Married to the Game
Having already hit rock bottom, Morgan State head coach Todd Bozeman is climbing back up once again.
Late last year, Sam Laird penned what was set to be a print feature about Morgan State head coach Todd Bozeman. The piece never ran in the SLAM pages—it was held at the time because Bozeman was suspended early in 2012—but you can read it in its entirety below. Enjoy. —Ed.
by Sam Laird / @samcmlaird
Morgan State University coach Todd Bozeman sounds relaxed and upbeat over the phone. He’s just come from an on-campus job fair, trying to set some of his former players up for life after basketball. It’s a generous thing to do, but Bozeman has always been a players’ coach. On the line, he’s primed for a new season, sometimes animated while reflecting on one of college basketball’s most bipolar careers. He’s happy in his sixth season at Morgan State, an opportunity he knows could have easily never happened. “I’m just enjoying the time I have,” he says. “I’m not taking it for granted.”
Only in his late 40s but already well into his second stint running a program, Bozeman climbed some of the college game’s highest peaks and scraped its lowest bottoms as Cal’s headman in the early-to-mid 1990s. Before Shaka Smart, a hip young coach on fire after a startling Big Dance debut, there was Todd Bozeman. Before John Calipari, collecting future pros but hounded by hearsay of misconduct, there was Todd Bozeman. And before Bruce Pearl, a onetime coach-on-the-rise banned from the game thanks to hubris, there was Todd Bozeman. But, through it all, Bozeman’s love for the game has remained constant.
Bozeman’s story is one of rampaging ambition and precocious success, a meteoric rise and an abrupt fall, of tumult, exile—and, ultimately, peace. Now, in the midst of an extremely successful run at Morgan State, he’s as happy as ever. “It’s all worked out,” he says. “It really has.” He knows he wouldn’t be what he is now if not for what he endured—and wrought upon himself—in his first coaching life.
“Jason Kidd And Cal Dethrone Duke,” screamed the cover of Sports Illustrated’s March 29, 1993 issue. Inside, the magazine heralded a “changing of the guard.” Out was Duke and its clean-cut floor general Bobby Hurley. In were the Cal Golden Bears, led by the freshman Kidd and managed by Bozeman, still the youngest coach ever to take a team to the Sweet Sixteen.
Bozeman had finished his own playing career at Rhode Island just several years prior, looking forward to a career in sales, not basketball. But the game pulled him back in when he began volunteering at Virginia’s Potomac High. Bozeman quickly became hooked on coaching, devoting himself to the team while delivering Federal Express packages to make ends meet.
When he was offered a $9,000-per-year assistant’s gig at nearby George Mason in 1988, Bozeman jumped. “He was very ambitious, very driven,” then-George Mason headman Ernie Nestor recalls today. Just months after joining Nestor’s staff, Bozeman’s drive took him to New Orleans, where he got an assistant position at Tulane. He landed in Berkeley in 1990.
Kidd was then a high school superstar in neighboring Oakland who had recently scratched Cal off his list of potential colleges. But Bozeman wouldn’t give up, eventually convincing him to join the Golden Bears. Midway through Kidd’s freshman year, Cal’s head coach was fired for allegedly verbally abusing players. Despite rumors that he had a conniving hand in the firing, Bozeman was named interim coach and the Bears won nine of their final 10 regular season games. He was rewarded with a multi-year contract just before the NCAA Tournament. Cal made its first Sweet Sixteen in three decades, denied Duke a spot in the Final Four for the first time since 1987, and landed the cover of Sports Illustrated.
At just 29 years old, Todd Bozeman had arrived.
Bozeman’s improbable recruitment of Kidd typified the tenacity and cleverness the young coach leveraged to attract a parade of top prospects to Berkeley. Lamond Murray, another Bay Area kid, became a top-10 NBA pick. Other blue-chippers matriculated from around the nation, including in 1995 Shareef Abdur-Rahim, a McDonald’s All-American from Georgia. Overall, seven players from Bozeman’s three-and-a-half seasons went on to play in the NBA. The media called him Coach Lottery.
“I’ve always had a relentless attitude,” Bozeman says. “So at Cal it was hard for me to just accept a ‘no’ from players right off the bat.”
But he was also strategic. When Bozeman visited Abdur-Rahim’s Muslim household, Shareef recalls, “He had this big poster-board covered with pamphlets for different Islamic organizations on campus. He was the only coach to do that.”
Suddenly, Cal was one of the trendiest programs in the nation. The Bears routed big-name opponents. They played a fast-paced, up-and-down style. Big games were moved to the nearest NBA arena, in Oakland. And at the center of it all was Bozeman, hardly out of his 20s.
“He was seen as a young, exciting coach,” recalls Texas A&M headman Billy Kennedy, then a Bozeman assistant. “It was a hot program at the time, all based on his ability to recruit and relate to players.”
