As the final eight seconds ticked off during his team's home game against Memphis on Feb. 1, Southern Miss coach Larry Eustachy was overcome by an ominous feeling. Last season, the Golden Eagles lost three games on buzzer-beating three-pointers. Three weeks before, Southern Miss had a chance to win at Memphis, but sophomore guard Cedric Jenkins missed a potential game-winner with three seconds left. Eustachy's teams had played Memphis 17 times during his seven-plus seasons in Hattiesburg. They had lost every one.
So it's understandable that, as Memphis guard Chris Crawford furiously dribbled downcourt with the clock winding down, Eustachy assumed the kid was about to send the game into overtime. "Honest to God, when I was on that bench I thought about the movie The Godfather," Eustachy said. "I was thinking I've seen this movie before, and now I'm Fredo again. I'm getting back on the boat, thinking I'm going to go fishing when I'm about to get shot."
Miraculously, gloriously, Crawford's heave was off the mark. The game was won. The streak was over. The fans stormed the court. And when the dust cleared there was Southern Miss, atop the Conference USA standings with a 7-2 league record. Despite Wednesday night's 71-61 loss at UAB, the Golden Eagles are 20-4 overall and ranked eighth in the RPI. And while they have work to do, they are in excellent position to garner the school's first trip to the NCAA tournament in 21 years.
Now, in the wake of that breakthrough victory, another movie is being replayed over and over again. That one also ends the same way. The movie tells the tale of the sad, strange circumstances that brought Eustachy to Southern Miss. You can almost hear college basketball fans across the country do double takes when they see his name popping up in the headlines after all these years. Wait a minute, Larry Eustachy? That Larry Eustachy?
Yes, that Larry Eustachy.
He can hardly believe it has been nine years since it all went down. Often times, when Eustachy explains to young people what happened to him, they have no idea what he's talking about. It makes him laugh. It also reminds him that he is getting older. "I'm 56, but I feel like 96," he joked.
During his five seasons at Iowa State, Eustachy established himself as one of the top coaches in America. His teams won two Big 12 championships. In 2000, he was named the AP's National Coach of the Year after leading the Cyclones to the Elite Eight, where they lost to eventual champion Michigan State. Alas, it all came crashing down during the spring of 2003, when the Des Moines Register published photographs showing Eustachy clutching beer cans as he posed with college students at a couple of on-campus parties he attended after Iowa State's road games. Eustachy was clearly drunk in those pictures. Some of them showed him kissing young girls on the cheek. Yet, no female ever accused Eustachy of making a crude pass or engaging in sexual misconduct. Nor was there any suggestion that he drove while under the influence. He showed terrible judgment, but by today's standards his transgressions seem pretty tame.
After the photographs were published, Eustachy called a news conference and revealed that he had entered into a treatment program for alcoholism at a rehab center in Minnesota. At first blush, Eustachy's admission appeared to be a disingenuous ploy to save his job. In fact, he had acknowledged his addiction to those close to him several weeks before his life exploded. Eustachy called himself a functioning alcoholic -- "I'm probably the best in the country at it," he said -- but he also pledged to turn himself around.
It didn't work. The Iowa State administration caved to the public pressure. Eustachy was suspended and later resigned. In the ensuing months, his marriage fell apart. He had hit rock bottom in a very public and humiliating fashion.
After a year spent in basketball purgatory, Eustachy resurfaced, said all the right things, and was hired at Southern Miss, which had just fired James Green following a 13-15 season. During his eight years in Hattiesburg, Eustachy's teams have amassed a 156-110 record, but their only postseason appearance came in 2010, when they played in the CIT. (They lost in the first round.)
For Eustachy, however, the more important victory will occur on April 23. That will mark the nine-year anniversary of the day he took his last drink. Eustachy insists that as painful as it was, his fall from grace was the best thing that ever happened to him. The ordeal helped him find his spirituality, his humility and, most important, his sobriety.
"Since my situation happened, a lot of things have happened where guys have kept their jobs after they did something a little worse than what I did, but I'm not resentful at all," he said. "If all that stuff didn't happen at Iowa State, I would not have had the eight great years I've had here. I would still be the same egotistic idiot I was. Now I see things through a different pair of glasses, I really do. I'm at peace."
Eustachy remains a devoted follower of the 12-step program taught by Alcoholics Anonymous. He has spent much of the last nine years counseling other addicts. Some of them are friends of friends who call him out of the blue. He has spoken to small groups of fewer than 10 people as well as larger ones that number in the hundreds. He has done all this away from the public eye -- partly because his teams have not been winning that much. "If people think I've been in a cave the last eight years, that's terrific, because I've helped a lot of people while I've been in this cave," he said. "I understand that out of all the sand in the world, I'm just one little pebble. It's very humbling."
Southern Miss's success may be reviving memories of Eustachy's ignominious exit from Iowa State, but it's also reminding people that he's a very good basketball coach. The journey to bring the program to relevance has not been easy. After his first season in Hattiesburg, the town and state were devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Before that event, Southern Miss was preparing to embark on a badly-needed renovation to Reed Coliseum, but Katrina set those plans back several years.
When the renovation finally got under way, Eustachy and his staff had to be housed in decrepit trailers that served as their offices as well as the team's locker room. Recruiting, which had already been a major challenge, suffered. It's no accident that the program's fortunes turned around as soon as the renovation was completed three years ago. Once Southern Miss got brand new locker rooms, coaches' offices, training rooms and weight rooms, the players started rolling in. Angelo Johnson, a 6-foot guard who could not qualify academically to play for USC, considered Kentucky and Baylor before enrolling at Southern Miss. Darnell Dodson, a 6-7 senior forward and currently the team's leading scorer, likewise passed up other opportunities after transferring from Kentucky. (Shortly after arriving in Hattiesburg, Dodson was dismissed from the basketball team because he had pleaded guilty to grand larceny charges. He was reinstated last December.) Neil Watson, the team's starting point guard, was a juco transfer who opted for Southern Miss over Creighton. "There's no way we get those guys if we don't have a decent locker room," Eustachy said.
The consensus around Conference USA is that this is by far Eustachy's best team. Besides the big win over Memphis, Southern Miss has twice defeated New Mexico State, as well as Marshall at home and UCF on the road. Its most impressive performance came in a double-overtime loss in the Great Alaska Shootout to still-unbeaten Murray State. The Golden Eagles aren't overly talented, but they play with the purpose and toughness that were trademarks of Eustachy's teams at Iowa State. "They're a hard-nosed defensive team," Memphis coach Josh Pastner said. "They're shooting the three-point shot really well, but some of their best offense comes from offensive rebounding. Larry has just done a terrific job."
Regardless of how this movie ends -- "We could lose the next seven games," he cracks -- Larry Eustachy will remain at peace. If Southern Miss makes the NCAA tournament, he would prefer that people simply ask him about his team and his players, but he understands that will not be the case. There was a time in his life when that might have bothered him, but that is in the distant past. It's long gone, if not entirely forgotten. "If I get asked about all that went on at Iowa State, I know it's for a good reason, which is to use that platform to help somebody," Eustachy said. "So it wouldn't bother me one bit. I'm nothing special. All I have is my story."