For Southern Miss, the electric atmosphere and big win was new.
Success doesn’t show its head frequently on the basketball courts in Hatttiesburg, Miss., where the Golden Eagles have endured a 20-year NCAA tournament drought.
But amid the din of celebration during Southern Miss’ huge win against conference rival Memphis, one man knew the feeling well.
Larry Eustachy has tasted the best and worst of sports fame, from the top of the heap with an Elite Eight berth, to the bottom of the barrel of disgrace and embarrassment.
Once a hot young coach who had turned Idaho, Utah State and Iowa State into winners, he was ousted amid scandal, forced to face his own personal demons of alcoholism.
Eight years ago, a rehabilitated Eustachy landed at Southern Miss, a program with little in the basketball history books and not much of a future.
Coach and program healed together, building from the ashes to something not only good, but strong.
On Wednesday night, the Golden Eagles officially announced their arrival in Conference USA, ending an 18-game losing streak to Memphis and claiming first place in the league standings.
At 20-3 and receiving nine votes in this week’s top 25 poll, the Golden Eagles are poised to vie for their first NCAA tournament bid since 1991.
ESPN.com caught up with Eustachy on Super Bowl Sunday, and the coach was hoping for a Giants win.
“I’m friend with Archie Manning, so that should tell you who I’m rooting for,’’ Eustachy said.
Q: What’s the difference with your team this year?
Larry Eustachy: This is the most talented and deepest team we’ve had here, so when we have to put someone else in, we can still find the right combination. We’ve added some big pieces, notably Neil Watson (a junior college transfer). He’s the truest point guard we’ve had since we’ve been here. It’s like adding a great quarterback. It also means we were able to move Angelo Johnson back to his natural position, at shooting guard.
They’ve been terrific. I think the atmosphere with Memphis affected us a little early. For Memphis, that’s what they see every day. We were a little tight.
But the good news, my staff has been through this every step of the way with me. We’ve been in other situations like this. This isn’t our first rodeo trying to keep a team centered.
Of course, we could tell them the exactly right thing and they could do it the exact right way and it may not work out. We think we have the formula. We just have to finish it off.
Q: What would it mean to put this team in the NCAA tournament?
LE: It would mean everything. I don’t think anyone has any idea just what this program was eight years ago, at least not many outsiders.
For three years, our locker rooms, offices all of that [was] in a trailer. You’d bring in a recruit and he’d be in a trailer. People really don’t understand where we started from to where we are now, so it would really mean a lot.
(An NCAA bid) has only happened twice in the history of this school. It would be monumental. We’ve got some kids who have been in that trailer. They know where we started from.
Q: So a trailer? Really?
LE: We knocked our offices down to add a beautiful new facility and then Katrina hit, so construction was backed up for maybe three years, so we were in a trailer. It’s not like it was some state-of-the-art trailer, either. It had to be at least 20 years old, falling apart, with the hitch in the front.
As a coach, it’s not a real comfortable feeling when you’re office has a trailer hitch. They could just pull you off campus, hook you up and bring someone else in.
The tornado alarms would go off. A trailer is not the place you want to be when you think a tornado is coming.
But I’ll tell you what. It’s been enjoyable. It hasn’t been frustrating in the least. The administration has been very patient. The fan base has been very patient. It’s been fun.
Q: Could you have appreciated this earlier in your career?
LE: No way. Back in the old days, you’re constantly trying to get the next job to get out of there. You’re trying to maneuver, figure out what you need to do to move on.
Well I’ve done all that. I had all the bells and whistles.
We didn’t shortcut this. There weren’t any shortcuts to take.
It’s been neat to see what we’ve been able to turn this into. To say this isn’t a basketball rich area is an understatement. This is all football everywhere you go in the South -- Ole Miss, LSU, Auburn, Alabama.
I mean, name the rich Southern basketball traditions. There aren’t any.
So this is really a rare deal, to get the sort of crowd and environment we had against Memphis, that we’ve really had all season.
Q: Do you feel like you’ve rebuilt yourself as you’ve rebuilt Southern Miss?
LE: I never thought about it that way, but it’s a great comparison. When I came here, I had never felt better about my life mentally or spiritually. So obviously I had a different level of energy.
I don’t think what happened at Iowa State happened by accident. I don’t think this job -- understand there were other opportunities -- happened by accident. For some reason, I chose Southern Miss.
We really have paralleled each other.