SAN ANTONIO, Texas – You can't call Georgia Tech the new Duke because the old Duke isn't exactly going away.
You can't call Paul Hewitt the next John Thompson or Nolan Richardson – African American coaches who become larger-than-life figures even outside of the game – because as Hewitt points out, "I don't think I am at [that] level."
At least not yet.
But no matter who wins the national championship here on Monday – Hewitt's upstart Yellow Jackets or Jim Calhoun's favored Connecticut Huskies – one of the memorable aspects of this weekend will be the official arrival of the Georgia Tech program and its charismatic, thoughtful and talented 40-year-old coach.
It is not just that the man can coach. That much is evident in his program's hard-fought run to the title game in just his fourth year in Atlanta. It is the New Yorker's demeanor, charm and intelligence that have turned him from the guy who didn't belong in a grouping of Calhoun, Mike Krzyzewski and Eddie Sutton to the hottest young coach in the nation.
"I think he is the total package of a coach," junior forward Anthony McHenry says.
Hewitt has that rare ability to relate to nearly everyone, black and white, city and country. He is young and hip enough to draw kids in, but his message is still old style, long on education, personal responsibility, teamwork and humility.
He coaches the best dunker in college hoops (Isma'il Muhammad) and a host of other marketable stars, but he deplores the individualization of a team game.
"In the NBA, it used to be, 'It's the Knicks vs. the Bullets,' " he says. "Now it's 'Shaq vs. Yao Ming.' What's that? That's not basketball. That's tennis. I'm serious, that's what's wrong with our game today."
He runs an explosive, up-tempo offense but is adamant that the attention should go to the passer, not the scorer.
"The guys who saved the NBA, Bird and Magic, they did it with the pass. They didn't do it with the shot," he says. "Everybody thinks the game is about the shot now."
He isn't afraid to take up social causes – he considers the NCAA's scholarship limitations a "discriminatory" issue because hundreds of unused free rides would have gone to blacks – but his demeanor, due to his life experiences, is more gentle and articulate than, say, a Richardson.
"I'm well aware that if it wasn't for a John Thompson, John Chaney, George Raveling, Nolan Richardson, I wouldn't have an opportunity," he says. "That is what sports does. It opens avenues to people."
Sit down and listen to him and it is nearly impossible to not come away impressed.
"He cares," guard Marvin Lewis says simply.
A native of Jamaica who grew up in Westbury, N.Y., Hewitt played small-college ball, became a college academic counselor and was set to attend law school just as his mother always hoped. But with the basketball bug still in him, he began working as a volunteer junior varsity coach at his old high school.
"Once I got in the gym, I knew this is what I wanted to do," Hewitt says.
Law school never happened. Mom has forgiven him. Maybe.
Now he is established at Tech, the perfect school for him the way Duke was and is the perfect place for Krzyzewski. It is classy and academically elite. Its location in Atlanta, capital of the South, provides an incredible recruiting tool.
Tech had a great run under Bobby Cremins (including reaching the 1990 Final Four) but it could never crack that year-in, year-out elite status and slipped during the late 1990s. To take nothing from Cremins, it is Hewitt who is best suited to get them there.
Presently there are almost no drawbacks at Tech. With a winning system in place, the momentum of this season likely to have an impact on recruiting and a long-term, big- money deal that will keep Hewitt in Atlanta, it is difficult to envision anything but continued success, more Final Fours.
The school always had so much going for it. Now it has the total package in charge of its basketball program. Old school and new school, a player's coach and a parent's coach, all rolled into one.
"There's something about Coach Hewitt that everybody likes," says guard Will Bynum, who has been benched and blasted by his coach at different times this season but still calls Hewitt a father figure. "My mom, she's been on me the whole time, telling me I have to trust him, I have to trust him, and I trust him a lot."
Monday Tech plays for the title. All week America has met Hewitt. This couldn't be going any better. As bright as the present is, the future may be even brighter.
The new Duke? The next Thompson?
Operative word being yet.
- Paul Hewitt
- Georgia Tech
- Nolan Richardson
- John Thompson