The Stopgap Coach

Don Newman lifted ASU's basketball program out of the trash heap by making his players believe in themselves. Despite 18 wins and an NIT berth, ASU boosters remain unconvinced.

He was supposed to be a temp, try to win a few games and keep the players out of the police blotter. Then move along.

That was the script handed to 40-year-old Don Newman last September 22 when Arizona State University made him coach of the Sun Devils men's basketball team.

Well, not exactly coach.
Athletic director Kevin White couldn't find a real coach. None of the big names would come to rescue ASU's pitiful program on such short notice. So, by default, White named Newman "interim" coach.

Newman gladly accepted the job. Nothing could be worse than his previous head-coaching job at California State University-Sacramento, where he led his teams to 20 wins--over five seasons!

Thankful as he was for the job, Newman didn't let on to White he had no intention of playing the role of caretaker.

Five months and 31 games later, Newman's Sun Devils have done what no one--except Newman--expected they would do. The shorthanded, undersize Sun Devils have won 18 games, and locked up a berth in the National Invitation Tournament.

The last time someone mentioned Sun Devil basketball and locked up, it had something to do with federal indictments.

Along the way, the Devils beat two highly ranked teams and were two jump shots away from notching wins over No. 2 Kansas and No. 3 Arizona. This from a team that was universally picked to finish last in the Pacific 10 Conference, a program that posted a 10-20 record last year.

The regular season ended on a down note last weekend as the banged-up and weary Sun Devils lost two games in Los Angeles. A split in L.A. probably would have earned ASU a slot in the NCAA tournament.

The depth of disappointment in the Sun Devil locker room following Saturday's 117-71 shellacking from Southern California is a testament to how far this team has come in a very short time. The defeat illustrated just how thin and vulnerable the Sun Devils were this season. An injured player, an untimely foul, meant disaster. Yet the same team that suffered ASU's worst defeat in 47 years versus USC is also the same team that returned pride to a program muddied by defeat and scandal.

Newman should be the toast of the town as he and the Sun Devils pack their bags for a difficult first-round NIT game at Hawaii. Instead, Newman is getting ready to be tossed out of town as he and his family pack their bags and prepare to move on to points unknown.

Powerful ASU boosters who control the Sun Angel Foundation--which bankrolls a significant portion of the huge salaries paid to topflight coaches--don't believe Newman has what it takes to lead ASU to national prominence.

Sun Angel Foundation vice chairman Steve Wood says Newman should not even be considered for the permanent job. "He was clearly advised it was an interim status," Wood says.

Foundation chairman Bob Hobbs is even more blunt about Newman's future.
"He wasn't promised anything," Hobbs says.
The man who will make the final decision is athletic director Kevin White, whose silence about Newman's future as a Sun Devil is a clear signal that Newman should be calling a moving company.

Newman wants the job, and believes he's proven his mettle.
"There is no question about what my commitment would be to Arizona State," Newman says. "But that commitment has to be a two-way street."

The boosters' underwhelming response to Newman's performance underscores the stark realities of college basketball. Even though the team obliterated expectations--in large part because of Newman's sheer will power--it's not enough to garner respect from the Sun Angels, who are green with envy over the success of archrival Arizona's elite basketball program.

Newman's team loves to play. From the moment the players mob each other prior to tip-off in a Devil-mosh, to the final buzzer--whether in victory or defeat--they play hard, they play to win, they play with grace and they play with dignity.

Isn't this what college athletics is all about?
The few ASU students who attended games this season know the score. During the final home game against California, they chanted, "We want Newman!" By the end of the game, before 9,575, the second-largest crowd of the year, the chorus echoed through the arena.

An outgoing, friendly man, Newman went into the stands after the game and thanked fans for supporting the team. As he left the court and headed into the locker room, the band struck up the Star Wars heroes march--"The Throne Room."

This team, and Don Newman, will long be remembered.

Seven months ago, few people wanted to dwell on the ASU men's basketball program.

There were more pleasant things to think about. The Sun Devil football team was making a surprising bid for its second consecutive Pac-10 title. The basketball program, meanwhile, was sinking faster than the Titanic.

The Sun Devils were coming off their worst season in 27 years, finishing last in the Pac-10 with a 2-16 record and a 10-20 performance overall. But losses seemed insignificant compared with what happened after the 1996-97 season mercifully ended (with 11 straight losses).

Two players from the 1993-94 team were indicted in a point-shaving scheme, and later pleaded guilty to federal charges. The scandal gave ASU the worst national press possible, reinforcing an unflattering and widespread image that the nation's sixth-largest university is an outlaw sports school.

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