Hewitt's name up in lights with stars


IN ONE CORNER of the Final Four is Oklahoma State's Eddie Sutton, who has coached in this event twice previously. In another corner is Connecticut's Jim Calhoun, who won the national championship in 1999. Opposite Calhoun is Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, who needs no introduction.

And then finally, we have Georgia Tech's Paul Hewitt, "The Rookie." No one, absolutely no one, thought his Yellow Jackets would be making an appearance in San Antonio this weekend.

"Ignorance is bliss, sometimes," said Hewitt, 40, laughing. "It's funny. We started the year in the preseason NIT, and it kind of was the same setup. You had Jim Calhoun, Rick Majerus, Bobby Knight [all in the semifinals], and then everybody was wondering who that guy was over in the corner.

"We were lucky enough to win there, so when I look at this, I see a very similar group," he said. "I just hope I don't get in their way until the game starts at least."

Of the Final Four contestants, Georgia Tech is the longest shot to win the national championship. Connecticut has the dominant big man. Oklahoma State has great athletes. Duke has the inside game to complement its outside game and is finally playing defense.

The Yellow Jackets? Guard Jarrett Jack is finally starting to get some national recognition, but the star of the show is Hewitt, who is being overshadowed by his three counterparts.

But few of his peers can match the job Hewitt has done this season. He started the year minus 6-foot-10 freshman Chris Bosh, who bolted to the NBA last June, and took another hit when starting forward Ed Nelson transferred to Connecticut.

The Yellow Jackets were picked to finish seventh in the Atlantic Coast Conference, but ended up tied for third with an NCAA tournament invitation. Now, Hewitt finds himself among a group of coaches that has won 2,127 games compared with his 141 victories.

"There is a lot of stuff surrounding the Final Four, in terms of the peripheral stuff, like the media and who has tickets. There are a lot of distractions," Hewitt said. "When it comes to a situation like that, the other guys have an advantage because they have been here before.

"I have a lot of confidence in my coaching staff," he said. "We'll put together a game plan. But more than anything else, I have confidence in my players."

Hewitt has built this team in his own image. He was born in Kingston, Jamaica, but his parents, Burchell and Dolcie, moved to the United States in 1968. Hewitt's father is a machinist who, at age 70, still works in his shop in Queens, N.Y.

He can remember playing touch football on the streets in Queens, playing softball in Liberty Park and street hockey. But the most important lessons he learned were rolling up his sleeves and going to work.

Hewitt has the same work ethic as his father, and his team has the blue-collar approach. The Yellow Jackets are defensive-minded and rely on depth. Eight Georgia Tech players average at least 18 minutes a game, and two more, forwards Robert Brooks and Theodis Tarver, average about nine.

The bulk of the team's talent is at guard, where three or four players can play at least two or three positions. Hewitt likens his philosophies to that of Maryland coach Gary Williams. You don't always need blue-chip players to be successful, but a lot of players who chip in.

"That Maryland team that won the national championship a few years ago could have won during a lot of eras," said Hewitt, the father of three girls. "I'm a big believer in developing depth. You have to recruit guys who want to come in and get better. That insulates you from potential disaster. When somebody goes down, somebody steps up."

It worked perfectly for Georgia Tech this season.

"B.J. Elder gets hurt against Nevada, and Marvin Lewis has a big game," said Georgia Tech assistant coach Cliff Warren. "B.J. is hurt and Marvin scores one point against Kansas, and Jarrett Jack scores 29. Players have done that for him all season."

The results have produced a 27-9 record this season, and a rejuvenated basketball program. Hewitt arrived in Atlanta in 2000 after the Yellow Jackets had posted back-to-back seasons of 15-16 and 13-17. He replaced Bobby Cremins, a three-time ACC Coach of the Year, who had Georgia Tech consistently ranked in the Top 25.

But from 1998 through 2000, the Yellow Jackets stumbled. End of Cremins, who retired.

But there is a buzz around the Georgia Tech campus again, thanks to Hewitt. After last season, university officials tore up his contract and gave him a new one after the Yellow Jackets finished 16-15. Nearly 1,000 fans showed up at 11 p.m. last week to welcome the players back to campus.

Four victories in the NCAA tournament have netted Hewitt $50,000 in bonuses to go along with his base salary of $225,000. He earns another $100,000 for speaking appearances and $250,000 more for radio and TV shows.

But after the tournament, he'll get more. He is a hot commodity, either somewhere else in the college ranks or possibly the NBA. But it won't be easy to pry him away from Georgia Tech.

Georgia Tech has raised $500 million from mostly private donations for a campus makeover, and some of that money could be used to easily influence Hewitt to stay. Plus, Hewitt is loyal to school president David Clough and athletic director Dave Braine, who gambled on him when they hired him away from Siena in upstate New York.

He has done everything the university has asked, and more, even patching up a relationship with the university and Cremins, who won 354 games at Georgia Tech.

"He has been outstanding," Hewitt said. "The first day, calling me, letting me know that if there was anything I need, any advice, he would be there to offer. At least once a month on a Monday, I'll get a call from him. He's been great, very, very supportive."

Cremins is part of the tradition at Georgia Tech. So are former players like Mark Price, John Salley and Bruce Dalrymple, who are all expected to be in attendance Saturday night.

Hewitt will be there, too, "The Rookie," an unknown among some of college basketball's best. But in 2003-2004, he may have done the best job of them all.

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