A Matter Of Time

ATLANTA - How long does it take to build, or rebuild, a Southeastern Conference basketball program?

Different strokes for different folks.

But most agree: Not so fast, my friend.

Mark Gottfried can really relate to what suddenly maligned third-year Arkansas coach Stan Heath is going through.

A hot-shot Alabama guard who played for Wimp Sanderson in the mid-1980s, Gottfried took over his alma mater's once-proud program seven seasons back.

His first season, the Crimson Tide finished fifth in the SEC's Western Division. Same thing the next season. Three seasons into his tenure, Alabama finished third as Crimson Tide fanatics called for Gottfried's noggin on a chicken fried steak platter.

Not one for quick fixes (i.e. loads of junior college transfers coming and going season-by-season), Gottfried knew what was coming, so he was willing to take the hits.

Before Alabama's 72-63 home win against Arkansas on Feb. 16, Gottfried had a chat - perhaps it was more of a pep talk - with Heath, who is 39-46 overall and just 14-34 in SEC play as his team (18-11, 6-10 in the SEC) prepares to face Tennessee in the first round of the SEC Tournament in the Georgia Dome here on Thursday night.

"I told Stan, you know, he's building his program a little bit like I did - not that it's right or wrong," Gottfried said. "He's got some good young players. We were in the same boat (three) years ago, and I got (Rod) Grizzard and (Erwin) Dudley in that group and played them when they were young. And we took our lumps and we weren't very good.

"But then they started to get better."

And then some.

In Gottfried's fourth season, Alabama went 27-8, won the SEC overall title and made it to the Sweet 16. There the Crimson Tide ran into a red-hot Kent State team, losing 71-58.

Those Golden Flashes were coached by Heath in his only season at Kent State - and as a head coach - before heading to Arkansas.

Last season Gottfried surprised most everyone by taking his rising Tide to the Elite Eight for the first time in school history.

For that ride, the 41-year-old Gottfried (whose 23-6 team tied for the SEC West title this season) was named the national Coach of the Year.

And that came just two seasons after Gottfried was called much different names around his home state.

What a new head coach has to work with when he arrives has lots to do with how long the reconstruction of a program should take.

Take Heath's situation, for instance.

His hiring came on the heels of the firing of the outspoken and controversial Nolan Richardson, the unique winningest basketball coach in Arkansas history, and the only one to net a national championship, which he did in 1994.

Boosters and fans were at least somewhat divided concerning Richardson's ouster, and many wanted Mike Anderson, Richardson's right-hand man who took Alabama-Birmingham to the Sweet 16 last season (and already has won 20 games this season), to take his place.

That included big-time UA commitment Andre Iguodala and Arkansas' best player, J.J. Sullinger.

Despite Heath's attempts to keep them in Fayetteville, Iguodala was released from his commitment (he ended up at Arizona on the way to the NBA) and Sullinger transferred to Ohio State, where he started during the Buckeyes' shocking win against previously undefeated and No. 1 Illinois last weekend.

Heath didn't have much to build on. No size on an unpolished front line. No point guard. Not much depth or many shooters.

"What happens really depends on what your starting point is. That's the whole key," said Heath, 39. "You know, we started off and our leading scorer was 5 points and about 5 rebounds. So that was our starting point.

"Everybody's a little bit different.

"And then it really comes down to two things: Development and recruiting. And if you've done well in those areas, you're still looking at playing freshmen a lot of minutes at key spots. And that's a challenge - especially when they're your key players on your roster. We asked Jonathon Modica as a freshman, 'You've got to be the guy.' Then the next year, Ronnie Brewer, 'You've got to be the guy.' That's hard. That's really difficult.

"But now when they're sophomores, they're juniors and they become juniors and seniors, now you're asking your freshmen just to play a role: 'Hey, we need you to defend. We need you to rebound. We just need you to fit in and play to your strengths and don't try to do too much.' That's a lot easier.

"So, you know, we try to model ourselves after top programs and do it the right way. You realize, hey, between recruiting and development, it takes three or four years to really get your program where you want it to be and having the players understanding what the coaches want and everybody kind of buying in and believing in each other.

"And that's a natural progression."

Said Gottfried: "Every job's different. Sometimes coaches walk into a situation where the cupboard is full - 'Go play!'"

Gottfried was referring to Heath's situation at Kent State.

"He had three fifth-year seniors and two fourth-year juniors," Gottfried said. "You know, those were veteran guys."

Unless you're Tubby Smith and lucky enough to land at Kentucky, the odds of a quick fix are long at best.

Florida's Billy Donovan, 39, has taken the Gators to seven consecutive 20-win seasons, and in 2000 his team made the NCAA final (where it lost to Michigan State, where Heath was an assistant).

But he was 37-32 overall and just 11-21 in the SEC his first two seasons.

Another good example of taking his time is Rick Stansbury.

Stansbury, who had been a Mississippi State assistant, inherited a senior-packed Bulldogs team seven years ago and took it to a 20-13 record and to the NCAA Tournament.

His next two seasons, MSU finished fifth and fourth in the SEC West.

Before this injury-riddled season in which his team went 21-9, Stansbury's Bulldogs won the last two SEC West crowns, and his program now averages 21 wins. This will be the fifth consecutive season Stansbury, 46, has taken his team to the postseason.

After four seasons and a 60-58 overall record that includes 29-35 in SEC play, Tennessee coach Buzz Peterson is under the gun.

Volunteers athletic director Mike Hamilton has refused to give Peterson a vote of confidence, and his program will be re-evaluated after this (13-16 so far) season.

