Stories about the rebuilding of a basketball program typically come in two forms. There is the hopeful narrative, written when a new coach takes over, his ambitions and philosophies detailed in full. Then there is the retrospective, composed after the program has found glory or when that coach is fired, his methods either praised or vilified.
The tale of Toledo and coach Gene Cross is somewhere in the middle. The Rockets are in the midst of the long slog that rarely gets highlighted. In Cross' second season, Toledo is 3-19 after finishing 7-25 last year. The optimism Cross expressed when he was hired to replace Stan Joplin remains, but his enthusiasm has been dulled some by the amount of work left to be done.
"When I took the job I thought we could win here and I still think we can win here," says Cross, previously an assistant at Notre Dame and DePaul. "But at the same time the job was open for a reason."
Toledo has not been to the NCAA tournament since 1980 and the school is still trying to recover from a point-shaving scandal that sullied the school's reputation. Three former basketball players and three former football players were indicted last May, and the indictment listed 17 basketball games that two Detroit-area businessmen allegedly bet on illegally.
"In one way, it really doesn't affect me because I wasn't involved and it is not like any of my players are under indictment," Cross says. "Still, it is out there, hovering. You have to keep reminding people that is has nothing to do with the team now."
Of greater concern is the shredded roster Cross inherited. He released two recruits from their letters of intent when he was hired and dismissed two others for not meeting academic or behavioral standards. It left a squad with no juniors and only a few sophomores, so he scrambled to find recruits in the spring, the equivalent of bargain hunting in the leftovers rack. He signed five players, but only two remain with the team.
The roster shake-up put the program in a big hole, and Cross is still digging out. Out of necessity, he signed eight players from the high school class of 2009, three who are redshirting. They joined only two upperclassmen (both juniors) to form one of the youngest teams in the nation. In a sign of just how dependent Toledo is on its youngsters, first-year guard Jake Burnett is the Rocket's captain.
"It is something I have never dealt with before, a team that is basically devoid of any veteran leadership," Cross says. "It was like starting a program from scratch. The whole team is puppies."
Too much time is spent teaching in practices and games. "There are three stages when you move to the next level," says Cross. "First, guys come in as freshmen and they are just trying to survive. That first year, you teach them how to play defense and little things like how to come off a ball screen so that they can just be on the court. Once you get past survival, you teach them how to compete, the effort and the dedication it takes to get better. Then, finally, only when you have those two down, can you teach them how to win.
"We have guys right now forgetting plays in the middle of the game, forgetting to get back on defense, not remembering where they are supposed to be on sets. They are having to work so hard to survive that we aren't yet to the point where we can talk about taking the next step."
Cross finds hope in the play of Barnett and fellow first-year guard Malcolm Griffin; he thinks they can be all-MAC players in the future. The school is also building a new practice facility and opened a new arena in 2008, and Cross believes the administration understands the momentous task he took on. "But I also know that I need to show progress," he says. "We need to start winning some games next year."
Cross recently called Virginia coach Tony Bennett to ask how he built the Washington State's program up and how he deals with youthful teams.
"He told me that it takes time and over that time you are going to take some lumps," Cross says. "But you have to keep believing in what you are doing. All I can do is believe in the course I have set."