Jeff Pearlman

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Steve Steinwedel

#198
Twenty-three years ago, this sideline guru coached the University of Delaware to its first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance. A year later the Hens reached March Madness again. Then, with little warning, he vanished from the college basketball landscape. POSTED March 17, 2015

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Back before Sports Illustrated and John Rocker and Walter Payton and Showtime, I was a kid at a student newspaper.

A giddy one.

The year was 1992, and as an assistant sports editor at The Review (the University of Delaware’s student newspaper), one of my tasks was to cover the men’s basketball team. It was an absolutely dazzling experience. The Blue Hens were in the midst of the best season in school history—a 27-4 record, a future NBA Draft pick (center Spencer Dunkley), the best dunker in the nation (forward Alexander Coles), a freshman point guard with uncommon on-court charisma (Brian Pearl), two dead-eye three-point gunners (Kevin Blackhurst and Ricky Deadwyler) and … and … and …

Steve Steinwedel.

Stein was the Blue Hens’ coach, and well, I didn’t much care for him. He was aloof and, at times, sorta snide. I once arrived five minutes late for his weekly press conference and—in front of the entire room—he bellowed, “We’re graced by the presence of the famous Jeff Pearlman!” It was mortifying.

That said, Stein could coach. Like, really coach. He turned an awful program into a marvelous one; recruited a caliber of athlete the Hens never before touched. When he arrived, the team played in a dark and dank field house. When he left in 1995, they resided in a state-of-the-art facility.

Was he difficult? At times, yes. But he was also the man who brought Delaware into March Madness. And he’s mellowed a whole lot.

Today, Steve Steinwedel lives in Delaware. He’s a father, a grandfather, a retired basketball coach, a former counselor at Delaware Technical College … and the 198th Quaz Q&A.

JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, Steve, I’m gonna take you back. It’s March 1992, and you’ve led Delaware to its first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance. You’re playing Cincinnati in the state of Ohio, and Cincy is loaded. Van Exel. Corey Blount. Herb Jones. I mean, really explosive, really good. I was 19, thinking, “The Hens can do this! They really can!” But, I wonder, did you think you’d win? Or was it more, “If everything goes absolutely right, we might win?” Is there a realism a coach has that a fan lacks? And what do you recall from that game (which the Hens lost, 85-47)?

STEVE STEINWEDEL: Playing Cincinnati in Dayton. Well, that was big in so many ways. As the pairings were being announced on TV and we were all waiting excitedly in the Scrounge I had this moment, just before, that it was going to be Cincinnati and it was going to be in Ohio. I’d played high school basketball in Cincinnati, I spent seven years there and I started my coaching career at West Virginia with Bob Huggins—Cincinnati’s coach—as our graduate assistant. Over that year we became very close and certainly shared a lot of the same philosophy around how the game was to be approached, played and coached. So it was quite synchronistic in a Jungian sort of way.

I thought we could play with them but that we’d have to get some breaks and have to play very well. I thought they were the most underrated team in the tournament and they proved that by their play throughout. We had some opportunities and didn’t convert early and that hurt and if we could have played again well … just us and them in some remote gym, I honestly believe we would have kicked their asses. It was all so much to handle. I know it was for me. I mean, I didn’t sleep for nights before the game. So I can only imagine how it was for the players. We were almost too ready and it showed. Plus, Cincinnati was really good.

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J.P.: You seem like a truly warm, engaging guy, and I’ve loved seeing that because—just being honest—when you were coaching Delaware and I was covering the team, I found you intimidating, a bit arrogant, sorta smug. And maybe it was just the perception of a college kid. But you didn’t seem particularly happy or jovial. Am I off on this? Or, looking back, you were, well, sorta jerky? (No offense).

