- Jason King
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Sometime during the next month -- before his first game as Colorado State’s head coach -- Larry Eustachy joked that he may distribute a survey throughout the campus in Fort Collins.
Fans will be able to check one of two boxes: one if they believe the Rams will advance to the Final Four, the other if they expect them to miss the NCAA tournament.
“I guarantee you they’ll all check ‘Final Four,’” Eustachy said.
The coach laughed.
“The expectations here,” he said, “are a little out of whack.”
Eustachy has only himself to blame.
Excited as they are about returning nine players from a 20-win team, Colorado State fans are even more amped about the arrival of Eustachy. Hired in April to replace Tim Miles, Eustachy has long been one of the more recognizable names in the coaching profession.
And not always for the right reasons.
He led Iowa State to two Big 12 titles an and Elite Eight appearance in 2000. But he was fired in 2003 after pictures surfaced of him drinking at a party with Missouri students following a Cyclones game in Columbia.
Eustachy spent the next year out of coaching and then took over at Southern Miss, where he guided the Golden Eagles to their first NCAA tournament berth in 21 years last season.
“I’ve changed, absolutely,” Eustachy said, “but it’s for the best. I think I’m a better coach now, a better teacher. My temper isn’t quite what it was. I’m a lot more spiritual and, to honest, I appreciate things more because I see things through a different pair of glasses.
“There are a lot of egos in this business. I try not to be one of them.”
That’s not to say that Eustachy, 56, lacks confidence. He believes his first squad is good enough to compete with UNLV, San Diego State and New Mexico for the Mountain West title. The Rams haven’t won a league crown since 1990, when they were in the WAC.
Colorado State, which finished fourth in the league last season, adds transfers Colton Iverson (Minnesota) and Daniel Bejarano (Arizona) to roster that returns its top four scorers in Wes Eikmeier, Dorian Green, Greg Smith and Pierce Hornung.
“There’s momentum and we have to take advantage of it,” Eustachy said. “People have a right to be excited and to expect a lot. I wouldn’t have wanted this situation as a 34-year-old, first-year coach at Idaho. But at 56 at Colorado State, I love it. I know all about expectations. I know what this team can do.
“This team could look like a top-10 team on our own floor or we could lose at home to Montana State. It’s a great collection of character and some very good talent in some areas. We’ve added to it.”
Eustachy even uttered the words “Final Four” at his introductory news conference.
“If it can happen at VCU and Butler, it can happen here,” Eustachy said. “I compare it something like the situation to Gonzaga. If they can do it, why can’t we do it? I’ve been to Spokane, Washington.
“I’ve been to some really neat places and I’ve always loved college towns, but the community here and the beauty of the town is better than anything I’ve ever experienced. If we get a kid to visit here, we’ll probably get him.”
While it’s usually rare for new coaches to lavish praise on their predecessors, Eustachy couldn’t have been more complimentary of Miles, who transformed the Rams from a seven-win team in 2007-08 to an NCAA tournament squad last season. He’s now the head coach at Nebraska.
Eustachy followed successful coaches Kermit Davis at Idaho in 1900 and Tim Floyd at Iowa State in 1998. But he said he’s never inherited a program in as good as of shape as Colorado States.
“He’s a great guy that did an unbelievable job,” Eustachy said of Miles. “We have a collection of returning guys, most of whom are fifth-year players. Then we have four or five new guys, and this we have this new head coach. We’re all in different pods, and my job is to blend us all into one pod. If I can’t do that, I shouldn’t be coaching.”
Eustachy said he won’t adjust his style to adhere to a group of players who have had already had success doing things a certain way.
“I’ll just be myself and it’ll work itself out,” he said. “If they question things, I’ll just remind them that we beat their [expletive] by 21 points on their home floor last year. I can kid them about that.”
Eustachy was referring to Southern Miss’ 79-58 win over Colorado State in Fort Collins last season. It was the Rams’ only home loss of the season.
Southern Miss ended up finishing second (behind Memphis) in Conference USA before losing to Kansas State in its opening NCAA tournament game. Still, simply earning a berth was a proud moment for Eustachy, who elevated the program despite having limited resources and having to recruit to a less-than-desirable city - at least compared to Fort Collins.
Those things won’t be an issue at Colorado State, where Eustachy could earn as much as $1.1 million this season. The school has also increased its commitment by elevating coaching salaries and giving Eustachy the use of a private plane to recruit.
“At Southern Miss, we won with a bunch of kids that no one else wanted,” Eustachy said. “It’s something I’ll always be proud of, but it was a long, eight-year grind.”
In some ways Eustachy’s life has been the same way.
Following his dimissal from Iowa State, Eustachy entered treatment for alcohol addiction. He said he hasn’t had a drink in 10 years.
“I was an extremely well-functioning alcoholic,” he said. “But that couldn’t happen these days because it’s a progressive disease. I was young when I was playing and coaching with it, so I was able to survive.
“When you’re in that world, you’re in a world that seems so real, but it’s such an unnatural lifestyle of going out and drinking all the time.”
Eustachy doesn’t know if his reputation will ever be fully repaired, but he can sense that his successful battle with alcoholism has changed the way some people view him. Otherwise he never would’ve gotten the opportunity to coach at Southern Miss and Colorado State, which he said will the “final stop” of his career.
“It’s a little different when I walk into gyms now,” Eustachy said. “I feel respected. I could be wrong, but I can sense respect when I’m around people, and it feels good.
“I’ve stopped letting winning and losing define who I am. I used to be like that. I’m glad I’m glad I’m not that way anymore.”