Major effort under way at Charlotte

His degree reads education and Alan Major indeed did study education at Purdue University.

The only difference -- he was preparing for a hardwood classroom.

Major had two choices when he graduated from Manual High School in Indianapolis -- he could go to a Division II school and play basketball or he could go to Purdue and learn basketball.

He chose the latter and now 18 years after receiving both his degree and his real-world education, Major is finally putting his real major to work as the new head coach at Charlotte.

"My original plan was to walk on at Purdue, but that didn't happen," Major said. "My high school coach gave me great advice -- he told me to ask them if there was anything I could do just to be around the program on a daily basis. I ended up with basically a basketball apprenticeship."

Technically, he was a student manager, but Major made the job about much more than cleaning up dirty uniforms and ferrying water bottles during timeouts.

For four years he watched Gene Keady run practice and coach games; he listened in as the assistant coaches broke down films and back then, when live scouting was permissible, he'd tag along to watch games in person with the coaches.

Now about to embark on his own for the first time, Major is armed with a confidence built on that foundation.

"I couldn't put a price tag on the value that had for me," he said. "It was everything -- getting a feel for the yearly cycle of coaching a team; game prep, I was allowed to do everything but coach on the floor. It was incredible."

Alan understands all the small things you have to do. In some regards, not being a player helped him. He never had his hand out. He's had to work for everything and there's never been a job he wasn't willing to do.

--Thad Matta

So thorough was Major's education, he hasn't had a day off since. He's worked every day since his graduation, starting on the West Coast at Cal Lutheran and Pacific before heading east to join fellow Keady protege Bruce Weber at Southern Illinois.

In 2001 he paired up with Thad Matta at Xavier, helping Matta turn the Musketeers into a giant killer and burgeoning mid-major power. Three years later he followed his boss to Ohio State, where together they rebuilt the Buckeyes into a national contender.

"Alan understands all the small things you have to do," Matta said. "In some regards, not being a player helped him. He never had his hand out. He's had to work for everything and there's never been a job he wasn't willing to do."

Major said accepting the workload was never difficult because he never wanted to do anything but coach.

As a kid he was always the neighborhood organizer for pickup games of three-on-three and willingly hung up his own sneakers after his high school career because he knew he wasn't really leaving the game.

Charlotte athletic director Judy Rose honed in on Major early. The two first crossed paths at the Villa 7 consortium, a Nike-sponsored event for rising coaches. She kept his name in a file and put Major on a short list of candidates after deciding to let go of Bobby Lutz.

Rose flew to Milwaukee for the NCAA tournament to watch Major at work for Ohio State and interviewed him and four others at the Final Four.

When those interviews ended, she invited just Major to campus and before he left Charlotte, he had the job.

But as slam-dunk as the decision to hire Major may have been, his hire does not come without some controversy. Lutz was the longest-tenured coach in Charlotte history and had five NCAA tournament appearances plus two Conference USA titles on his résumé.

Lutz was given his walking papers after a 19-12 season. Hardly a disaster.

But somewhere along the line the 49ers were tabbed as a team that fizzled at the end and underachieved rather than overachieved, a reputation borne out this year after Charlotte's hot 10-2 start deteriorated.

"I hired Bobby and he did a great job for us but the last five years have been stagnant," Rose said. "We kept waiting, thinking this will be the year it turns around. This year we won 19 games, but we won them early and hit a bump we couldn't get past. We're not an intramural program. This isn't a church league. We want to win. It's not everything -- graduating players, the APR, all of that counts -- but winning is a big piece."

Rose acknowledges what most everyone agrees puts Charlotte in a tough spot -- it's competing in a Northeast-centric league from a southern zip code in a state where there are just a few decent colleges to go up against for players.

But she points to the success the university had in Conference USA, going head-to-head with schools in the SEC and ACC for players, as evidence the 49ers can win more.

Major recognizes the recruiting hill but as he takes to the road this month for the recruiting period, he goes loaded with optimism. His experiences at Xavier and even the early years at Ohio State have taught him the value of patience and his experiences since college have taught him how to build a program.

He's ready to put all of that education to work.

"You have to figure out who you are," he said. "We need to establish ourselves and become a team that is playing in the month of March not occasionally, but consistently. I know that takes an immense amount of work but culturally you are who people say you are. Ultimately we want to earn the right so that kids say they want to come to our place as opposed to settling for our place."

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.