by Jack Williams
Say hello to a gentleman of the first order, a special man for a special time in Yellow Jacket athletics.
Just mention basketball and the guy comes on like a full court press. He’s at his best then, quoting famous coaches, relating some favorite anecdotes and revealing his own simple-but compelling-philosophy.
“My job is to make sure the players learn and to make sure they enjoy themselves,” he says. “If I accomplish those two things, then we are going to win.”
Meet Paul Hewitt, the new head coach of Georgia Tech men’s basketball, which swings into action at 7:30 p.m. Friday against Wofford at Alexander Memorial Coliseum.
Say hello to a gentleman of the first order, a special man for a special time in Yellow Jacket athletics.
He’s a man for all seasons. He never stops learning. He takes notes when things attract his attention-and remembers people’s names. He is polite in every way and gives credit where credit is due, especially to the coaches and others who helped him mold his two-sentence philosophy.
And he wins-good gracious, how he wins!
He did it in a big way as head coach at Siena in Loudonville, N.Y., prior to coming to the Jackets. Following a three-year stretch in which Siena posted a record of 22-59, Hewitt’s teams went 66-27 the next three seasons, won one regular season championship and one tournament title in the MAAC, went to one NCAA Tournament and one NIT.
“We won because the players at Siena bought into what we were doing,” he said. “They believed in our philosophy and made the commitment to get into top shape. We also had a lot of fun. We planned activities that did not necessarily center on basketball. As a group, we went on sightseeing trips, saw plays and professional basketball games-all the things that would prove there is more to life than classes and the daily practice schedule.”
Now, Hewitt faces a new challenge in a new environment.
The question is, can he take Georgia Tech back to the top echelon of Atlantic Coast Conference basketball? Can he bring back the Yellow Jacket magic of the late 1980s and early 1990s?
“If I didn’t think I could do that, I would not have taken this job,” Hewitt said during a recent interview. “I was fortunate to have some other good offers while I was at Siena. In those other situations, I did not feel I could coach the teams to the top of their conferences or to national recognition. Georgia Tech had all the things I was looking for-very strong academics, the diversity of the City of Atlanta, and a place with a winning tradition.”
One big plus Tech has for any coach is membership in the ACC-and Hewitt certainly is tuned into that.
“The ACC is the best conference in the country, bar none,” he said. “Every player, every coach, even the referees want to be associated with the ACC. Gary Williams left a top Big Ten program to come to Maryland. Pete Gillen left a good Big East program to coach at Virginia. Matt Doherty went back to North Carolina from Notre Dame. The ACC has everything from the best fan base to the best publicity. This conference is the most televised in basketball.”
One thing you quickly learn in talking with Hewitt is that basketball is not his only passion. He has slam-dunked his way through life in other arenas, in other ways. Let’s take a brief look at him away from the basketball court. You may find, in some subtle ways, that he is different from many others who coach the game.
For one thing, as a college freshman, Hewitt aspired to be a sports journalist. How many coaches do you know who ever wanted to be a sports writer? For heaven’s sakes, think about that.
He wrote columns and covered games for his school newspaper at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, N.Y., and stepped into another arena one night to write a four-star review of Roberta Flack singing with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra.
“And there he was, a stranger in my eyes,
Strumming my pain with his fingers,
Singing my life with his words,
Killing me softly with his song.”
Roberta at her best! But that was another time, another story.
Hewitt turned out to be a star student in economics at St. John Fisher. He graduated with a degree in economics and journalism. He also worked toward a post-graduate degree in counseling at Long Island University and C.W. Post.
His original plan, after finishing college, was to sit out a year and then decide which law school to enter. But before he could make that move, he had a change of heart and decided to try his hand as a basketball coach and high school guidance counselor.
One of Hewitt’s special interests today is politics-“the people and things that shape our society.” He has read many works about the lives of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. Instead of the usual basketball memorabilia, he has paintings by noted artists Ernie Barnes and Joseph Holston hanging in his Tech office. On his desk is a copy of Wooden, a new book which features a lifetime of reflections on and off the court by Coach John Wooden.
Paul Hewitt covers all the bases.
Hewitt says his basketball philosophy, which highlights an up-tempo style of play with relentless defensive pressure, was inspired by a number of coaches, notably his high school coach, Martin Reid, at Westbury on Long Island.
“He taught me a style,” Hewitt says. “His philosophy was based on helping players improve their individual skills-ball-handling, shooting, passing, decision-making. We used a pressure, running style of play and if you’re going to do that, you must be well-drilled.
“At the Final Four one year, I had the good fortune to hear a talk by Pete Newell (NCAA championship coach at the University of California). He said something I wrote down. He said he thinks the game today is over-coached and under-taught. That goes right along with my philosophy.”
