, credits Chavez with being a strong motivator but says he is an even better teacher.
"We're totally prepared by practice and watching films for whatever the other team will throw at us," said Harris. "Coach Chavez instills confidence in us that if we run a play correctly, it will work no matter how the other team adjusts."
Chavez, a native of Glenwood Springs, Colo., learned his basketball from his father, Bob, who ranks second in all-time victories among Colorado high school coaches.
"Yes," said Chavez, "he still offers me some of his pet plays, and most of them still work."