He has the Bears dancing

The Baltimore Sun

The long journey of personal redemption for Morgan State basketball coach Todd Bozeman, which culminates this week when he leads the Bears to the first Division I NCAA tournament berth in school history, has been a decade in the making.

It's a journey that took him to Africa to teach basketball to teenagers who walked miles barefoot just to attend his clinics. It's a journey that saw him take a job as a drug sales representative for Pfizer because basketball coaching could no longer pay the bills. It's a journey that humbled him, saddened him and frustrated him. He lost his father to cancer along the way, and it almost broke him.

But through it all - while waiting for NCAA sanctions against him to expire, sanctions imposed after he admitted paying the family of a recruit as University of California coach from 1993 to 1996 - he never doubted that he'd get another chance to be a college coach again.

"I always believed it would happen," Bozeman said. "I never wavered on that. I just didn't know when. I was just determined to stay the course and ride it out."

Morgan State, desperately needing a savior, gave him that chance in 2006, putting him in charge of a team that had not posted a winning season since 1988. It took three seasons for the 45-year-old coach to instill discipline and inject excitement into the basketball program. When his team won the Mid-Eastern Atlantic Conference tournament last week, earning a No. 15 seed in the NCAA tournament and a first-round game tomorrow against the No. 2 seed Oklahoma Sooners, he didn't try to hide his emotions. He cried openly on the court.

He couldn't help but feel, after all this time, that some of his past sins had finally been cleansed. He only wished that his father, Ira, had lived to share the moment with him.

"I thought of him as the clock was ticking down," said Bozeman, whose father died of lung cancer in 2006. "I just really wished he was there, and I really felt bad that I wasn't able to share that with him, because that was my goal all along when I was out. I just kept envisioning that moment. He always said that he thought I would get back [to the NCAA tournament]. I thought of him immediately."

It was vindication for Bozeman and confirmation of Morgan State's faith in him.

Dr. Earl S. Richardson, president of Morgan State, said he was deeply involved in the recruiting and vetting of Bozeman because of the sanctions, and called him a "perfect match" for the school.

"He has turned it around much quicker than most of us thought could be done," Richardson said. "I saw someone who was truly sorry. One, he was genuinely committed to young people and wanted to make a difference in young people's lives. I talked with him extensively, and was persuaded that he was worth taking a chance on. Two, that if we did take the chance, it was one of those things we would not have to regret. If he failed, it would not be for lack of trying."

Had Bozeman made different choices more than a decade ago after he became one of the youngest coaches in college basketball at age 29, it's likely that making it to the NCAA tournament wouldn't feel like such a monumental accomplishment. In 1993, when Bozeman steered a Cal Bears team led by freshman point guard Jason Kidd into the Sweet 16, it looked like he and his program were going to be regular fixtures in the NCAA postseason.

But Bozeman's fairy tale in Berkeley, Calif., unraveled quickly after it surfaced that he'd paid $30,000 over two years to the family of recruit Jelani Gardner. The NCAA slapped him with an eight-year show-cause ban, one of the harshest penalties the governing body had handed down. Any school that wanted to hire Bozeman needed to go before the NCAA infractions committee and get its approval. A school would have to argue on Bozeman's behalf, and "show cause and reason" why Bozeman's past transgressions should be forgiven.

Bozeman apologized, but no school was willing to fight for him and take a chance that he'd learned his lesson. He did his best to stay busy. He coached his son's basketball team. He went to his daughter's dance recitals. He took a job as an NBA scout for the Toronto Raptors in 1998, and did that until 2001. He traveled to Nigeria to help conduct a basketball clinic, an experience that would stay with him forever.

Eventually he even took a sales job at Pfizer Inc., the pharmaceutical company. But he couldn't walk away from basketball completely.

He longed to be a college coach again, to mold skinny teenagers into grown men. So when Morgan State wanted to know if he was interested in completely overhauling its program, he jumped at the chance.

The first rules Bozeman put in place at Morgan were simple: No player was allowed to wear a hat or a hood indoors. Their pants could not hang down below their waist. During practice and during games, everyone would wear the exact same shoes. Every player would attend study hall, or they would have to run stairs at 5 a.m. The discipline was simple, meant to teach life lessons as much as basketball, and it was effective.

"In the past, coaches would let me get away with everything," said Reggie Holmes, Morgan State's leading scorer. "He don't let me get away with nothing. That's good. He's such an intense guy, and he's so emotional. We feed off him a lot. I've grown as a player since he's been here.

Bozeman insists he's not that different than he was all those years ago, when he was coaching at Cal.

"My energy, my passion, that's all the same," he said. "I'm just older and wiser. If there is one thing that's different, it's probably my weight. I'm definitely heavier."

Bozeman has even managed to earn the respect of his peers once again. Earlier this month, Bozeman was named one of 10 finalists for the 2009 Hugh Durham National Coach of the Year award.

"Todd's done a great job," said Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams, whose team lost to Morgan State during the regular season. "Not just because they're the champions of the MEAC. ... I think Todd has looked at his situation and done the best possible job he could do there."

There is some question about Bozeman's future at Morgan State. How long does he intend to stay? Does he have aspirations of getting back to an elite program? Bozeman, for the most part, shrugs off such talk. His contract runs out after this season, and the school and the coach haven't worked out an extension yet.

Morgan State athletic director Floyd Kerr said he is confident that he will keep Bozeman.

"I feel very confident and comfortable that he wants to stay, and we want him to stay," Kerr said.

For now, Bozeman just wants to enjoy the ride. On Selection Sunday, when the school held a pep rally to celebrate the Bears' NCAA tournament bid, Bozeman even danced a little on stage. Before the announcement, he was so happy, he broke into a maneuver his players immediately dubbed "The Stinky Leg."

"Every time I tell him to do it, we all start laughing," Holmes said.

Bozeman may look more like Chubby Checker than rapper Soulja Boy when he does it, but that hardly matters. After all those years of waiting for this moment would come, he's finally dancing again.

Baltimore Sun reporters Ken Murray and Rick Maese contributed to this article.

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