Sun archives: Bozeman has menu with few options over ham sandwich-gate

So what exactly are we to make of this deli drama brewing at Morgan State? Week 1 of ham sandwich-gate has turned into a thinly cut controversy, packed between slices of absurdity and embarrassment, with extra anger and a side of speculation. And please, hold the sound judgment.

I hate it as much as the next guy when someone screws up my menu order, but my annoyance doesn't usually result in assault and battery charges. And for the life of me, I can't figure out why Morgan State men's basketball coach Todd Bozeman would even put himself in such a situation - over a dinner order, mind you - and especially right now.

As a colleague astutely asked: "Does he have a death wish?"

Bozeman was once known as the young, up-and-coming coach who led California to an upset of Duke in the 1993 NCAA tournament. Then he was known as the coach who was essentially banned from coaching when he admitted to paying a player.

But this season, Bozeman's first since 1996, was to be about redemption, about rewriting reputation and about second chances. And right when college basketball should be abuzz over Bozeman performing a mini-miracle on the Morgan State campus, we're instead scratching our heads over an alleged tirade that took place Saturday when a restaurant botched a post-game meal order.

Bozeman wanted Philly cheese steaks and chicken sandwiches. The restaurant delivered instead 52 cold ham sandwiches. (It's definitely worth noting that because of religious beliefs, some members of the Morgan State team cannot eat ham.)

When Bozeman visited the restaurant to demand a refund, a female employee told police, the coach cursed, yelled and put his hands on her. Neither the employee nor Bozeman is offering details of the exchange, and all the information that has been reported has been secondhand.

Bozeman will return to Farmville, Va., next week to turn himself in. He's facing charges of first-degree assault and battery and third-degree curse and abuse, both misdemeanors.

Whether he committed a crime or not, if Bozeman was so hot about the Bears' loss that day to Longwood University, he should have known to avoid confrontation.

More than any other coach in the country, he should realize the fragility tied to his employment. He should understand the concept of consequences. And he should know there's no sense in doing anything to jeopardize what's otherwise already a successful season.

One year ago this week, Bozeman was selling drugs for a pharmaceutical company, and the Bears were 2-19. They'd just ended the longest losing streak in the nation and would finish the season 4-26.

Ham sandwiches aside, the strides and improvements in the Morgan State program are impressive. With a cast of mostly new faces, the Bears lost their first six games of the season but have since gone 9-6. Monday's win at Delaware State was the program's biggest victory in years. Delaware State leads the MEAC and holds just a 1 1/2 -game lead over Morgan State.

Suddenly the Bears are within sniffing distance of their first winning season since 1988-89, and with mounting momentum and continued improvement (plus, a 7-3 conference record), they could be in position for a conference tournament run that would earn the school's first NCAA tournament bid.

And instead of celebrating this, we're forced to talk about sandwiches?

Bozeman knows better. He's walking the thinnest and tightest rope in coaching. If he falls again, there might not be any getting up. Bob Knight could afford a slip-up; Todd Bozeman cannot. His coaching career has no safety net.

Even after his NCAA ban - for an eight-year period, any school interested in hiring him needed to make a case before the NCAA - Bozeman had to wait 1 1/2 years for a job offer. Employment is delicate. He's no longer that ambitious 29-year-old with the world ahead of him. Bozeman's a 43-year-old with an NCAA rap sheet behind him.

There are already enough people who are waiting for him to fail. He should be extra careful not to give detractors more evidence.

Bozeman sounds sincere when he talks about how much he appreciates this return to the college game. The time away, he says, brought renewed perspective. You'd hope three months with a whistle didn't rub out a nine-year lesson.

Given time, Bozeman's coaching and recruiting will lure the spotlight to Morgan State - shining on the players, not the coach. But to reach that point, Bozeman can never forget that he's graciously living off a second chance in a cutthroat world where even first chances aren't guaranteed.