The resurrection of Larry Eustachy
If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are half way through.
– “The Promises,” Alcoholics Anonymous
HATTIESBURG, Miss. – Larry Eustachy is amazed.
The burr-headed, barrel-chested coach is slumped in a chair at courtside in an empty Reed Green Coliseum. He is exhausted but exuberant. Ninety minutes earlier, his Southern Miss basketball team had Tulsa beaten, then blew the game, then somehow tied it at the buzzer and ultimately won 77-69 in overtime.
It is another improbable step toward the school’s first NCAA tournament appearance in 21 years, another step toward a Conference USA championship, another in Eustachy’s 12 steps away from the liquid Hell he almost drowned in.
“I can’t believe we won that game,” he says to his wife, Lana, over and over.
Lana is amazed, too. Not by the victory as much as by the man sitting next to her. She hears him weave stories of his past together with discussion of this game and this miraculous season at Southern Miss, and she cannot relate to who Larry Eustachy used to be.
“I just can’t imagine you drinking,” she says to her husband of almost two years. “I look at pictures and it’s just weird.”
We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it.
– “The Promises”
The pictures are what got Larry Eustachy here.
The pictures of the 47-year-old guy with bleary eyes and a can of cheap beer in his hand, hugging and kissing women less than half his age. The pictures that threatened to kill his coaching career but ultimately saved his life.
Somebody had to be the first famous figure blown up when America’s “gotcha” celebrity culture was introduced to the wonder of photos published and circulated online. If Eustachy wasn’t that guy, he was at least in the first wave.
In April 2003, pictures surfaced from a late-night party a few months earlier in Columbia, Mo. – pictures of then-Iowa State coach Eustachy drunkenly embracing college-aged women hours after his Cyclones had lost to the host Missouri Tigers. They were accompanied by details of a party-crashing Eustachy staying until the wee hours of the morning – and staying well past his welcome. Then came reports of a similarly cringe-worthy episode after a road game at Kansas State in 2002.
The story went national instantly, and was intensely followed locally. There was a suspension by the school, calls from editorial page of The Des Moines Register for a firing, fervent moralizing on ESPN’s “Outside The Lines.” There was an emotional news conference in which Eustachy admitted he was an alcoholic. There were news helicopters hovering over the coach’s house as he hunkered down inside. Ultimately, there was a firing of the 2000 National Coach of the Year.
“It was so devastating, so embarrassing,” Eustachy says. “I’m listening to people talk about me like I’m Charlie Manson.”
Amid the devastation and embarrassment, a letter arrived for Eustachy. It was from a stranger with no last name. An AA member, as it turned out.
“I was so happy when they decided to fire you,” the letter said. “Because I knew it would change your life.”
Sitting in the empty gym, a man who says he will be nine years sober June 23 thought about that letter and the stranger who wrote it. With a sense of amazement, Eustachy says, “He was right.”
To that point, the dominant theme of his life was a 30-year blur of drunkenness. The AA saying is that alcoholics stop maturing when they start drinking, and Eustachy started at age 17 in his hometown of Arcadia, Calif. As the years went on, he grew older and more successful but never much wiser.
Eustachy was able to fool himself into believing he didn’t have a drinking problem because he was good at his job. He believed the old stereotype to be true: that alcoholics were the unemployed guys in the parks drinking out of a paper bag.
But that changed the minute he was done working – literally on game nights. After addressing his team in the postgame locker room and before meeting the media, he’d guzzle a screwdriver. And when the interviews were over, Eustachy would make a beeline to the bar.
He drank hard after losses. He drank harder after wins. The day after a big victory, a hung-over Eustachy would check his voice mail with trepidation – what did I do and say last night, with whom, and where?
“Celebrating wins is what got me in trouble,” Eustachy says.
He lived by the addict’s justification: I deserve to get drunk. I worked hard, did my job, stayed sober when I had to be. Now I’m entitled.
He lived in the addict’s self-centered universe. It was all about him – the winning, the losing, the reactions to both. There was no higher power. He was the power. And his thirst was all-powerful.
Thus when the bar closed, desperation met determination. There had to be another drink somewhere. Maybe the bartender could be bribed into letting Eustachy take some liquor with him, or maybe someone would let Eustachy come over to their house. That’s how a 47-year-old man could find himself at a college party after closing time.
The irony is that Eustachy took a cab back to his hotel from the party that ultimately would get him fired. He didn’t want to risk being arrested for drunk driving.
“You drink as long as I drank, it was just a way of life,” he says. “But you’re living in an unreal world.”
We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace.
– “The Promises”
Larry Eustachy was raging. Out of control. Berserk on national TV.
The 2000 Midwest Regional championship was slipping away. Iowa State had led top-seeded Michigan State into the final three minutes, but the steely Spartans imposed their will and took the game back.
The reward was a trip to the Final Four and a matter-of-fact stroll to the championship. Two victories the following week in Indianapolis over Wisconsin and Florida were easy enough that it became obvious: The battle with Iowa State was the de facto national title game in 2000. Nobody else had pushed Mateen Cleaves & Co. to the brink like this uncelebrated Cyclones team, led by tough guys named Marcus Fizer and Jamaal Tinsley.
But after a Big 12 title and a school-record 32 victories, Iowa State could not finish off the Spartans and a heavy home-court advantage at The Palace at Auburn Hills. It was slipping away, and Eustachy couldn’t stand to see the most successful tournament run of his career come to such an end.
