Eustachy finds perfect fit, new challenge with evolving Colorado State
FORT COLLINS, Colo. -- After an over two-hour practice during which he and his staff frequently blistered the Colorado State Rams for transgressions of execution and effort, Larry Eustachy sat down to talk about how happy he is.
Leaning back in a soft, black leather chair near the entrance of his modest office, the latest can in a never-ending stream of Diet Coke sitting on an end table close by, Eustachy was softly detailing how he has bettered himself as a husband, father and coach after a decade of sobriety since a public outing as an alcoholic cost him his job at Iowa State. Then he invoked an interesting name from the college sport that's making all the headlines these days.
"Bobby Petrino had a nice, different personality at his press conference," Eustachy said. "I've coached [at two of the same schools] with Bobby and I'm sure he's been humbled, that's for sure. The biggest thing you find out ... if he comes back, if he does have success, how does he handle it? You don't worry about a guy when he's down."
Fewer folks are worrying about Eustachy these days, and that's fine by him. He rebuilt his life and his career over eight years at Southern Mississippi, the destination he chose after a season out of coaching. His performance both on and off the court there earned him the right to be selective about his next stop, and after passing on other opportunities over the past few years, he's found the right fit here on the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, the clean air and clean living suiting his cleaned-up lifestyle.
He likes this town, the school, his team, his players. He likes that he is once again being evaluated first and foremost as a coach. If his vice is now consuming more soda than a lab rat, that's fine. That existence doesn't run the risk of poor decisions and the potential consequences that go with them.
"It's just enjoyable to know when the phone rings that there's nothing bad on the other end," Eustachy said. That's a nice way to live."
When media reports broke this past spring that Colorado State's administration had flinched at the precipice of hiring former Oregon head man Ernie Kent and turned its sights instead on Eustachy, the general consensus was that he was walking into a very good situation. And, on paper, that's true. The Rams returned the four best players, now all seniors, from a 20-win team that made the NCAA tournament last season, and Minnesota transfer center Colton Iverson was now eligible for his final season, giving the Rams inside size and physical presence they sorely lacked.
But while inheriting a ready-made roster heavily dotted with experience presents an immediate opportunity to win, it also provides an immediate opportunity to clash. Eustachy's dogged, demanding, defensive style is a personality counter to former-CSU-and-now-Nebraska head coach Tim Miles, and Eustachy and his crew only have six months to make this all work before five-eighths of his rotation will depart and the real transition will begin.
There's no time to waste, no moment in practice to overlook, which explains Wednesday's session, where five-on-five drills rarely ran for more than a few seconds before a shrill whistle was followed by even shriller language explaining why catching a pass with two hands or starting an offensive set two feet deeper on the wing really, really matters. So far, the change in approach has provided mixed results. The Rams are coming off their first two losses of the season, which also helped explain the demeanor in their first practice of Finals Week, but they're the nation's most dominant rebounding team, second in Division I in both offensive and defensive rebound percentage. The copious amount of practice time spent on this area is showing dividends and Eustachy's footprint is becoming clearer.
"We've seen the first couple games of the season that we're in games even when we shoot it poorly because we're rebounding, because we're defending, because we're getting back in transition, so there's evidence to it," senior forward Pierce Hornung said after practice. "Initially, I think any player with a new coach is like 'What is he all about? Is this going to work?' if it's something you haven't done in the past, but the evidence is there. It's furthered our belief in him and belief in his system, and proven to us that it works."
Eustachy openly admits this type of forced basketball marriage, one he's been through numerous times between assistant and head coaching moves, isn't easy on players. On this team, standout guard Wes Eikmeier is a transfer (ironically from Iowa State) who is now on his third college coach. Iverson is, too, having left Minnesota with one season of eligibility left and now spending it under a different man than he intended. The other seniors were recruited by Miles and spent their first three seasons playing for him and now have someone else wrapping up their careers. They have no choice but to accept it. As Hornung half-joked, "We bought in right away. We've got a year left. What else are you going to do?"
In this way, Eustachy's mindset of hard-nosed coach now, friend later may actually come in handy. There is no time for compromise. Eustachy came in immediately and told his players how different things were going to be and needed to be if they were going to continue their success. He can worry about building closer personal ties with these seniors once their work is done.
"It's his job to push us and make us better than we think we can be, and I think we understand that," Eikmeyer said. "I think the relationship part of it comes after. He's said that a lot, that he's had a lot of great relationships with players in the past. Maybe it wasn't so great off the court when he was coaching them, but it's really a strong bond afterwards."
Eustachy believes, and he thinks the players believe, too, that they caught lightning in a bottle last season, riding a series of close nonleague wins and a perfect 7-0 home conference mark to squeak into the field of 68. There's not much room for error or improvement unless things change on the road, which is why Eustachy was so disgusted after last week's loss at in-state rival Colorado, a game in which the Rams were overwhelmed and eventually down 42-17 before rallying to get as close as three. In the postgame presser, Eustachy called his team and himself soft and bemoaned how they had allowed themselves to be physically punished by a team that talked smack in the newspaper prior to the game. On Wednesday, following a better effort in a weekend loss at Illinois-Chicago, Eustachy was more measured about his assessments.
"This team's limited. We're all limited -- coaches, most teams are limited," Eustachy said. "We have to play just right and we can beat anybody, and we can lose to a lot of people."
With that, Eustachy eased out of his chair and ambled down the hallway to find his son, who had been waiting to join his father for dinner. He's found better balance and overcome loss off the court, but is still learning to handle on-court defeat, even after more than 250 of them set against more than 400 career wins. The stress over even the most modest of home nonconference games remains consuming. Next up is North Florida, a nascent Division I program that Eustachy wryly noted had beaten him when he was at Southern Miss. Nothing will come easily for the Rams this season, but Eustachy is upbeat. He likes the chances of this team reaching its potential, and believes the payoff will be worth the pain.
"I think these next three months will be very enjoyable," he said. "Losing's no fun, but it's going to happen. But we're going to have some great wins, too."