April 1, 2004
ATLANTA (AP) – Paul Hewitt is considered the interloper at this Final Four. He’s not bothered one bit.
There’s Mike Krzyzewski, appearing in his 10th national semifinal, with three NCAA titles already. And Jim Calhoun, with a championship of his own. And Eddie Sutton, back in the Final Four for the third time.
“And Paul Hewitt?” the Georgia Tech coach said, as if he still doesn’t believe it himself. “Come on, man. There’s no offense taken. I completely understand.”
Hewitt is the neophyte among the four coaches who will gather in San Antonio this weekend to decide whose team is the best in college basketball. He’s still getting used to the idea of being 40. He’s been a head coach for only seven seasons. He’s taken two other teams to the NCAA tournament, but this is the first time he made it past the opening round.
Then again, those who might be inclined to overlook Hewitt and his team — the No. 3 Yellow Jackets are the lowest-seeded school left — it might be wise to remember a similar setting back in November.
The Yellow Jackets were semfinalists at the Preseason NIT, joined by Connecticut (coached by Calhoun), Texas Tech (Bob Knight) and Utah (Rick Majerus). The media honed in on that trio, barely noticing the fourth member of the group.
“Everyone was wondering, ‘Who’s that guy in the corner who’s here crashing the party?” Hewitt recalled, breaking into a chuckle.
In a sense, that appearance at Madison Square Garden was a coming-out party for Hewitt and his program. The Yellow Jackets routed then-No. 1 Connecticut in the semifinals and beat up on Texas Tech in the championship game.
People wanted to know more about this slender, sharp-dressed coach who seemed to make the game fun for his players.
And now, having guided the Yellow Jackets to their first Final Four since 1990, Hewitt has suddenly become one of the hottest names in the business.
All of this is rather amusing to his father, Burchell, who wondered what young Paul was thinking when he took an $11,000 pay cut to give coaching a try.
“I thought he was crazy,” said the elder Hewitt, who brought his family from Jamaica to the United States when Paul was 8.
Growing up in Queens, Paul quickly became a New Yorker through and through. He lost his thick Jamaican accent and became a huge fan of the city’s pro teams. Well, some of them. Usually taking a different path than his father, Paul adopted the Yankees (Burchell was a Mets fan), the Giants (Burchell favored the Jets) and the Islanders (Burchell rooted for the Rangers). They did reach agreement on the Knicks as their favorite NBA team.
“The kids usually prefer a winning team,” Burchell Hewitt said. “The Yankees were on top. The Islanders were winning championships around here. The Giants were winning as well.”
Baseball was his first love, but Hewitt’s body began to grow toward a future in basketball. He was a sophomore when a friend dared him to try out for the team at Westbury High School. Hewitt made the junior varsity.
He played well enough to receive a partial scholarship to St. John Fisher College in Rochester, N.Y., where he was a four-year letterman and earned a degree in journalism. He took a job at his old high school, splitting time as a counselor and JV coach.
But Hewitt wanted more. The kid that teachers used to describe as a “daydreamer” decided to give college coaching a try. He wasn’t sure he had enough contacts but decided it was worth a try. He took the pay cut, endured the disapproval of his father, and went to work at C.W. Post for a year, followed by a stint as a graduate assistant to George Raveling at Southern Cal.
That was a seminal season in Hewitt’s development. The two still talk regularly, including a call just 25 minutes before the St. Louis Regional final. Hewitt had scripted a play for the first possession, but changed his mind after Raveling suggested keeping center Luke Schenscher involved in the offense.
“Coach Raveling was the most prepared guy I’ve ever been around. He was never caught off guard, whether it was a scouting report, a recruiting visit or a TV interview,” Hewitt said. “Outside of my dad, there’s not been a guy in my life who had a bigger impact.”
After Southern Cal, Hewitt spent two seasons as an assistant at Fordham, and five at Villanova. He got his first head coaching job in 1997, taking over at struggling Siena.
Within two years, the Saints were playing in the NCAA tournament. After just three seasons, Georgia Tech athletic director Dave Braine was impressed enough to offer Hewitt a chance to replace Bobby Cremins, the greatest coach in Yellow Jackets history.
Clarence Moore considered transferring, but remained in Atlanta after meeting Hewitt. Marvin Lewis had committed to play for Cremins, but was impressed enough with the new coach to stay on, too. Both are key members of the Final Four team.
Schenscher, a native of Australia, signed with the Yellow Jackets after finding Hewitt broke the stereotype of college coaches.
“I had a vision that everyone was like Bobby Knight,” he said. “But when I met Coach Hewitt, he was laid back and down to earth.”
Hewitt favors a style that’s also popular with players, encouraging his teams to run as much as possible. He juggled his lineup adroitly this season, taking advantage of the deepest roster at the Final Four. Eight players average at least 18 minutes.
Maybe Hewitt is not so out of place in San Antonio.
“He’s just with a bunch of old guys,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s going to be the most enthusiastic, probably the best-looking, the best-dressed … and he may have the best team.”