Saturday, December 04, 2004

Eustachy's Return Has Some Laughter, Some Bitterness

Iowa City, Ia.—At 4:20 p.m., Larry Eustachy came in from the cool outside air, opened the big northside door and walked through the bowels of Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

He quickly spotted us.

Randy Peterson, Dan Johnson and I were waiting for him near the entrance to the visitors’ locker room.

I approached the first-year coach from Southern Mississippi, held out my right hand and said, “Larry, you look great.”

Peterson and Johnson, both of whom are reporters for the Des Moines Register, stayed in the background. They let me have Eustachy all to myself.

I wasn’t lying about how Eustachy looked. The coach I covered in the 1998-99 season – his first at Iowa State – was dressed in a dark sportcoat, dark slacks, a blue shirt and patterned tie. He showed no sign of the flab that seemed to hang over his belt when he lived in Ames.

The turtleneck shirt—the trademark of his years at Iowa State—was gone.

“Hey, how you doing?” Eustachy said as he shook my hand.

“The guys in the lunch group miss you,” I said. “They ask about you all the time.”

Eustachy laughed. When he worked at Iowa State, he had shown up twice at the Oriental restaurant where a number of newspaper people – both retired and not retired – and anyone else who walks in off the street dine each Wednesday in West Des Moines. He picked up the tab for the entire table the first time, for me the second time.

“Hey, we never got to make that trip to Kansas together,” I told Eustachy.

He laughed.

In the days when he traveled to games in his own vehicle and sent his players to games another way, Eustachy invited me to go with him on a trip.

“Why don’t you go to Kansas with me?” he asked one day when I was sitting in his office at Hilton Coliseum at Ames.

The trouble was, Eustachy was gone before we could make the trip.

It’s probably just as well. I didn’t need my picture in the paper, too.

“Why don’t you come to Hattiesburg,” he said to me last night.

“How do I get there?” I asked.

“Just get on the road and head south,” he said with a laugh.

Eustachy wanted to know if I had a good seat for his game last night against North Carolina-Greensboro.

“I’m sitting in press row,” I said.

“If you want, come on down and sit on my bench,” Eustachy said. “You can coach my team.”

He’s not the first former Iowa State coach to invite me to sit on his bench. Ken Trickey did that a number of years ago, and I took him up on it. He lost the game, so I decided then and there that my coaching days were over.

After our conversation, Eustachy talked with Peterson and Johnson.

“Hi, Randy,” Eustachy said to Peterson, a veteran Register reporter who has covered plenty of Iowa State games in the past and now is assigned to Iowa’s games for his newspaper.

Johnson introduced himself to Eustachy. Johnson’s reporting specialties are women’s basketball and horseracing.

Johnson is a very good reporter, but I got no insight into why his editors assigned him to the Eustachy story.

He didn’t seem to know, either.

“Don’t ask me,” he said.

I did notice, though, that someone named Dan Johnson had a byline story on the Southern Mississippi-North Carolina-Greensboro game in today's Hattiesburg American. I have a pretty good idea the Dan Johnson in the Hattiesburg American is the same Dan Johnson who wrote a sidebar on the game for the Register.

That's what's called one Gannett paper playing footsie with another Gannett paper, probably without the reporter receiving any freelance money.

After Peterson had his brief talk with Eustachy, he said, “I thought he was cool to me.”

Eustachy had refused to return calls to the Register this week. He also didn’t return calls to the Iowa City Press-Citizen, but did call the Cedar Rapids Gazette [sponsor of The Gazette Hawkeye Challenge in which Southern Mississippi, North Carolina-Greensboro, Centenary and Iowa played] and the Quad-City Times.

It was the Register which first printed photographs of Eustachy drinking and hugging college-age women in Columbia, Mo. Those photos eventually led to Eustachy’s ouster from Iowa State and his admission that he was an alcoholic.

I think the Register’s editors made a huge mistake in not assigning Peterson or some other reporter to make a trip to Hattiesburg this week to interview Eustachy when it became evident that he wouldn’t be returning any of their calls.

The fact that the paper didn't send a reporter there resulted in some very shallow pregame coverage of Eustachy's appearance in Iowa City.

