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Mike Fish Straight Shooting

Locked in at Tech

Hewitt a hot commodity -- but he's not headed to St. John's

Posted: Thursday February 19, 2004 6:13PM; Updated: Thursday February 19, 2004 6:13PM
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Is there a hotter commodity in college hoops than Georgia Tech head coach Paul Hewitt? He's the flavor of the month -- a cool new face who's media savvy and articulate. It's said he can recruit as well as Billy Donovan and Quin Snyder and coach like Rick Pitino or Mike Krzyzewski. And Hewitt is African-American.

Tech athletic director Dave Braine signed him to a five-year deal last summer. Even so, word is St. John's brass would love to lure Hewitt home to his native New York to resuscitate its scandal-ridden program. (More on that later.)

If Hewitt made his living in college football -- he's a big New York Giants fan -- it's a good bet you wouldn't catch him pacing the sidelines Saturdays at Georgia Tech or any other big-time program. His name probably wouldn't be swirling 24-7 through the coaching rumor mill. Colleges wouldn't be fighting over him.

You disagree? Just look at the current coaching pool: there are 93 African-Americans among the 300-plus major college head basketball coaches -- and only five helming Division 1-A football programs.

So it's obvious that college administrators -- presidents, athletic directors and the like -- are light years ahead when it comes to turning over control of their basketball programs. Why?

Hewitt says it's not because of a dearth of viable football candidates, and suggests that much hinges on the success of Notre Dame coach Tyrone Willingham, who could have the same kind of impact in his sport that former Georgetown head coach John Thompson did in college hoops. "When Coach Thompson won the national championship in 1984 [at Georgetown] it became the in vogue thing to hire an African-American [basketball] coach,'' Hewitt recalls. "You can't tell me before he won that championship there weren't a lot of guys out there [who were] qualified and capable. And the second Tyrone Willingham wins that championship -- and I think he will win a national championship at Notre Dame, regardless of what is going on -- an hour later you'll have a whole list of guys, viable candidates.''

Others, such as Black Coaches Association head Floyd Keith, say the issue is deeper than that. In this case, says Keith, basketball is accepted as being a platform for African-Americans. But college officials and powerful alums aren't of the same mindset when it comes to football.

Sonny Vaccaro, the influential sports shoe executive, goes a step further, sarcastically describing college basketball as "the great melting pot for do-good [college] presidents who want to make sure blacks are involved totally in the mainstream.''

If you buy his argument, and it at least makes for an interesting debate, it boils down to money and to the notion of that college football is something of a sacred cow. "There is no basketball team in the world that generates what major football does, and it doesn't even have to be a Nebraska, Alabama or Georgia,'' Vaccaro says. "So there is almost a reluctance to fight the inevitable. 'Just let it happen [in basketball] and we'll look good.' And we have images of minorities with head [basketball] positions. It is easy. It is not football. Football is the evildoer in all of college sports, and [officials] are not tampering with football.''

Back to Hewitt and his perch atop the St. John's wish list. Hewitt isn't going anywhere. If the Red Storm had offered him the job six years ago, when he interviewed and Mike Jarvis was hired, Hewitt would have left his former job at Siena College in a heartbeat.

Now, to his credit, he's being careful not to lead anyone on. He has cut off contact with his St. John's cronies until the school hires its coach. He hasn't talked to Ron Rutledge, his good friend who serves on the search committee, since Christmas. The longtime Johnnies assistant was Hewitt's a mentor when he broke into the business, and it was Rutledge who arranged for him to be interviewed the last time the St. John's job opened up.

"It makes sense because I'm from New York, but it doesn't work for me now,'' Hewitt says of the rumors. "There was a time when I would have absolutely run to it. My situation here is very solid now. And if my situation at Georgia Tech stays the way it is, then you won't see me even thinking about going anywhere, regardless if it is St. John's or anywhere.

"I got an outstanding athletic director and a good president. And we got too good of a recruiting class and too solid a program.''

But the fact that Hewitt is generating this much buzz further highlights the difference between hoops and football.

Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.

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