April 3, 2004
By JIM LITKE
AP Sports Columnist
SAN ANTONIO (AP) – Win close one after close one, the way Georgia Tech’s Yellow Jackets have done in five straight NCAA tournament thrillers, and people are bound to question whether you really belong.
Their coach, Paul Hewitt, has known that feeling all season.
He brought Georgia Tech to Madison Square Garden last fall for the Preseason NIT, saw Texas Tech’s Bobby Knight, Utah’s Rick Majerus and UConn’s Jim Calhoun all waiting there and later said: “Everybody was wondering who that guy was over in the corner.”
He was referring to himself.
Hewitt spent his early childhood in Jamaica, didn’t play competitive basketball until the 10th grade, and much of what he learned in his first high school coaching job came from watching videos or attending clinics featuring the giants of the game.
The stars were Eddie Sutton, Mike Krzyzewski and Calhoun, and how’s this for a way to cap off a season as one of the most underappreciated coaches in the country? No sooner did Georgia Tech’s first four improbable finishes land them a spot in the Final Four than Hewitt realized he’d be sharing the floor with Sutton, Krzyzewski and Calhoun.
“It’s the old question of who doesn’t belong here and why?” Hewitt said with a chuckle.
But Saturday night, when Tech guard Will Bynum drove the right side and knocked down a layup with 1.5 seconds left to seal the 67-65 win that sent the Yellow Jackets to the final against Connecticut, the question was rendered moot.
“It’s great to take this group,” Hewitt paused, catching himself, “or have this group take me, actually.”
Hewitt wasn’t just being modest. For all the other things he did to get the Yellow Jackets this far – they were picked to finished seventh in their own conference, the tough ACC – he didn’t call the last play. Not really, anyway. He did use his final timeout with the game tied at 65 and 30 seconds left, and was inclined to let Bynum take the last shot. As he stood facing his kids, mulling over the decision, someone seconded that emotion.
“I think Marvin is the one that spoke up,” Hewitt recalled, referring to Marvin Lewis. “He said, ‘Let’s give the ball to Will on the top and just live with his decision.”
Hewitt figured that was the least he could do since everything from his hiring at Tech to the lessons he’s taught there has been about trust.
He was virtually unknown outside basketball circles in the Northeast when he was plucked out of a strong field of contenders to replace Bobby Cremins, one of the most recognizable head coaches in the game.
Hewitt seemed to some a curious choice to restore the program to the heights of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and not just because perennial ACC powers Duke, North Carolina and Maryland routinely overwhelm the “name” coaches in the rest of the conference. His resume, at that point, could only charitably be called underwhelming.
Sure, Hewitt served his apprenticeships at Southern California and Villanova, but when he arrived at Tech in 2000, his only head-coaching stint had come at tiny Siena College. He removed some of those doubts by taking a team loaded with seniors to the NCAA tournament in his first season and earned ACC Coach of the Year honors in the bargain. But almost as quickly, he struggled the next two seasons while trying to rebuild with freshmen and sophomores, and when this season began, it looked to be more of the same.
Georgia Tech lost freshman sensation Chris Bosh to the NBA and Ed Nelson, the ACC rookie of the year in 2002, transferred to Connecticut. Then, in preseason practice, Theodis Tarver dislocated his kneecap, which Hewitt chose to remember after the semifinal win as a “gruesome, gruesome-looking injury.”
“When we finally got him up off the court and in the locker room, Clarence Moore brought the whole team together and said a prayer,” Hewitt said. “When we usually break the huddle, I’d say, ‘Together!’ But from that point forward, the kids have always said, ‘Family!’
“So at the start of the tournament, I told them, ‘If you enjoy being around each other that much, and you’re truly a family, let’s see how long we can keep this thing together.”‘
Now, Hewitt has his answer and it’s the last game of the college season. His kids can’t do much better than that. And neither can he, despite all those who wondered how someone so young and so self-assured sneaked into the province of the coaching giants.
Three coaches have won it all in their first Final Four appearance – Ed Jucker with Cincinnati in 1961, Steve Fisher with Michigan in 1989 and Tubby Smith at Kentucky six years ago. Hewitt could join that group with just one victory, but proving he belongs is hardly his payoff. He already has that.
“I may have another chance if I’m lucky enough to get back to this point, but these guys,” he said, “will never forget it.”