However, he is confident about eventually righting a sinking ship.
The SJSU men haven't had a winning record since 1993-94. Nessman, a Cal assistant coach last year, became a head coach for the first time at an NCAA institution with his spring appointment at San José State.
He has served as head coach three times previously, at De La Salle High School in Concord and at Porterville and Bakersfield community colleges, producing nine first-place conference finishes in 17 years.
The 45 year-old Cal graduate laid out his plans and aspirations for the SJSU men's program in a question-and-answer interview with Washington Square.
Washington Square: How different is it taking over a struggling program than an established program at, say, North Carolina or Kansas?
George Nessman: In some ways, it's more of a fun thing because you get to put your own stamp on something.
At Kansas, they wouldn't want a stamp on it; they'd say to continue the tradition of Jayhawk basketball. Another unique challenge in coaching is you have to change the culture to change the program, and we get to do that here.
But we're not aspiring to be among the consistent Final Four teams, who have NBA-level talent and the resources.
WSQ: Can you define the stamp you're talking about?
GN: The values you bring to a program, a style of play, an identity for the program. Certain programs like Michigan State have an identity. You know it's going to be a physical battle every time you play them.
We want to have an identity. I like players who are tough, who aren't afraid to play physical basketball. I don't care what their size is. We're not going to get Shaquille O'Neal here, but we can be successful in the WAC with those kinds of players.
WSQ: What are those values you're planning to instill?
GN: Number one, that we're concerned about the team. One of our players said, "Coach, we have a couple of guys whose attitudes aren't what they should be." I said, "No, we don't. Anybody with a bad attitude isn't going to play."We're not going to put talent over attitude, particularly when you're building a program.
Number two, I want to be as clear as I possibly can in my communication with the guys. We don't play mind games, we don't trick them, we don't leave them to their own interpretation of things. It's hard to coach players you can't communicate with.
WSQ: Did you major in psychology in Berkeley? Because it sounds like you intend to make serious changes in the mindset of the team.
GN: I majored in social work. The first hurdle is to get people to quit referring to us as down. That's a reminder to the players that they struggled. I'm not going to say we have a five-year plan; what does that tell the kids?
WSQ: You're not looking for a quick fix either, right?
GN: I would look at it more like a process, getting to a certain point. The guys have to understand there are new expectations, different demands from our coaching staff, things we expect them to do that will create a good atmosphere that will produce good results.
I want to give these kids some hope, that next year we're going to be a respectable college basketball team.
WSQ: Is there one style of basketball that works best to facilitate a program turnaround?
GN: Generally, you need to be fundamentally sound. That needs to be a major emphasis. We're also going to play really hard, which is a key ingredient.
And we're going to play fast. Players like to play fast. We may not have the personnel "We're going to play fast. Players like to play fast. We may not have the personnel to play fast, but we're going to anyway.
Then we'll recruit to get the players we need to play that way.
WSQ: How important to you is the concept of student-athletes?
GN: I'd like all my players to graduate. How many guys can make a career out of basketball? It's a limited field. So my deal is that you come to college to get your degree. Seeing your players move on to good things is really important to us.
WSQ: What's the best piece of coaching advice you've received?
GN: It was Dan Shaughnessy, then the football coach at Salesian High School. I was 22 years old, a week out of Cal, teaching summer school at Salesian. He told me, "When you work with kids, you have to understand that you can't force anybody to change.
You can create a situation where people want to change, but you can't force them. You can't change the spots on a leopard."I've used that as a teacher and a coach to help people see if they're going to make changes, they need to see that it's valuable to them.
Dave Newhouse, '64.