The best piece of aggressive reporting during the week was done by Keith Murphy, sports director of WHO-TV in Des Moines. Murphy went to Hattiesburg to interview Eustachy and came away with some outstanding footage.

In a strange piece of newspapering, the Register printed another of the embarrassing photos Friday morning when it carried a longer-than-necessary profile of Eustachy.

The photo showed Eustachy with his arm around a young woman. In his hand was a can of beer.

A veteran Iowa newspaper reporter [not from the Register] asked me during the Southern Miss-North Carolina-Greensboro game what I thought of that.

“I didn’t like it,” I said.

“Neither did I. I thought it was a cheap shot,” the reporter said. “I think the Register was paying Eustachy back for not returning calls this week to their reporters."

SOME OF EUSTACHY'S bitterness showed through at a hastily-called press conference after his team’s 79-78 loss last night.

For some reason, only the winning coach was scheduled to appear at the press conference. But, with a large group of TV, Internet, print and radio reporters eager to interview Eustachy, he agreed to come into the interview room.

The first thing he did was hold up a can of Diet Coke.

“Is Tom Witosky here?” Eustachy asked.

When a reporter said Witosky, the Register reporter who wrote the story detailing Eustachy’s carousing, was not there, the coach said, “I thought he might want to check what’s in the Coke.”

A number of reporters laughed.

Eustachy wasn’t laughing.

“You sure he doesn’t want to take it to the lab? I’d welcome it," he said.

Later in the press conference, someone asked Eustachy if he’d rehearsed that line.

“I haven’t been saving it up,” he answered.

I think the Register’s editors were wrong in not assigning Witosky, the sports department’s best investigative reporter, to last night’s game.

The situation reminded me of when Lute Olson, who was and still is God's gift to basketball coaching, was leaving Iowa and heading to Arizona 21 years ago.

Anyone who paid attention to collegiate basketball in this state then knew that Olson and I weren’t exactly pals who drank coffee or something else together a couple of times each week.

But when Olson took the Arizona job and was in Tucson for his first press conference, I happened to be in Phoenix on vacation.

I wanted to be at that press conference. So I called Mike Wegner, who then was the Register’s sports editor.

“I think I should be there,” I told Wegner.

“Do it,” he said.

I think Olson was surprised I was there, but he handled it well. I asked him a number of questions, and he answered them adequately. It was after that press conference that Bobbi Olson, Lute’s wife and someone who later became a big part of the Arizona basketball scene before she died of cancer, told me that the Iowa coaching job had their family living in what she called a “fishbowl.”

SOMETHING TELLS ME the reporters were more interested in Eustachy’s return to Iowa than the non-reporters.

Only a handful of people were in the arena when Eustachy’s game began at 5:45 p.m. The most vocal fans were sitting behind the Southern Miss bench, and they were family members and friends of Eustachy.

Eustachy says his marriage to Stacy Eustachy of Ames is over, but she was present for the game. So were Evan and Hayden, his sons, who live with their mother.

“Evan tried to borrow money from me during the game because he was out of hog dogs and pizza,” Eustachy joked. “We have to get him on a treadmill.”

Also present behind Eustachy’s bench were Gary Thompson, a former Iowa State basketball standout who still does commentary on Cyclone telecasts and is a longtime Iowa State booster, Bob Gitchell, an Ames physician who is an Iowa State booster, and Roger Gade, a former Iowa State equipment manager who used to drive Eustachy’s “cruiser” bus to road games. Gade sat on the Southern Miss bench, handling the team’s equipment duties.

“Those were all my friends from my 12-Step Club,” Eustachy joked afterward.

Even Beth Haag, a former Iowa State basketball sports information director, made it to the arena to observe Eustachy.

Eustachy, who can shout from the sidelines and rip the officials with the best of them, managed to get a technical foul in the second half of his game.

Eustachy said he didn’t want to get any technicals this season, but now he’s gotten two in the last two games.

Some things never change.

Thanks for dropping by, Larry.

I’ll see you in Hattiesburg one of these days.

Vol. 4, No. 283
Dec. 4, 2004