MANHATTAN — When Larry Eustachy saw Southern Mississippi flash on the TV screen, and he knew his basketball team was headed to the NCAA Tournament, he started looking for someone to hug.
He was standing in the middle of a viewing party, surrounded by a mob of supporters at a local restaurant in Hattiesburg, Miss. So he didn’t have to look far.
The place was going crazy. And as everyone around him screamed and pulled out their cell phones to spread the word, Eustachy started saying thanks to those who helped make this surreal moment a reality.
“Now,” he would later say triumphantly, “it’s our time.”
Eustachy has been a part of college basketball’s marquee event before, of course. Fans of Kansas State, the team Southern Mississippi will face Thursday at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, remember him well. He used to coach at Iowa State, and had success there.
He recruited standout players Marcus Fizer and Jamaal Tinsley to Ames, and coached them to Big 12 regular-season championships in 2000 and 2001. He was named Associated Press national Coach of the Year for guiding Iowa State to the Elite Eight in 2000, and was well-known for his ability to get his teams to play hard.
That was the peak of his career. Sunday was his redemption. It was a long road in between.
Shortly after winning his second conference title at Iowa State, things began to fall apart. The Cyclones lost in the first round of the 2001 NCAA Tournament as a No. 2 seed. The team that beat them, Hampton, became famous for their wild celebration afterward. Eustachy hasn’t been a part of March Madness since.
He hasn’t been associated with Iowa State since 2003. He was fired when embarrassing photos surfaced of him drinking with college students after away games. It was a first-of-its-kind public dismissal that was covered on a national scale.
Type Eustachy’s name into a Google search and the first four images that pop up show him drinking cheap beer, kissing college girls on the cheek and posing for party pictures.
The episode was enough to get him to give up alcohol. He began starting over at Southern Mississippi in 2004. It was a slow climb back to national relevance, but after eight years of trying he finally got the Golden Eagles to the NCAA Tournament. They are making their third trip to the NCAA Tournament and first since 1991. They have never won a game.
With Eustachy in charge, players are hoping to end that trend.
“It’s the first time we’ve been in 20 years,” guard LaShay Page told reporters Sunday. “It’s very exciting, but we don’t just want to get to the NCAA Tournament. We want to make a little noise.”
The Golden Eagles are confident, because of the way they played in the regular season. Eustachy challenged them before conference play, and they responded with quality wins over other NCAA Tournament teams Colorado State, New Mexico State and South Florida. They also beat Arizona State and Memphis.
Behind leading scorer Neil Watson — from Kansas City Sumner — and a hard-nosed, physical style, they surged to the top of the Conference USA standings in the middle of the year and eventually finished second.
Players are looking forward to facing a similar opponent and coach in K-State.
“Their coach, he’s tough on them just like ours is tough on us,” said senior Angelo Johnson, who was a member of the Southern Cal team that lost to K-State in the 2008 NCAA Tournament. “They’ve got a great coaching staff and they get players to work hard just like us. It should be a great game.”
Leading up to the game, much of the focus will be on Eustachy and his comeback story.
But once the game starts, the focus will turn to his team and how it plays against K-State. Eustachy is looking forward to that moment, too.
“They also put a lot of time in practice and have a lot of physicalness,” Eustachy told reporters Sunday. “It’ll be a marquee matchup when it comes to that.”