S.S.: This is not the first time I’ve heard these thoughts about myself—surprise, surprise! I was very intense and determined, I cared a lot about what I was doing and it showed. Was I a jerk? Well, yes. I’m sure that I was, but like all of us I’m much more than that and I’m not sure many experienced the other (many other) Steves. I certainly didn’t help that and I was very young (how does it go? Young and dumb?) and I thought I had all the answers (or at least most of them), when in fact I didn’t even have most of the questions. One of my former players said it best: “I hated him for four years and loved him the fifth.” He was our graduate assistant coach for a year after he played and he got to  see a whole different side. His perspective shifted considerably, not only of me but of how things are from the coaching side of things. It’s unfortunate that not to many of us get to see and feel, touch and taste that perspective. Because it’s eye-opening. Now, all that being said, could I have handled myself differently? Of course. But then again, who knows?

Oh, and no offense taken.

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J.P.: Despite the previous question, I’ve long felt you didn’t receive the credit you deserved. Mike Brey is a great guy, and he did fantastic stuff at Delaware. But when people spoke of his “turnaround job” at UD, I’d always say/think, “No, the guy was Steinwedel.” Have you, through the years, felt at all slighted? Do you not get the credit you deserved?

S.S.: Well, you know, now that you mention it … yes, it does hurt some. To be honest. Not to take away from Mike at all. He did some really good stuff.

Of course, the place was a lot different when he came on the scene 10 years later. First, he was left with some talented players, not to mention facilities and a different realization from within the whole athletic department about what it would take to build a successful program, I’m still amazed at how many people think that Mike helped build the BOB (Delaware’s state-of-the-art arena, which broke ground during the Steinwedel era). And I’m quite sure he would say that he had a much better situation than the one I took over. But that’s the nature of the beast. Mine was better than Ron Rainey‘s, etc … etc.

J.P.: Coaches are hired all the time to revive programs or establish programs—and you actually did it. What did you find when you arrived at Delaware? And what were the steps you took to turn the program around? What are the keys to making something out of nothing?

S.S.: Well, as you know unfortunately it’s recruiting, recruiting, recruiting. And eventually we were able to put some very talented players together in a way that when it happens is kind of magical. As I mentioned above, it is an education project, too. You have to change the mindsets of the key people and get lucky, which in a way we did. I had a great staff, too. They have gone on to great careers in the business so that confirms it and they worked very hard and we got lucky. I can remember when I first started talking about a facility like the BOB. People and administrators looked at me like I had lost it and said things like, “Not in our lifetimes.” Well, things change. I grew up in Seymour, Indiana—pop. 12,000 with a high school gym that held 8,000 seats. So this was a very real possibility from my perspective and it happened eventually.

J.P.: Before coming to Delaware you spent two years as an assistant at Duke, then five years at South Carolina—all under Bill Foster. I’ve often felt Foster didn’t get the credit he deserves as a coach. So … what was he like to work for? Why was he so impactful? What did you learn from him?

S.S.: Bill is a great guy and the reason I got a shot at the Delaware thing at all. He was very smart and very intense, but in a different way that I was. He was inwardly intense and not something you felt in his manner. That was much different than myself—you could feel mine. He had a heart attack while we were playing Purdue, and that allowed me an opportunity to take over for the rest of the year and helped my career a lot. What he did at Duke with “Forever’s Team” (John Feinstein’s first book) was amazing. By the way he (Feinstein) served in the same capacity as you did when he was an undergrad at Duke. He was in our offices all the time. But Foster was much more approachable than I was. Ha. Coach was very innovative and creative in his approach to the game and I learned a lot about building a program. He moved around a lot and one of his favorite quotes—regarding the coaching profession—was, “Your friends come and go, your enemies accumulate.”

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J.P.: Delaware let you go after the 1995 season, and I was convinced you’d turn up somewhere. Maybe not immediately at Duke or UNC, but certainly a Jacksonville, a Bucknell, a James Madison. Instead, you vanished—and never coached again. Why? What happened? And did you/do you ever miss it?

