Fortson seems to believe that predicament has helped motivate his team. "At the beginning of the season we were the poodle carrying the bone, and every other dog wanted it," he said after the Tulane win. "Now that we've lost it, we have something to prove."
A Screaming Success
Bill Musselman, whose near pathological need to win has marked his work at every collegiate and professional coaching stop he has made in the last 32 years, may have met his match in doggedness two years ago. South Alabama president Frederick P. Whiddon was so impressed with him in an interview that he persuaded Musselman to stay in Mobile for three days—buying him fresh clothes as needed—until the man who was fired by the Minnesota Timber-wolves in 1991 for wanting, as he put it, to "win too much" agreed to coach the Jaguars.
After nearly two seasons with Musselman at the helm, Whiddon's tenacity seems well justified. Employing a crammed playbook with more than 70 half-court offensive plays and an adhesive man-to-man defense, Musselman has guided South Alabama to a 16-5 record through Sunday, the Jaguars' best start in 16 years and a major improvement over last year's 12-15 finish. "Colleges weren't knocking his door down to hire him," says South Alabama athletic director Joe Gottfried of Musselman, "but he has a reputation for turning teams around very quickly."
Musselman has other reputations as well. In his last college coaching job he led the University of Minnesota to the 1971-72 Big Ten title—the Golden Gophers' first outright conference championship in 53 years—in his first season. But he is better remembered for the vicious brawl his team started against Ohio State that same season, in which Buckeyes center Luke Witte suffered a horrific beating. Musselman stayed on for three more seasons, but when he left Minnesota in 1975, he was relegated to stints at an alphabet soup of leagues (ABA, WBA, CBA), interspersed with brief NBA tours with the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Timberwolves. "That fight almost ruined my career," says Musselman. "I was a saint before that fight. It was terrible that it happened."
Of course, Musselman's on-court intensity was one cause of the brawl, and that intensity has not diminished. Musselman yells on the sidelines with a ferocity that borders on lunacy. But his Jaguars players and assistants swear by him. "He is the most intense guy I've ever come across and the most detail-minded person I've ever met," says assistant coach Tommy Wade. "We know our opponents inside and out. But my first year working for him was a living hell."
"Off the court he's a real nice guy," says senior guard Brandon Peterson. "He talks a lot and tells stories. But as soon as he's back on the court, he's a different person. He's a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde guy. But look how much better we are this year than last."
That Musselman, 56, has turned the South Alabama program around in the face of numerous handicaps—a local populace largely uninterested in basketball, a musty 3,138-seat home court and a recruiting budget that this year was slashed from $30,000 to $10,000—speaks to a singular thirst for competition that shows no signs of mellowing as he enters deep middle age. "I put everything I've got into it," says Musselman of coaching. "I don't need this, but I love it."