But everything wasn’t golden. The Bears on-court success never matched that first Kidd-led run and struggled to live up to the recruiting hype. Minor violations, suspensions and whispers of impropriety dogged the program. Bozeman became a controversial figure after one away game losing his temper and taking a swipe at an events staff member. Bozeman says today that he was in some ways a different person at Cal.
“I was just a workaholic then, there was no balance. I was caught up in the whole life,” he says, comparing those days to his current situation at Morgan State. “There’s more balance now. I play golf. I have my family.”
The bottom fell out at Cal in 1996, when the disgruntled father of a ballyhooed recruit revealed that Bozeman had promised $15,000 for each year his son stayed at Cal. Bozeman was forced to resign, and Cal forfeited 28 wins from his final two seasons. The NCAA hit Bozeman with an eight-year “show cause” order, rendering him virtually impossible to hire.
Less than four years after his meteoric rise, Todd Bozeman was effectively blackballed from the college game.
“He received a very public lesson,” says Nestor, who first hired Bozeman at George Mason. “You become a product of your success, where, as successful as you’ve become, you’re expected to always be that successful and more.”
But past transgressions aren’t something the former coaching prodigy shies away from discussing with reporters or players today.
“I use it as a teaching tool with my recruits now,” he says. “When you make a mistake, you can bounce back. It’s damaging, but you can repair it if you work hard enough.”
Bozeman knows; the road to Morgan State was long and full of detours. After Cal, he worked for a time at the pharmaceutical corporation Pfizer, selling drugs to doctors. But simply turning his back on basketball was impossible. His love runs too deep.
“Some people can leave basketball behind and be okay, but he’s not that guy,” Shareef says. “I see him now, and I’m like, ‘Yeah. That’s him. That’s what he should be doing.’”
Bozeman’s journey back started at the bottom, coaching elementary schoolers in AAU ball. “I went from coaching a Pac-10 Sweet Sixteen team to coaching a nine-and-under team,” he laughs. “Talk about humbling.” Before long, though, Bozeman moved up in the world of basketball grunt work, finding a series of jobs he says still help him today at Morgan State.
Working as a scout for the Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies, Bozeman studied the game with a new level of detail. He says preparing reports on Pat Riley, George Karl and Jeff Van Gundy teams enhanced his own strategic chops. He also got more involved in AAU ball (at one point coaching a DC Assault team featuring Michael Beasley and Nolan Smith), which built relationships that have served him well at Morgan State. But Bozeman’s biggest lesson was his excommunication from college basketball.
“Missing the game humbles you,” he says. “It makes you not take things for granted.”
Speaking on the phone now, Bozeman is effusive in his appreciation for the opportunity Morgan State gave him to be a head coach again. Before his first game back, in 2006, he says he broke down in the locker room addressing his team. The tears represented 10 ostracized years. Bozeman’s father, who provided steady encouragement, died of cancer months before Bozeman got his second chance. “I talked to him a lot that day,” he says.
Bozeman has since lifted the Morgan State program to unprecedented heights. He’s averaged better than 20 wins in his five seasons; the team averaged fewer than eight in the preceding five seasons. He’s taken the Bears from Baltimore to their first two Big Dance appearances and been named Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Coach of the Year three times. This season’s squad stumbled out of the gates before finding its feet, but Bozeman calls it “probably the most talented team since I’ve been here.”
Being back in his native DMV region, coupled with the relationships he cultivated during his time in the AAU world, has been an advantage on and off the court. “Knowing the area like that is a huge difference,” he says. “You can get to four or five states, get to New York, Philly, Charlotte, and recruit all those areas.” He also says he’s a stronger in-game tactician, putting to use what he picked up as an NBA scout.
At Morgan State, Bozeman says his life is simpler than it was as an impossibly young coach gunning the engine of his ambition in the fast lane to success. “My close family and friends—people I’ve known all my life—can come see us play now,” he says. “I have a support group I didn’t have before, so that’s a good difference.” But his Cal career—the good and the bad—is something he still draws from. “That experience has helped me tremendously,” he says. “I know what that life is like. I’ve drunk from that cup.”
Bozeman’s remarkable results at Morgan State—coupled with two decades of maturation—do raise the question of whether his past is handicapping his chance of getting back to a power conference program. “If you just looked as his resume,” says Baltimore Sun sportswriter Matt Bracken, “not the name, but the nuts and bolts of what he’s accomplished here, you’d be shocked he hasn’t gotten more attention.”
If a big-name offer did come along, Bozeman says, “of course I would have to listen. That desire to win a national championship is always in your blood, and being at the highest level gives you a better chance.” But he’s also happy at Morgan State, content and fulfilled by coaching’s simpler pleasures. “I’m really just focused on coaching to the best of my abilities and doing the best I can here now,” he says.
Because, before the coaching darling Smart, before the controversial Calipari we know today, before the banished Pearl, there was Todd Bozeman. And now, standing tall at Morgan State after a tumultuous basketball journey, there still is Todd Bozeman.