S.S.: Well, I guess in many ways I was ready for something different and on a deep level I was definitely  moving in a new way. At the time I would have told you I wanted another shot, but after about six months I realized I wasn’t working very hard at finding that next basketball thing and nobody was knocking my door down. I had lost that fire, I guess you could say, and I didn’t really enjoy all the travel and the recruiting thing. My daughter was still very young and I didn’t want to leave her, so there were several factors but the biggest was my heart was not in it and I was being pushed in a new direction.

J.P.: Leading up to Delaware’s second NCAA tournament appearance, against Louisville in 1993, Spencer Dunkley, your center, guaranteed a win—and said he’d walk home if it didn’t come true. I wonder, as a coach, whether you were pissed about this. I mean, Louisville had more talent, was playing closer to home … they probably didn’t need more incentive …

S.S.: Yes, I was pissed and no, they certainly didn’t need anything else. But in an odd way it helped some of our other players change their attitudes about the game and open their minds to the possibility they might be able to beat Louisville. So, much to my chagrin, it may have helped some. Who knows?

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J.P.: When I hear about pro coaches considering a return to college (Jim Harbaugh, for example), I think, “Who the hell would want to recruit?” It just strikes me as the worst imaginable task—you’re in your 40s, 50s, begging a 17-year-old kid to attend your college. So … what was recruiting like for you? Great? Awful? And what was your highest moment recruiting a player?

S.S.: You’re right. My most memorable recruiting moments were after the fact because I was always surprised at how my least-recruited players ended up being my best and the ones I was initially so hopeful about never really panned out. Brian Pearl, a point guard out of York, Pennsylvania was the one exception. We knew when we recruited him he would would have a great impact right away and he did.

J.P.: I’m gonna throw a weird one at you, and it’ll illustrate how naïve I was, too: Back when Dunkley was a senior, I found myself sitting courtside next to a scout for the Milwaukee Bucks. He was asking me about Spencer, and I starting saying the team also has this great guard, a kid named Brian Pearl, who could possibly … blah, blah, blah. The guy rightly looked at me like I had an IQ of 6. Steve, what’s the difference between an excellent college player and a pro prospect? There’s a line, clearly, but I wouldn’t recognize it. How do you explain it?

S.S.: Great question! The line is very fine indeed. I tell people it’s the 1 percent of the 1 percent who make it. Every college player was one the best in his region; the top 1 percent of the high school players. So those who are good enough and lucky enough to extend that career to the pros … well, it is the same percentage of all the college players who make it. You are in rarified air indeed when you get all the way to the best of the best.

J.P.: What’s the difference between a crap college coach, a good one and a great one?

S.S.: Easy. The players.

 

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH STEVE STEINWEDEL:

• Five most talented players you ever coached?: Mike Gminski, Gene Banks, Jim Spanarkel, Jimmy Foster, Spencer Dunkley, Brian Pearl, Mark Murray, Anthony Wright and Steve Lubas. Well, maybe not Lubas.

• Rank in order (favorite to least):  Denard Montgomery, pecans, Tom Carper, Meghan Trainor, Dick Allen, Cindy Blodgett, Pamela Anderson, Paris Hilton, Elkton: Denard Montgomery, Dick Allen, pecans, Elkton, Tom Carper. I’m not sure I know the others.

• What can you tell us about Steve Lubas?: He’s a funny guy who it’s hard not to love.

• Five greatest basketball coaches of your lifetime?: Bill Foster, John Wooden, Bobby Knight, Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski.

The WNBA calls right now—they’re starting a team in Philly and want you to be the head coach. You in?: No way.

• Best Christmas gift you’ve ever received?: A win over Bucknell.

• Three things you can tell us about your mother: She was smart, she was funny, she was crazy.

• I’m increasingly worried that climate change is going to destroy humanity sooner than later. Thoughts?: I hope not.

• What’s the most overrated quality of a basketball player?: Jumping ability.

  • DaTruthHurz

    UD AD Ziady needs to grow a pair & give Ross his walking papers! The dude just cant coach!

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life