Six years ago, Steve Forbes spent his birthday cleaning out his office at Tennessee after getting fired amid an NCAA investigation. Now he's at the height of his coaching career.
Forbes has led East Tennessee State to its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2010. His background makes him an ideal fit for a team that features plenty of junior college transfers.
Forbes began his playing and coaching career in the JUCO ranks and returned after receiving a one-year show-cause penalty in 2011 for failing to cooperate with an NCAA investigation of Tennessee while an assistant on former coach Bruce Pearl's staff.
Pearl, now the head coach at Auburn, ended up getting a three-year show-cause penalty after the NCAA said he provided false and misleading information to investigators about improperly hosting recruits at his home and trying to get others to do the same.
''I think I came out of it a better person and a coach,'' Forbes said. ''I wouldn't recommend anybody go through what I went through, but you can learn from it, and I believe that I did.''
Forbes has recovered from that setback with the help of all those ETSU transfers. The Buccaneers (27-7) are the No. 13 seed in the East Regional and face Florida (24-8) on Thursday at Orlando, Florida.
''It was very emotional and rewarding for me to be back at this pinnacle after going through what we went through,'' Forbes said. ''First and foremost, I was very accountable for my part in it. I didn't play the blame game. Then I had to get back up and start swinging for the fences. We tell our players all the time when you get knocked down, you've got to get back up. That's what I did.''
Forbes had attended Muscatine (Iowa) Community College before graduating from Southern Arkansas, where he played baseball. Early in his career, Forbes coached at Southwestern Community College in Creston, Iowa, and Barton Community College in Great Bend, Kansas. When he got his one-year show-cause penalty, Forbes headed to Northwest Florida State College in Niceville, Florida.
He considered the chance to coach plenty of future major college players by the beach ''better than a lot of Division I jobs.'' Forbes went 61-6 in two seasons there.
Then he got ''the chance of a lifetime'' to become an assistant on Gregg Marshall's Wichita State staff. Forbes was an assistant at Wichita State for two seasons before getting a Division I head coaching opportunity at ETSU, located in Johnson City, Tennessee.
His ETSU roster features players from all kinds of backgrounds.
ETSU has five players who came directly from junior colleges, including leading scorer T.J. Cromer. The Buccaneers have three Division I transfers: Hanner Mosquera-Perea and Peter Jurkin came from Indiana and Tevin Glass arrived from Wichita State after playing for Forbes at Northwest Florida State. Mosquera-Perea had been dismissed from Indiana's team for what the school had described as ''not living up to (his) responsibilities to the program.''
Forbes has turned this mix into a winning combination. ETSU has gone 51-19 in Forbes' two seasons. An upset of Florida would enable ETSU to match the school single-season record for victories.
''I think we're built for the NCAA Tournament,'' Forbes said. ''We have legitimate size at the four and the five. We have long, athletic wings. We have a big point guard. We can score and we can defend and we can rebound. I think in the tournament, defense and rebounding are really important. All those things, we can do.''
ETSU players have a coach who is familiar with the NCAA Tournament atmosphere from his years at Tennessee and Wichita State.
''He's always about helping each other, whether it's on the court or off the court,'' senior guard A.J. Merriweather said. ''He wants you to be a better basketball player and a better man. Off the court, he tries to make all these jokes like he's a comedian, but he's cool. He makes us laugh. I love him.''
Forbes also can help his players recover from whatever adversity comes their way. His climb up the ladder offers several life lessons.
''Anything can happen,'' Forbes said. ''You've got to keep working. You've got to look in the mirror. You can't play the blame game and you've just got to keep grinding. Fortunately, I'm back to where I wanted to be when this all started.''
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