Paul Klee: Love him or leave him, CSU's Eustachy is Mountain West coach of year candidate
FORT COLLINS — Larry Eustachy is distracted.
Or is he merely distracting the rest of us?
As he recounts the "academic situation," as he calls it, that forced the Colorado State basketball team to close the season with only seven scholarship players, Eustachy spies a piece of lint sullying an otherwise clean, green carpet. He picks it up, throws it away. He loses his train of thought. Or is this sleight of hand by design, to lose our train of thought?
It is possible, you know, that Eustachy takes cues from a president he admires, Donald Trump: Hey, everybody. Check out the lint. Meanwhile, Eustachy wins. And he wins in a way that is wholly unconventional.
The 61-year-old Eustachy's latest win is this CSU season. Placed in the context of all that has gone down around Moby Arena, that assertion seems preposterous: three players ruled academically ineligible at the semester break, a report from the Coloradoan that former athletic director Jack Graham recommended Eustachy be fired for emotionally abusing players in 2013-14, dropped domestic violence charges against leading scorer Gian Clavell.
All of that — all of that — and Eustachy is a leading candidate for Mountain West coach of the year. CSU's Seven has won seven straight and will play for the conference title at Nevada on Saturday. If this Rams season was any more Eustachy, it would show up in Reno wearing all-black uniforms, sipping a Diet Coke and puffing on a vape pen.
"I would send my son to play for him. If he coached a girls team, I would send my daughter," Clavell told me. "I would ride with him no matter what."
I believe very little of what Eustachy says. But his words are rarely the point. The bulk is sleight of hand, and contradiction is the air he breathes: He adores the "normalcy" of Fort Collins, yet CSU has been the most chaotic Division I program this season; his reputation is under fire from critics, yet rival coaches praise his handiwork with seven players; he is a recovering alcoholic talking about the Greek Row atmosphere CSU will witness at Nevada.
"They not only serve beer; they serve Jack Daniel's and gin and tonics and margaritas," he says. "So it will be a lubed-up group."
But I do believe this: "I'm as proud of this team as any I've ever had," Eustachy says. I do believe he's one of the top dozen-or-so coaches in the college game. I do believe the men who are wired to survive his boot camp come out better for it. "It's not for everybody," he says. And I do believe his own disasters make him unusually qualified to support players faced with unspeakable tragedy, like CSU senior Emmanuel Omogbo, who last year lost his parents in a house fire.
"Emmanuel, he's basically my fifth son. (But) nobody wants to read about those things."
Under his coarse breath, Eustachy adds, "That doesn't really matter to me."
It does matter to him, deeply. I think it motivates him. Why else — when I ask if this season has lessened his desire to coach or emboldened him to coach another 10 years — does he choose the latter, citing favorable public opinion?
"I finally feel at home here. I feel wanted, you know? Particularly recently," says Eustachy, whose contract runs through 2021. "I feel a real want for me. Face it, everybody likes to be liked. People can say, 'It doesn't matter if they like me or not.' You want to be liked. You do."
Nevada's Eric Musselman is a fine option for coach of the year. Though they feuded last year — "Just two extremely competitive guys," a rival coach says — Musselman and Eustachy are close enough they once lived together for two weeks at Eustachy's home at Southern Miss.
We'll never know, but I don't think CSU would be playing for the league title with a full roster. I don't think the Rams win seven straight — three as a Las Vegas underdog, two on gutsy last-second shots — without the local newspaper ticking him off. Adversity is this rebel's cause.
"Coach Eustachy is the biggest reason I came here," sophomore guard Prentiss Nixon said. "He has a plan for his guys."
With a nod to Clavell, Nixon is CSU's best player, according to two opposing staffs who scouted the Rams. He's a Chicago tough guy who played his AAU ball for Illinois Wolves and coach Mike Mullins, a man I respect as much as any in the game.
"What I'm getting here is really just an extension of Coach Mullins. He was hard on me, just like coach Eustachy is hard on me," Nixon says. "The key with coach Eustachy is you look at what he says, not how he's saying it."
"With coach, it's all about others before him. People don't see that," Nixon says. "I try to explain to them that what he did three years ago is what he did three years ago."
Have you witnessed the outbursts — the smashed Coke cans, the broken whiteboards, the anger issues justifiably reported by the Coloradoan — since you've been here?
"No. Not at all," Nixon says. "He's calmed down a lot. Even since last year he's calmed down a lot."
You can't rule anything out. There's a better chance than not that Mount Eustachy erupts again. But Eustachy wasn't hired at CSU to run a Boy Scout meeting. He was hired to win, and if administrators or critics are stunned by the tumult here, they should be fired for being naive. Nothing about his coaching history suggests a smooth ride. CSU had to know that going in.
"When was the last time we won the conference?" Clavell asks.
"Yeah," he says. "I wasn't even born yet."
All of this — from the improbable title attempts to the painfully predictable implosions — is Larry Eustachy. Are the wins worth the trouble? Not on their own. With the fifth sons? Yes.