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Paul Hewitt seeks fresh start at GMU

Armed with the security that money can buy and the freedom to do anything he wanted, Paul Hewitt sat down to consider his next step.

Since the day he turned his tassel at St. John Fisher College until March 2011, Hewitt knew only one thing: being a basketball coach. He, liked so many in his profession, had spent the better part of his adult life climbing the rungs, stepping first as a high school JV coach and eventually reaching the summit by coaching Georgia Tech in the national championship game.

Yet there he was, 47, unemployed but financially solvent thanks to a $7.2 million buyout from Tech. He could do ... anything.

He knew immediately he wouldn't, or more accurately, couldn't leave basketball. But he could approach the game from a different angle. Maybe latch on with an NBA team, to see what the game at the top level was all about. Or he could try his hand at television, talk basketball instead of live, breathe and eat it.

"College coaching was third on the list, if it was even on the list," Hewitt said. "I was taking a year off."

The phone rang. He knew it would. But he stood firm, turning down any and all job offers that came his way.

Until someone from George Mason called and suggested he just drive up to campus for a visit -- no strings attached.

Now, four months later, Hewitt is in his office, waiting for students and his team to return to campus. He's hammering out the finishing details on his fall workout schedule, breaking down film to better understand who his players are and eagerly awaiting a season where much will be expected of the Patriots and their new coach.

"I really didn't plan on this," Hewitt said. "But I had heard all these things about George Mason -- that it was a commuter school, this and that. None of it was true. It was a really intriguing situation and my wife and I both like the D.C. area, so here we are."

Here he is, indeed. While Mason's former coach, Jim Larranaga, watches his retirement gig implode amid the scandal at the University of Miami, Hewitt parachutes in to a strong program with a sweet team on the horizon.

The Patriots lost leading-scorer Cam Long (15.1 ppg) to graduation and Luke Hancock (10.9 ppg) to transfer but still return plenty from a team that won 27 games, including a victory over Villanova in the NCAA tournament. They will be favored to win the Colonial this season and could garner more than a few top-25 votes.

This sort of preseason expectation has become the norm at George Mason, which has managed to turn what looked like a one-hit-wonder Final Four run into legit staying power.

It is that staying power and that commitment to basketball that attracted Hewitt to Mason.

It was Hewitt's personality, as much as his resume, that attracted Mason to Hewitt.

Without realizing he was eyeing his future coach, GMU athletic director Tom O'Connor observed Hewitt in action when the AD served as a member of the NCAA tourney selection committee. As part of his job, he dashed around the country, watching teams that may or may not be in the tournament conversation.

One of his stops was at Georgia Tech, where O'Connor's seat at the scorer's table practically dropped him in the Yellow Jackets' huddle.

"This is a really intelligent guy who is highly ethical and I knew we were on the same page. He wants quality," O'Connor said. "When we finally met to discuss this job, we never discussed winning games. We talked about having a quality, balanced program."

Of course in the real scheme of things, the winning games portion will have to be dealt with as well.

And if there is any scrutiny at all to this hire, it is there. Few will argue that Hewitt cares deeply about the game and its future, but some wonder if Hewitt, once a fast-climber on the basketball ladder, has lost his curveball.

In his first seven years at Georgia Tech, the Yellow Jackets went to four NCAA tournaments. In his last four, only one. Even with the early success, Hewitt finished just 72-104 in ACC play. Interest in the team sagged and attendance dwindled.

The hefty contract, once viewed as a well-earned (if uniquely beneficial thanks to its chronic rollover status) salary instead came to be thought of as an albatross around Tech's neck.

O'Connor scoffs at the notion that Hewitt was his choice because the coach came cheap -- "We hired him because he is a great basketball coach, period," he said -- but there is no denying that plenty of eyes will be watching to see how Hewitt does.

After he and the Yellow Jackets finally parted ways, Hewitt allowed himself a little introspection. He believes the full assault of what happened -- particularly the emotional toil -- will come when he has more time to digest. But in the few weeks of down time he did have, he tried to figure out what changed.

What changed from the beginning of his tenure at Georgia Tech to the end?

Ever since he played high school ball, Hewitt has followed the sage advice of his coach and mentor, Martin Reid. Reid constantly told Hewitt that his job as coach was to prepare players for when they left college. Hewitt took that to heart and did it well, churning out a litany of players who left Atlanta early for the NBA.

Instead of earning praise, Hewitt was ridiculed. Instead of winning with such talent, his teams started losing. The Yellow Jackets haven't had one winning season in the ACC since falling to UConn in the 2004 national title game.

"I was rapped pretty hard for that," Hewitt said. "So I've had to step back and look at it and think, why is that? What's changed? I guess maybe kids are different. You can't stress individual development so much anymore because that's all they know. I gotta get mine. I gotta get mine. But I don't want to scrap that philosophy entirely. It's served me pretty well. So maybe now I have to tweak it."

The reality is, at Mason he isn't likely to run into the same one-and-done buzzsaw as he did at Tech.

While Hewitt believes, and few would argue, that the lines between schools such as George Mason and those in the Big Six conferences have blurred almost entirely, the fact remains that the pecking order rarely allows for a pack of McDonald's All-Americans to waltz through the Patriots' door.

Maybe that will be a good thing for Hewitt. He should have the time to develop players, not just for their own good but also for the team's good.

Regardless, Hewitt won't lower his bar. He will go after the best players and he will aim for the highest rung. Once known as a Cinderella, George Mason now has plenty of company at the ball -- from within its own conference, thanks to VCU, and from Butler -- and Hewitt sees no reason to stop the party now.

"Going to the Final Four is a great thing, but you get so wrapped up in trying to get back there that it consumes you," Hewitt said. "I haven't been able to enjoy a Final Four since I coached in one. I used to go, see guys I hadn't seen all year, talk and catch up. Now I don't enjoy things so much. You watch the game, but it's a little bit of a downer. You just think about getting back, getting back. It absolutely consumes you."

Which might explain why, in a year when Hewitt expected to be doing anything but coaching in a college basketball game, he's preparing for yet another season.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.