Tom Izzo and Thad Matta didn’t understand why Rutgers men’s basketball coach Eddie Jordan wanted to come back to college basketball.
Jordan had won an NBA Championship as a player with the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1980s. He had coached the Sacramento Kings, Washington Wizards and Philadelphia 76ers.
“You were living the life in the NBA,” Jordan remembers Izzo and Matta saying to him at the first Big Ten meeting he attended last spring. “Are you ready for two o’clock in the morning phone calls?”
For Jordan, the answer was simple.
“You know, guys, it’s my school.”
So now Jordan finds himself where it all began. In his second year at the helm of Rutgers, his alma mater, he’s trying to resurrect a forgotten program.
The Rutgers program wasn’t always in the desolate state it is now. When Jordan played for the Scarlet Knights from 1973-77, Rutgers fielded some of the best teams in its history, including the ’75-76 team, which fell to Michigan, 86-70, in the Final Four.
For Jordan, it’s memories of that team that remind him why he’s back in Piscataway now.
Jordan was reminded of how special Rutgers, and that team in particular, was a few months ago at a team reunion.
“Everybody was there. That meant a lot to me,” he said. “Because I’m at Rutgers, the conversation always comes up, and it’s something I’m proud of for the rest of my life.
“(I’m) probably more proud of that than winning an NBA Championship with the Lakers because I’m still effectively attached to those guys on a daily basis. And I’m back at Rutgers, and they want to support me. So that means a great deal to me.”
Led by Jordan, who was named the 1976 East Regional MVP, the Scarlet Knights entered the Final Four game undefeated. And in the contest, Jordan continued his hot play by contributing 16 points and six rebounds.
But standing in Rutgers’ way was Michigan guard Rickey Green, who posted a line of 16 points, five assists and six rebounds. Combined with double-doubles from John Robinson and Phil Hubbard, and 25 total points from Wayman Britt and Steve Grote, Michigan took an early lead and controlled the game.
“They were just as fast as we were,” Jordan recalled. “Rickey Green was just as quick or quicker than I was.
“I remember in those days, after the Final Four game, we had to catch cabs back to the hotel. We didn’t have a tour bus. So I’m in a cab with (then-Rutgers coach) Tom Young and he just kept saying, ‘We played our worst game of the year. We waited till the Final Four to play our worst game of the year.’ ”
The following season, Rutgers lost Phil Sellers and Mike Dabney — its No. 1 and 2 scorers, respectively — and four other seniors. Lacking leadership, the Scarlet Knights slipped to 18-10 and missed the NCAA Tournament. Meanwhile, Jordan averaged 17.7 points, set the Rutgers’ all-time career-record in steals and assists and was named an honorable mention All-American.
Despite the achievements, however, Jordan learned something that helped shape his coaching career: Leadership and seniority mean a lot. Without those attributes, winning will be tough, especially for his team this year. A team with just three seniors.
“It’s going to be a tough challenge for us to win a lot of games,” Jordan said. “And as you navigate through the season, coaching your team from that angle as opposed to coaching a team that is going to win 14 (games in the Big Ten). We might not come close to that.”
Jordan knows this year’s team is a long way from the 1975-76 Final Four team. Projected to finish last in its first year in the Big Ten, Jordan will have to temper expectations for his players.
“You’ve got to keep their confidence level up,” Jordan said. “You’ve got to make things for them, you have to challenge them, and maybe that’s coaching across the board, but when their psyche is down and they’re feeling bad about losing, you’re not talking to kids who have a lot of confidence about winning. It’s two different reactions to that. That’s what I have to prepare myself for.”
It’s going to be a process for Jordan and Rutgers. He needs better recruits. He needs better facilities. He needs time to right the ship at a place he loves.
“You can’t stray from your plan, meaning you have to understand where you are,” Jordan said. “As a coach, I can’t get distracted by people that don’t understand the process.”