With 10 seconds left, Eustachy went onto the court after official Curtis Shaw. He screamed. He gestured. He cursed. He came close enough that the worst possible outcome – a physical confrontation – appeared possible.
The famously short-tempered Shaw – known as “Quick Draw Curtis Shaw” – wasted no time ejecting Eustachy. Eustachy’s assistants herded the fuming wild man off the court before it could get worse.
When Eustachy left the arena that night, you know where he went.
“I went to a big bar with my brother-in-law,” he says. “They had 101 beers on tap. I think I tried every one of them that night.”
The 2000-01 Iowa State team was almost as good as its predecessor. The Cyclones won 25 games and again captured the Big 12 title, but March was a bust. The Cyclones were seeded second in the West Region but were shocked by 15th-seeded Hampton 58-57, and Eustachy’s run in Ames dwindled from that point. He went 29-33 the next two seasons, which probably made it easier to fire him when the pictures came out in the spring of ’03.
Iowa State hasn’t come close to anything like that battle in Auburn Hills ever since. Neither has Eustachy … but he’s working on it.
Fast forward 12 years from that infamous ejection. On the night when Southern Miss is playing its thriller against Tulsa, the C-USA supervisor of officials is courtside to watch. His name: Curtis Shaw.
“We’ve become extremely good friends,” Eustachy says, smiling. “I don’t think that’s coincidental. It’s a journey.”
[Forde Minutes: College basketball teams rising, falling as March nears]
No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others.
– “The Promises”
His office was a trailer.
That was last season, Eustachy’s eighth at Southern Miss. He’d painstakingly pulled a beaten-down program up off the deck, rising from a 21-38 record in his first two seasons to consecutive 20-win seasons. An indifferent fan base took notice. Ticket-holders who had abandoned the grim, concrete bowl of an arena for years were coming back.
But from the perspective of the trailer, it was hard to see how close the program was to a breakthrough.
Plans to spruce up Reed Green Coliseum were delayed by the battering Hattiesburg took from Hurricane Katrina. The renovation forced Golden Eagles coaches out of their offices and into an old, dilapidated trailer outside the arena. It came complete with a hitch on the front, prompting Eustachy to joke that it would be easy to hitch the coaches to a truck and haul them off if they weren’t winning.
“It was a long, hard climb,” Eustachy says.
When the losses piled up the first two seasons, the frustration was close to overwhelming. Committed to sobriety, Eustachy no longer could numb with alcohol. He couldn’t escape the pain of losing. He had to confront it and learn to deal with it.
“I had to live life on life’s terms,” he says. “This is the most peaceful I’ve ever been in my life.”
He got divorced, then ultimately remarried in 2010. Lana is from Atlanta and still spends time there with her children, so Eustachy is on his own for long stretches of time. But he’s comfortable in Hattiesburg now, describing himself as a better husband, better father to his two boys and better coach than he ever has been.
One of the reasons a talented coach with an impressive resume stuck it out here for this long, enduring the trailer years, was because the school gave him a landing spot coming out of scandal. One of the other reasons is the presence of a world-class care facility for addiction in Hattiesburg: Pine Grove Treatment Center, where Tiger Woods reportedly was treated in 2010.
“I want to coach a basketball team, but I also want a sober living,” Eustachy says. “There’s a great support system here.”
The support system extends to the Southern Miss bench. At every home game, a fellow recovering alcoholic sits at the end opposite Eustachy. He is down with the program – the basketball program and the recovery program.
There were some who believed Eustachy’s addiction would keep him from being successful ever again in coaching – that parents would not trust him to coach their sons. He found that an open approach has done just the opposite.
“You can’t go in any recruit’s home that has not been touched by addiction,” Eustachy says. “So my story is a story that’s familiar to a lot of guys on my team. They may have had an uncle who is an addict, or a brother.
“I can teach them to stand up and be accountable. I did it nine years ago. You’re where you are because of what you’ve done. I had to stand up and be accountable in front of the whole country. It’s kind of humbling.”
Humbling but ultimately endearing. A coach with no secrets to keep can be disarmingly honest with his players. It’s easier to build up a trust and a rapport when the young people in your charge know you’re every bit as fallible and human as they are.
“His past is not a secret,” point guard Neil Watson says. “He didn’t hide it. He uses it as an example of why you should take advantage of your opportunities.
“He’s overcome a tremendous amount of adversity in his life. We have no choice but to do the same.”
Fittingly, Eustachy has recruited a team of second-chance kids. Watson was run off by Toledo, where they thought he was too small to play; he’s now the indispensible hub of this Southern Miss team. Swingman Darnell Dodson came to Hattiesburg after off-court troubles forced him out at Kentucky; he’s now a double-digit scorer. Power forward Jonathan Mills, an undersized battler at maybe 6-foot-4½, once had a bullet graze his head on the streets of Chicago; he arrived in August out of junior college when almost no other school wanted him.
There are others with similar stories. Eustachy has helped them coalesce into an unlikely C-USA title contender, a team that is last in the league in shooting accuracy but somehow second in the standings.
“They’re not the tallest or the most skilled,” Eustachy says. “They’re just really together. It’s almost magical.”
They are 22-6. An NCAA bid – something nobody was predicting before the season began – is close. A few more wins should sew it up.
The long, hard climb is nearing a summit.
“It’s starting to come true,” Eustachy says. “Maybe it’s our year. If not, we’ll try it again next year.”
Are these extravagant promises? We think not. They are being fulfilled among us – sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. They will always materialize if we work for them. – “The Promises”
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