Back in the game

The Baltimore Sun

Do you care?

On a Thursday afternoon in mid-January, Todd Bozeman halted practice at Morgan State, tossed the basketballs aside, echoed a recurring theme about commitment and posed that question to his players.

Do you care?

The Bears, bad news for nearly three decades, had posted a few nice wins, but their first-year coach wanted to know if they yearned with their every fiber to do what he expected of a team.

That half-hour skull session led to a five-game winning streak in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and dreams of Morgan State's first berth in the NCAA Division I tournament.

It culminated in Delaware State's only home loss, a rally-'round-the-coach effort that came two days after an incident in rural Virginia that showed Bozeman cared plenty - enough to take a misunderstanding over a sandwich order for the two dozen men in the Bears' traveling party into his own hands.

That disagreement led to two misdemeanor charges against Bozeman and an April 24 court date - and diverted attention from the work he has done to restore Morgan State basketball and his own reputation.

If any coach in America needed to avoid controversy this winter, it was Bozeman, who was out of the game for a decade with a self-inflicted wound.

Bozeman, 43, made like Icarus at the University of California, where he ascended quickly and fell just as fast. In March 1993, in his second month as the head coach, the Bears beat two-time NCAA champion Duke to reach the Sweet 16.

Three years later, Bozeman was a pariah. He had paid $30,000 to the family of a recruit, and the NCAA essentially banned him from college coaching until 2005. The recruit's name was Jelani Gardner. Where did Gardner's father attend college?

Morgan State.

Lean years at Morgan

The Bears have been down and out much longer than Bozeman, who spent the past decade working as a salesman, NBA scout and Amateur Athletic Union coach. Morgan State and Marvin Webster won an NCAA Division II title in 1974, but the Bears have had one winning season since 1979.

They were the MEAC's worst program last year. The most talented player on campus was booted off the team by coach Butch Beard. You think Chris McCray's academic ineligibility hurt Maryland in 2006? Six Morgan State players flunked off last season's team.

"We lost three starters: the point guard, power forward and small forward," guard Joe McLean said of a group that started 0-18. "When we finally won a game, people reacted as if we had won the NCAA tournament."

Beard left, and athletic director Floyd Kerr, who has served on the NCAA men's basketball committee, hired Bozeman. Morgan State had nothing to lose, other than the nagging questions about why it couldn't win.

Bozeman was in his 20s when he recruited Jason Kidd and other NBA-bound talent to Cal. His powers of persuasion have not diminished.

Building a roster

The Bears' leading scorer is senior forward Ron Timus, the player Beard banished last season. Their leading rebounder is 6-foot-9 junior Boubacar Coly, who a year ago was getting a Xavier degree but riding the Musketeers' bench after a series of knee injuries.

Jamar Smith, an explosive wing, and point guard Jerrell Green (Southern) were junior college sophomores last season, giving Morgan State no thought until Bozeman was hired. He snatched three-point specialist Reggie Holmes (St. Frances) out of the Baltimore Catholic League.

Those five became part of a core that relies on three holdovers. McLean, who's listed at 6-2 but is closer to 5-11, was the leading scorer last season. Tim Berkley was the top returning big man. Rogers Barnes (River Hill), a junior guard from Columbia, first joined the program as a walk-on.

They opened in November with a 19-point loss at East Carolina. In December, the Bears, then 0-6, beat rival Coppin State and then that same East Carolina team. A group predicted to finish 10th in the 11-team MEAC finished in a five-way tie for third with a 10-8 conference record (12-17 overall).

"Todd has done a great selling job," Kerr said. "He's taken the old kids and merged them with the new. That jealousy, animosity between the old and the new is not there. The older kids are celebrating and cheering the new kids, and vice versa."

Bozeman's reference point was the Pacific-10. Did he experience culture shock in the MEAC?

"We have one secretary in this department," Kerr said. "There are a million administrative things for our head coaches to do so the team can get where it needs to be, to be fed, boarded. That falls on the coaches. That's something he's struggling with a little bit."

Bozeman balked at that observation.

"At Cal, I had two VCRs," Bozeman said. "I'm not a woe-is-me type. People tend to forget that I'm a roll-up-the-sleeves guy."