So how long does Peterson think it takes to turn things around?

"I think at least four or five (years); it takes some time in the SEC," said Peterson, 41. "It depends on what happens, too.

"Our situation, two starting guards were dismissed - they'd have started for us our first two years. You've got a person that goes pro. So many different things can happen on that.

"I've read comments from people, 'He's been here two years and they haven't turned it around yet!' I think it takes a good four or five or six years to put your stamp on it where you get your own type of players in there ... get your guys in there and see how they respond to your style."

Gottfried scoffed when asked if three years is enough time for an SEC head coach to make his mark.

"I think what happens in college athletics - and I think this is true in football, basketball, all that, over a four or five-year period - I think three years is an awfully short amount of time," Gottfried said. "Really, (after three years) you begin to see who a coach really is. I really think that.

"What happens at that point is, 'What kind of recruiter am I? Have I recruited a bunch of stiffs who can't play?' You're going to learn that over a three or four-year period. 'Have I recruited some really good players? Do I graduate guys? Is that important? How good am I in the community? Am I an asset to my school?'

"I think you learn that three or four years into the job.

"I've always been surprised when a guy goes to a place for one year and maybe has a great year and then there's a general consensus of, 'Well, he's just a great coach.' He might've coached his team real well, but he hasn't built a program yet.

"There's so much more to the job than coaching the game. Coaching the game is critical, but there's a lot of guys that are good in that field but they can't do anything else. And they can't survive.

"This college thing is all-encompassing. It's a whole lot different than being the coach of the Washington Redskins and say, 'I've got to coach this game tonight.'"

Dennis Felton went from Western Kentucky, where he built the Hilltoppers into a legitimate NCAA Tournament threat, to Georgia two years ago.

With barely enough bodies to practice, the veteran Bulldogs went 16-14 in his first season. This season, Felton's team has predictably fallen to 8-19 (2-14 in the SEC).

"Well, different things impact it," said Felton, 41. "I can tell you this: It's more difficult to build a program now than it was just five years ago."

Rod Barnes was an assistant at Ole Miss for five seasons before being named its head coach seven years ago.

He started with a bang, going 39-27 (20-11 in the SEC) his first two seasons.

In 2000-2001, the 39-year-old Barnes guided the Rebels to a 27-8 season that stretched all the way into the Sweet 16. For that, the former Ole Miss guard was named the SEC Coach of the Year and the Naismith national Coach of the Year.

Since then, Ole Miss has bottomed out (including 13-16 this season; 2-14 in the SEC), missing the NCAA Tournament for three consecutive years.

Many around Oxford figure Barnes will be going elsewhere after this SEC Tournament.

Eighth-year LSU coach John Brady may have saved his job this season.

Taking over for the quirky, but highly successful, Dale Brown, Brady, 50, netted 100 wins quicker than any other coach in LSU history. The winningest coach ever at Samford during his six-season run before taking over the Tigers, Brady took LSU to the Sweet 16 in 2000 and was named the SEC Coach of the Year.

Despite this season's 19-8 (12-4 in the SEC) campaign in which the Tigers tied Alabama for the SEC West title, Brady's program still has a losing conference record and the Baton Rouge natives are just a little bit less restless.

Read what you will into this from LSU's media guide:

"The rebuilding of the LSU program is nearing completion under John Brady. Now the task is to sustain the success and plan for the future of the program under the coach who enters his eighth season at the helm of the Tigers."

That says a lot about time tables.

It's easy to get into hot water with SEC fans.

But coaches know what they're getting into when they dive in.

"There's pressure with these jobs," Heath said. "Hey, from Day 1, being the coach at Arkansas, there's going to be pressure. There's expectations, there's tradition, there's history. All those things are part of our program. It wasn't necessarily, 'Hey, you've got to produce in Year 1,' but it's, 'Hey, we've got to get to the point where we're moving in that direction and get there.'

"So every year there's a challenge. It just comes with the territory and I think any coach, including me - you probably put more pressure on yourself than any fan or anyone else."

Peterson, who has shrugged off talk of what may well be his impending firing, said fans expect too much, too soon.

"We're in that society now where everybody's pacing," Peterson said. "'What can you do for me now?'"

Throughout this rough-and-tumble season during which the Razorbacks beat no ranked teams and were embarrassed, 77-64, at Auburn on Saturday, opposing coaches have gone out of their way to praise Heath's rebuilding project.

They realize the difficulty of turning the corner with just one role-playing senior (Mike Jones).

"I think Stan Heath ... Arkansas had a great tradition, but they had a drop-off probably in talent," said Kentucky's Smith, whose first team won the 1998 national championship. "It looks like he's restocked, reloaded and he's ready to go.

"Oh, yeah, I think he's right there."

Said Gottfried: "They're going to hit some bumps in the road, but I like where they're going. They're running some good stuff offensively and defensively. They're really good."

Like Gottfried during his first few seasons, Heath has tried to be patient while playing through the growing pains.

Also like Gottfried, Heath thinks he knows where his program is going.

"I feel it's taking place at our school," Heath said. "You know, sometimes it doesn't show up in the win-loss column, but when you look at player development, maturing and the players you're bringing in, you get excited about it.

"We're better. We are a lot better. We've strengthened our team in different areas.

"We've made good progress. We've recruited well, we've developed well. We're definitely moving in the right direction, I don't have any doubt about that. I like what we're doing.

"This is a team that's even more scary for the future, having guys potentially back the next few years. It's on pretty solid ground."

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