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A misfit toy in a land full of them: Steve Forbes's rocky path to East Tennessee State

East Tennessee State's Steve Forbes saw his coaching career upended when he was involved in a recruiting scandal while serving as an assistant at Tennessee, but he's risen to prominence as the head coach at a less glamorous program with an interesting mix of players.

ORLANDO, Fla. — Someone asked Steve Forbes on Wednesday why everyone seemed so interested in East Tennessee State. The second-year Buccaneers coach had called into Jim Rome’s national radio show Tuesday. A handful of the dozens of interviews he conducted this week formed the basis for features in national publications. There are plenty of mid-major conference tournament champs in the NCAA tournament. Why would this one garner so much attention? Forbes attempted to explain.

“We have some guys from the Land of Misfit Toys,” Forbes said Wednesday before his team practiced for Thursday’s matchup with No. 4 seed Florida. “If you ever watched Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, you know what I'm talking about. They all need a home. We all have a home here. We all have a story, and we've come together for a common goal, though. And that is to win and to go to the NCAA tournament.”

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That description didn’t only apply to Forbes’s players, though. Yes, eight of them came to ETSU as transfers either from a junior college or from another four-year school. But Forbes is a misfit toy himself. A little less than six years ago, he couldn’t imagine being where he was Wednesday. He couldn’t picture himself sitting on a dais and talking about his team as it entered the NCAAs. He’d just been fired as an assistant at Tennessee.

Long a favorite of national college basketball beat writers because he’s a master storyteller and a supreme relationship builder, Forbes spent his 46th birthday cleaning out his office. He felt certain his dream of leading his own team was dead. The NCAA was about to slap Forbes and fellow assistants Tony Jones and Jason Shay with one-year Show Cause penalties as a result of an investigation into head coach Bruce Pearl’s program. “My wife's going to kill me,” Forbes remembered thinking on March 22, 2011. “You've got three kids. It's a tough moment. You're not quite sure what you're going to do and how you're going to pay your bills and sell the house. The housing market was bad at that time, and I had a big house. I just really wasn't prepared financially for something like that.”

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Pearl received a three-year Show Cause from the NCAA in a case that involved Pearl hosting future Ohio State point guard Aaron Craft at a cookout at Pearl’s house following a Tennessee football game in 2008. Craft, then a high school junior, was on an unofficial visit. NCAA rules forbid hosting unofficial visitors off campus. NCAA investigators had obtained a photo of Craft at Pearl’s house. Had Pearl and his assistants simply admitted what happened, the trajectory of all their careers might have continued upward. As often happens in NCAA cases, the cover-up produced far worse consequences than only the “crime” would have. Pearl and the assistants told investigators they didn’t know when it was taken. Craft and the other recruits who attended told investigators exactly when and where the photo was taken. Later, Craft’s father told investigators that Pearl had called and attempted to influence what the Crafts would say when interviewed by the NCAA. That made Pearl’s punishment even worse.

But Pearl could slide into a TV job. Forbes and the other assistants needed to coach. “I didn't have enough money to sit out,” he said. Some Division I coaches called offering assistant jobs, but Forbes knew the Show Cause—which would forbid him from recruiting—was coming within the next few months. So Forbes returned to the junior college level. He’d started his coaching career at a junior college in Creston, Iowa, in 1989. He would begin rebuilding his coaching career starting in 2011, as the head coach at Northwest Florida State (formerly Okaloosa-Walton Community College). “The money was obviously a lot less,” Forbes said. “We had to downsize. You know what? That was probably the best thing that ever happened to me. I didn't need all that stuff. I didn't need a big house.”

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Forbes also brought Shay, who found himself in a similar predicament. Even as the Raiders went 62-6 in two seasons in tiny Niceville, Fla., Forbes wasn’t sure anyone would ever consider him for a head-coaching job. He thought he might have a chance to be a Division I assistant again, and one accomplished Division I head coach agreed. Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall plucked Forbes from Florida’s Panhandle and brought him back to the big time. Near the end of Forbes’s second season in Wichita, ETSU athletic director Richard Sander came to Kansas to decide whether Forbes could breathe life into a program that had gone 16-14 in coach Murray Bartow’s 12th season. The Buccaneers hadn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2010. Sander envisioned a program that packed Freedom Hall Civic Center and won conference titles. Despite Forbes’s NCAA disciplinary history, for which he accepts blame, Sander believed Forbes could recruit a team talented enough to make that vision real.

Shortly after taking the job in March ’15, Forbes began flipping the roster. The first player Forbes signed was shooting guard T.J. Cromer, who had starred at Columbia State Community College in Clifton, Tenn. Cromer wears the number zero to match the number of Division I scholarship offers he had out of high school, but he has grown into ETSU’s best player, averaging 19.1 points a game this season. “I just knew he was a man that means business when I first talked to him over the phone and when he first got the job,” Cromer said of Forbes. “He had a plan from the first day there, and he wanted to turn the program around right away. It wasn't a rebuilding process. He wanted to come in and win right away.”

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That June, Forbes signed 6-9 forward Hanner Mosquera-Perea. Mosquera-Perea had been dismissed following three seasons at Indiana. He had been arrested in February ’14 on a drunk driving charge, and reported that Mosquera-Perea had been present (but not charged) in May ’15 when another Hoosiers player was cited for marijuana possession. After sitting out last season, Mosquera-Perea has started 34 games for the Buccaneers this season, averaging 8.4 points and 4.6 rebounds. Forbes didn’t entirely stock his team with transfers, though. Point guard Desonta Bradford, from the tiny west Tennessee town of Humboldt, was last year’s Class A Mr. Basketball in the state. He currently leads the Buccaneers in assists (four a game) and ranks second in scoring (10.6 points a game).

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Those players lead a team that enters the tournament as a trendy upset pick. Florida is 24-8, but the Gators have lost three of their past four and have looked incomplete since losing center John Egbunu to a knee injury at Auburn on Feb. 14. If Florida’s three-pointers fall, the seeds should hold. If the Gators struggle from deep, Forbes and the Buccaneers might be able to wear out Florida with their depth. Ten ETSU players average at least 10 minutes a game. Florida has played a smaller, eight-deep rotation since Egbunu’s injury. 

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Forbes has history with Florida. So does assistant Shay, who spent two seasons as an assistant at North Dakota before rejoining Forbes when Forbes was hired at ETSU. Forbes praised Florida coach Mike White on Wednesday for putting his own stamp on Florida’s program after taking over for Billy Donovan. “I was in the league, and I saw them win two national championships when I was at Tennessee,” Forbes said. What Forbes didn’t mention was that the Volunteers went 3-1 against Florida’s two national title teams. He did, however, mention that the task of scouting the Gators always fell to Shay.

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Forbes blew off the notion that success in the tourney could lead to a bigger, higher paying job. “I'm going to remember you said that two years from now when you're trying to fire me,” Forbes joked to the reporter who asked the question. But the fact remains that Forbes has gone 113-25 in four seasons as a head coach since getting fired from Tennessee. His record suggests that misfit toys can mend themselves—and send demand for them through the roof.