Shane Singh, a Bay Area attorney, spent four seasons as one of Bozeman's team managers at Cal, which was not your standard-issue, major-college jock factory.

"I visited Todd in February, saw his team play Hampton," Singh said. "Harman Gym, where we played on campus, was not as nice as Morgan State's field house."

A decade later, did Singh notice anything different about Bozeman?

"There's more of the head coaching gig in him now," Singh said. "He utilizes his assistants more. The game I saw, [assistant coach] Anwar McQueen had significant responsibilities during the game. Coach Bozeman uses his staff way more efficiently now than he did then."

Bozeman's first head coaching job fell into his lap in February 1993, when Cal fired Lou Campanelli, who reportedly bullied his players and used profane language in the locker room after a loss.

On Feb. 3 of this year, an employee of a bar and restaurant in Farmville, Va., accused Bozeman of similar behavior.

Morgan State played a nonconference game at Longwood College, an independent making the move to Division I. After the Bears ate their pre-game meal on High Street, across from campus, they placed an order for their post-game meal, to be delivered to the team bus before it returned to Baltimore.

Carlos Holland, a manager at Mulligan's Sports Grille, has said he told a Morgan State assistant beforehand that he could not fill the order for cheese-steak and chicken cheese-steak sandwiches.

After the Bears blew a lead and the game at Longwood, they waited at their bus. The sandwiches were cold, not the hot ones Morgan State had ordered. Bozeman told the bus driver to swing by Mulligan's, where he demanded a refund.

Holland has said Bozeman used profane language and placed his hands on Stephanie J. Schreck, a Mulligan's employee. She swore out two complaints against Bozeman, for assault and battery, and curse and abuse.

On Feb. 13, Bozeman returned to Farmville and surrendered to a magistrate, who arrested him at the Prince Edward County Courthouse, a few blocks from Mulligan's.

That afternoon, in an L-shaped basement space that includes pool tables, two bars and six booths, Schreck and Holland declined interview requests. Both said they would not discuss the matter until after it goes to court.

Jim Ennis, the attorney for Prince Edward County, said his office has begun interviewing witnesses.

"We've had a lot of contact with witnesses, up to 16 now," Ennis said yesterday morning.

At the advice of his attorney, Bozeman has declined to discuss the charges against him. Kerr and Earl S. Richardson, the Morgan State president, also have declined to comment on the matter.

Under the Virginia code, the penalty for assault and battery, a Class 1 misdemeanor, is 12 months in prison and/or a $2,500 fine. The penalty for curse and abuse, a Class 3 misdemeanor, is a fine of no more than $500.

Bozeman is happy to discuss basketball.

Two days after he returned to Farmville, Bozeman went on a local radio station to talk about the Bears' turnaround. The night before he turned himself in, Bozeman allowed WMAR/Channel 2 to mike him during the Bears' win over Norfolk State. Before that game, he endured the good-natured grilling of a Morgan State alumnus.

Maurice Jennings played for the program during its glory days. As a freshman in fall 1974, he roomed with Webster, aka "The Human Eraser."

"It's been painful, seeing how bad Morgan State has become in basketball," Jennings said. "Before the Norfolk State game, I introduced myself to Bozeman, and talked to him for a good 15-20 minutes. I told him he was doing a good job. I also asked him, 'How long are you going to be here?'"

Three-year contract

Last April, Bozeman signed a three-year contract, with an annual salary of $135,000. It includes a $25,000 bonus if the Bears make the NCAA tournament. It was assumed the job would be his springboard back into the big time.

Morgan State seemed to hit an emotional wall after that Norfolk State win, losing four of its last six regular-season games. The MEAC tournament is being held in Raleigh, N.C., where the fifth-seeded Bears will meet fourth-seeded South Carolina State (13-16, 10-8) in a quarterfinal tomorrow.

It will be Bozeman's first postseason game since Cal lost in the first round of the 1996 NCAA tournament to Iowa State. He has been waiting a long time for this.

"I'm having fun," Bozeman said last week. "I thank God every day that I'm back in college basketball, affecting people's lives, being the best leader I can be. There's nothing like doing what you love to do for a living.

"Look, I was having fun when we were 0-6."

paul.mcmullen@baltsun.com

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