Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Hewitt Well-Appreciated Around Siena

It was a very non-descript women's non-conference basketball game the morning of Wednesday, Dec. 22, at Siena's Alumni Recreation Center. UC Santa Clara was in town to play against Siena.

And, so was Paul Hewitt, the former Siena men's coach who now is the head man at Georgia Tech. His team was also in town for a men's game this night against his former team.

But, not long after the 11 a.m. start of the women's contest, Hewitt quietly entered the ARC to watch the women's team of the school he coached at for three seasons just short of a decade ago.

And, that pretty much says all you need to know about Hewitt. The words loyalty and the phrase "remembering where you came from come to mind."

So does the word "class," and Hewitt has it in large doses.

Remembering where you came from?

Hewitt graduated from St. John Fisher's College, a small school in the Rochester, N.Y., area in 1985. That was 25 years ago. But there Hewitt was this past May as the commencement speaker of that school's 2010 graduation ceremonies.

But Hewitt isn't just on hand for the highly publicized events. He spends a couple days up there every summer helping out at the school's summer basketball camp, and does so without compensation. And coaches there ... often ones who have never yet met Hewitt personally ... tell how he calls their office a few times annually just to check on the program, and to offer advice and encouragement.

When he was at Siena, Hewitt was a regular attendee of women's games, offering his support. Even 10 years after his absence, a secretary in the Siena athletic office remembers that her professional relationship with Hewitt was the best she has ever had with any coach in any sport at that school.

For sure he is well-remembered at Siena for reasons beyond treating people well. He turned around a program that had fallen on hard times prior to his arrival into an NCAA tournament team in his second season and an NIT appearance in his third year. In three years with the Saints he recorded a 66-27 record.

But college sports are ... or, at least, should be ... about far more than mere wins. And, even if Hewitt's teams did not have that kind of success at Siena, there would still be positive feelings about him around that school.

Which leads us to his current position at Georgia Tech, where he has been since leaving Siena after the 1999-00 season.

A quick glance at a fan message board dedicated to the school's basketball program is filled with vitriol against Hewitt, filled almost entirely with displeasure at his work there and hopes that the school will replace him immediately, if not sooner.

And, it's not just fan boards. A columnist, who shall remain unidentified so as not to give him further credibility, for a major Atlanta newspaper wrote this recently about Hewitt: "If Paul Hewitt isn’t the worst basketball coach in the country, it’s only because ours is a mighty big country."

Let's see, Hewitt's Georgia Tech teams have a 177-144 record over the past nine years and this year's team, despite the early loss of two now-NBA front-court players, is 6-4.

Georgia Tech values academics ... there are no easy majors there in which to "hide" athletes. The school competes in the Atlantic Coast Conference, arguably the best basketball conference in the country.

Yet, Hewitt's teams there have been to the NCAA tournament in five of his nine seasons, went to the NCAA championship game in 2004 and, as recently as last season, beat eventual national champion Duke in its final regular-season contest, advanced to the ACC's post-season tournament's championship game before losing there and, then, won an NCAA contest before its season ended.

And this makes a columnist wonder if Hewitt isn't the worst coach in the country?

Seems to me the columnist has his thought process reversed. Hewitt should be the one wondering if a columnist who comes to such a wild conclusion might just be the worst newspaper columnist in the country.

As a newspaper guy who covered Hewitt's Siena teams, it was clear that Hewitt not only brought winning to Siena but turned around an entire program.

Players were required to attend every class, sit in the front row of classes and participate in discussions. Players were not allowed to wear T-shirts to classes, instead required to wear shirts with collars. Players were required to be neatly groomed ... no mustaches, beards or long hair.

Hewitt's intention was not just to prepare players for life on the court, but life off it.

At the start of one particular winter road trip a player arrived with a multi-colored wool cap with tassels, something that looked like it might have come directly from a clown's head. After Hewitt had a short discussion with the player, the offending hat was never to be seen again.

When asked what was said, Hewitt revealed: "I told the player that if the hat made the trip, then he wouldn't."

The very strong guess here is that Hewitt's philosphy of basketball and life at Georgia Tech is the same as when he was at Siena.

Players attend classes, dress respectfully, are well-groomed, treat others with respect. That Hewitt has the respect of those whose lives he touches within the school and within the community.

And, yes, Georgia Tech wins. Maybe not as much as Siena did when Hewitt was there. Still, a 177-144 won-loss record through nine seasons entering this year isn't exactly cause for concern let alone cries for his dismissal.

Worst coach in America?

A comment like that says something about a columnist would offer that opinion and about a knee-jerk fan base who would believe it, and what it says isn't very positive.

Those who know Hewitt a little better than that know he's a lot closer to the other end of the coaching spectrum.

And to see Hewitt attend a late-morning Siena women's basketball game is the perfect reminder.

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