Hewitt also credits three head coaches under whom he worked as an assistant-George Raveling at Southern Cal, Nick Marcarchuk at Fordham, and Steve Lappas at Villanova, where Hewitt helped the Wildcats win 103 games in five seasons.
“Aside from my high school coach, George Raveling had the most influence on me as a coach,” Hewitt says. “He’s the most well-prepared person I’ve ever been around with the exception of my dad. Coach Raveling was not a person to ever just wing it. Whether he was readying for a game, a recruiting trip, or whatever, he was always prepared.
“My dad was the same way. He’s a machinist in Queens, N.Y., who always had everything mapped out. My dad also taught me the value of working long hours. He goes every day from 7 to 7.”
Hewitt, in fact, says so many of the important lessons he has learned in life came from his parents, Burchell and Dolcie Hewitt.
Hewitt also learned a lot of valuable lessons from John Thompson, the noted former Georgetown coach even though he never coached under him. “When I was a high school coach, I often would work summer camps as a means of trying to improve my knowledge of the game,” Hewitt said. “When I went to Coach Thompson’s camp at Georgetown, I found him to be very visible. He would go to a game room every night, and sit there for a long period of time, sipping iced tea out of a can in a brown paper bag and telling stories to the coaches assembled there.
“Most of the people who went there played card games. I’m not into cards all that much, but I took part just so I could hear all the things Coach Thompson said. He would talk about his basketball and life philosophies and what student-athletes should be getting out of their basketball experience. I took it all in.”
Hewitt played college basketball under a former NBA player, Bobby Wanzer. “He had a good sense of humor and he made the game fun,” Hewitt says. “He kept the game very simple, taught us how to move without the ball-the old give and go, like they play at Princeton.”
The St. John Fisher team won 20 games when Hewitt was a freshman and duplicated the feat when he was a senior.
Hewitt had grown up more interested in baseball than basketball. He was an avid Yankee fan then and remains one today. He was a pitcher on teams in Little League and in high school baseball. He also pitched during his senior season at St. John Fisher after his basketball eligibility was completed.
How talented was Hewitt as a basketball player and baseball pitcher?
“Talented enough to get me out of uniform and into coaching,” he said, smiling. Truthfully, at 6-5 1/2 and a lean 210 pounds, the 37-year-old Hewitt looks like he could lead a good fast-break or throw a curve ball past some hitters even today.
Hewitt is the family man supreme, who talks often and glowingly about his wife, Dawnette, a native of London, England, and their daughters, Olivia, 6, Danielle, 4, and Kayla, 2. Dawnette moved to New York at the age of 16 and attended the same high school at Westbury, N.Y., as her future husband. Strangely, they never met there.
Later, when Dawnette was a senior at the State University of New York at Stonybrook, she served as a campus tour guide for a group of high school students. Guess who was escorting the students? None other than an aspiring student counselor named Paul Hewitt. You can guess the rest.
On the day that Hewitt took the Tech job and met the media, he told those assembled there a poignant story about his daughter Olivia breaking down and crying when he told her they were leaving their Albany, N.Y. home and many friends there to move to Atlanta. A reporter noted that any man who is compassionate enough to talk about a daughter’s heartbreak in such a public forum on such a big day in his life has got to be special, indeed.
Just in case you may wonder, Hewitt says Olivia is adjusting well in her new home. “She is so excited about school in Atlanta and making new friends that she gets up earlier than the rest of the family every morning, ready to go to school,” the coach said.
Hewitt’s early impressions of Georgia Tech have been positive. “There is a very close-knit family here,” he said. “People like Lucius Sanford (Director of Student Life), Agnus Berenato (head women’s basketball coach), George O’Leary (head football coach) and Danny Hall (head baseball coach) and many others have gone out of their way to make me feel at home.
“The players have been a huge part of me having a smooth adjustment. They are really good people and are working hard to get better as players.” As the season draws near, Georgia Tech fans wonder what
kind of coach they will observe on the sidelines. Is Hewitt a pacer or is he more reserved than the average coach?
“I pace, but I don’t rant and rave,” Hewitt said. “At least, I don’t think so. You might better ask the referees or some of my former players. I do tend to walk up and down the sideline. But I also sit down sometimes and confer with my assistants.”
What is Hewitt’s assessment of the talent on hand for his first Georgia Tech team?
“I like the players’ ability to shoot the ball,” he says. “We’ve got a number of very good shooters, Tony Akins, Shaun Fein, Marvin Lewis, Halston Lane and T.J. Vines, too. So far, I have been impressed with the players’ work ethic. My main concern is a lack of depth in the front court.”
He says the current players do fit his style of play. “As long as players make the commitment to get into top shape, everything will be fine,” he said. “The first thing you have to do is get players to believe in what you are doing-and that’s my job.”
People who know Paul Hewitt best believe he will perform that job just fine. One thing is for sure, you can bet that he and his players will have fun along the way. And, after all, isn’t that really what it’s all about?