Hats off to KSU's Heath

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How many coaches across the country at any level can claim they ever matched or surpassed the expectations of every single solitary soul in existence, from their most casual supporter to their harshest critic?

Raise your hand, Stan Heath.

You've pulled off the rarest of feats by leading the Kent State men's basketball team to a school-record 29 victories, Mid-American Conference Tournament and regular-season titles, and to a first-ever berth in the NCAA tourney's 'Sweet 16' as a 36-year-old rookie in 2002.

You've reached every realistic goal imaginable, and you've done so under the most difficult of circumstances.

You inherited a close-knit group that was emotionally devastated after losing its beloved head coach following the most successful season in school history. Assuming the controls of an up-and-coming program returning four key seniors may seem like a dream job at first, but truth be told it's the toughest task to tackle.

If you win, the previous coach and the players get all the credit. If you lose, you're the new guy.

It must be your fault.

But you've relished in a role that's chewed up and spit out so many young coaches by actually taking an up-and-coming program to the proverbial next level as expected, and then some.

You did so not by simply maintaining the status quo, but by tweaking a system that certainly wasn't broken. Your players resented you at times for switching their playing style, for pulling off their patented fullcourt press and running more set plays on offense.

But you simply wouldn't budge.

Your much more blunt and animated approach to teaching and coaching also didn't go over well with your upperclassmen, who had grown accustomed to their previous leader's more laid-back style.

And when you started the year 4-4, your team's inner turmoil became a hot topic.

But your squad's slow start turned out to be a blessing in disguise. You said following a particularly discouraging loss to lowly Youngstown State that sometimes you have to hit rock-bottom before you can reach the top.

At the time that statement was shrugged off as soon as it left your mouth. But as it turns out, you were exactly right.

Because struggling through those meaningless early-season non-conference contests forced you and your players to forge a bond under duress, and those bonds always prove to be the strongest.

You and your players did some collective soul searching, and ultimately established some common ground. You both grew to realize that your intense desire to win was causing the conflicts more than anything else, and that's certainly something that could be ironed out.

You both gave a little, and everyone gained a lot.

By the time Mid-American Conference play rolled around, most of the so-called national experts who jumped on your bandwagon during the preseason had bailed. But your kinks had actually been basically ironed out by then, and you were ready to blossom into the team everyone expected you to be several months ago.

Only even better.

Your Flashes, who will carry a school-record 20-game winning streak into Thursday's 'Sweet 16' showdown with Pittsburgh in Lexington, Ky., are now the envy of the nation in large part because you and your players grew to truly appreciate one another.

You stuck to your playing philosophy, and your players are now glad you did. They now realize that your style is built for the postseason. Your structured halfcourt offense has put the ball in more players' hands, making you a more difficult team to defend. Your emphasis on halfcourt defense and rebounding has made you a consistently staunch defensive squad that sets the tempo you prefer night in, night out.

Your players are also grateful for the increased trust you've shown in the them as the season's progressed. They appreciate the way you've flawlessly prepared them for every challenge they've faced, but they also believe in themselves and their ability to take over a ballgame in their own special way when crunch time arrives.

You've both bent and refused to break at the proper time, which is a characteristic most veteran coaches never seem to master.

And now, because of your collective refusal to fold when times were tough, you and your players are having the time of their lives.

Together, you've taken Kent State basketball to a level few backers ever thought they'd live to see. You've made beating elite programs from the major conferences on college basketball's center stage look incredibly easy, and you have everyone in the country believing your Golden Flashes can take out Big East power Pittsburgh next.

You've exceeded everyone's expectations, no matter how lofty. Even your own.

"When Sports Illustrated ranked us 13th in the preseason I thought they were on drugs, but now they're looking like a prophet," said Heath. "I knew we'd be good, but if I said I saw this coming I'd be lying _ especially when we were 4-4. A lot of friends told me to stay away from this job because you'd never be able to satisfy people, no matter what you did. But I inherited some seniors with big dreams, and we felt we could raise the bar for this program. That's what we've done, and it feels pretty darn good."

So take a bow Stan Heath, and flash that handsome smile of yours. You deserve every iota of respect and attention you're receiving these days for a job extraordinarily well done.

You placed yourself in a no-win situation.

And you've won.

__

E-mail: amoff@recordpub.net

Phone: (330) 678-5460

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