June 15, 2007
Just three short years ago in 2004, the Eastern Washington University men's basketball program was basking in the glow of playing in its first-ever NCAA Tournament.
Now, it's the job of new Eastern head coach Kirk Earlywine to return the Eagles to prominence after three EWU seasons that yielded a collective record of 38-49. In the 2006-07 season, the Eagles had their string of consecutive Big Sky Conference Tournament berths snapped at nine.
Earlywine, who was officially introduced as head coach at a news conference on Friday (June 15), has a little recent history on his side in that effort.
"The last three years in the Big Sky, the team that won (the regular season conference title) and hosted the (six-team) tournament was not in the tournament the year before," he explained, citing the success of Weber State (2007), Northern Arizona (2006) and Portland State (2005). "I don't see any reason why we can't make it four in a row and be hosting the Big Sky Tournament at Reese Court next March. The players who are returning are good enough."
Eastern's program was rebuilt from 1995-2000 by Steve Aggers, then Ray Giacoletti took the program to new heights from 2000-2004 with a NIT Tournament berth in 2003 followed by the NCAA berth in 2004. Giacoletti was 69-50 overall and 41-17 in the Big Sky in his four seasons. His .707 winning percentage in conference games is fourth-best in the 44-year history of the league among coaches with at least four seasons at the helm.
"With the tradition over the last nine or 10 years at Eastern with coach Aggers and coach Giacoletti, this is a place that has proven that it can win the Big Sky Conference," he said. "Unless you're in the top 20 or 25 where you're pointing to try and get to the Final Four, every school should have as their goal to win their conference, and that will be our first and foremost goal every year."
Giacoletti and Earlywine share common threads in coming to Eastern. Both were assistants at large Division I schools (Giacoletti at Washington and Earlywine at Utah) and both had head coaching experience at NCAA Division schools (Giacoletti at North Dakota State and Earlywine at Pfeiffer).
Besides competing for the Big Sky title, Earlywine is even more focused on the academic efforts of his players.
"One thing I made very clear to the players and to the committee in the interviews, and to Dr. (Rodolfo) Arevalo, is that players' academic well-being will be my No. 1 priority for them," he stated. "It's one area I won't compromise. I am pretty flexible in terms of offenses and defenses and what happens on the floor - I believe you have to be as a coach - but I am not flexible in any regard of academic effort. Not necessarily academic accomplishment, but effort. I will not compromise in that regard."
Below are other comments made by Earlywine at his introductory news conference on Friday (June 15). Also below are opening comments by interim athletic director Michael Westfall.
Head coach Kirk Earlywine
Earlywine's opening comments
"First of all, I would like to start off by thanking Dr. Arevalo and Michael Westfall and the members of the committee who chose me. I am obviously very grateful, as Mike alluded to. This has been a long time coming for me, 22 years of college basketball. Prior to that, I grew up in a gym. My dad's a high school teacher and coach in Indiana. So, from the time I realized I wasn't going to make money playing basketball, I knew I wanted to coach, and I prepared myself to do that. I like to use the old John Wooden quote, "Prepare and perhaps your chance will come." There is no guarantee that no matter what I did or how hard I worked or how long I worked that I was going to get this opportunity, but I can assure you that I have prepared and I won't drop the ball."
Earlywine on his goals at Eastern
"We need to defend a little bit better, and we will do that. Coach Majerus is a terrific defensive coach and, as I told the players in the interview, I was smart enough in the six years I spent with him to keep my mouth shut and my eyes and ears open. I learned an awful lot from him and hopefully I'll be able to translate that knowledge to the players. It's not necessarily important what I know; it's what I can get them to know. As I said, I prepared a long time for this without any guarantee that it would ever happen, but I'm ready now and ready to get started immediately. I know that it is not ideal circumstances from timing and so forth, but the circumstances are rarely ideal. I saw two nights ago the Tiki Barber commercial that he took over when somebody got hurt, but if you're not prepared that chance never comes back again. I am prepared. I'm anxious to get started. I've got to get immediately on the recruiting trail, not only to fill the one remaining scholarship, but to re-recruit the guys that coach (Mike) Burns signed. And also to make sure that the returning players understand who I am and what I'm about and what we're looking for, to make sure we are on the same page with them."
Earlywine on visiting recruits
"I have not had an opportunity to talk to any of the recruits, but I did meet with the returning players in the interview process. I will speak with each of the recruits by the end of the day if I am able to get a hold of them. I am waiting for clarification on a NCAA rule to see if I am able to go to their house and visit with them. If I can, I will meet with the ones who are within driving distance within the next 72 hours. The junior college point guard, Adris DeLeon, is in the Bronx right now, and I will not be able to see him face-to-face within the next couple days, but I will certainly speak with him on the phone."
Earlywine on making the move from Utah to Central Michigan
"The NCAA changed the rules that year and eliminated one of the on-floor coaching positions. It created what is now commonly referred to the director of basketball operations, so I was going to have to move off the floor. As I told you, I grew up in a gym - that is what I wanted to do my whole life - and I couldn't see myself sitting in the bleachers through practice every day and for the games. That was the first reason. The second was that the coach who got the job at Central Michigan had been on the staff with coach Majerus and I at Ball State, so I knew him. The third reason was recruiting experience. Up to that point, I hadn't recruited. It was strictly on the floor coaching with coach Majerus. Combined with the fact that I wasn't going to be on the floor anymore, the opportunity to work with somebody I knew and to recruit Chicago, Detroit, those types of areas, I thought would be good for my career down the road."
Earlywine on competing with in-state schools for recruits
"That will be tough. I'm not sure if Eastern has ever beaten Gonzaga for a guy both schools wanted, but I'm not scared. We'll go try and get the same guy. I'm not sure that Eastern Washington is going to beat the University of Washington, Washington State or Gonzaga head-to-head in a recruiting battle. I don't know that yet. But the advantage that Eastern has right now and has had is that next level guy, the guy that is maybe not quite good enough for the Pac-10 or is maybe an inch or two too short on the front line. Eastern guys like Matt Nelson, Marc Axton, Alvin Snow - I could go on down the list - guys who have proven they can win the Big Sky Conference that maybe Washington and Washington State weren't sold on. That's where we have to lock up the state, lock up the borders and make sure that we keep that next level guy who's good enough to win the Big Sky, that we keep him in the state. That's our number one recruiting priority and is part of the reason I decided to offer Grant the job to help me."
Earlywine on his family
"All of my family is still in Indianapolis. My mom and dad are both retired. I have two brothers who live there and nieces and nephews who all live in Indianapolis. I have one grandmother who is still alive in northern Indiana and a lot of aunts and uncles living in Arizona. My mom and dad were huge influences on me. My dad was an educator with a tough life. He went through the Marine Corps and then into college and became a teacher and taught and coached for 38 years - I may be off by one one way or the other on that. He was a huge influence on me - not as much Xs and Os as how you live your life and being disciplined. Hopefully I can translate some of that to the young men I am going to coach here."
Earlywine on his focus on academics at Eastern
"If any of the players do not have that same priority as I do - their academic standing is not their No. 1 priority - we are going to have a problem. That is one area where if we knock heads, they are not going to win that one. We can have some give and take regarding their roles on the team, what we're doing offensively and defensively, but there won't be any give and take relative to their academic effort. They have to understand why they're here - they're here to get an education. I'm all for dreaming about being a pro. If that's their dream, they should put their head on the pillow and have that dream, and I'll try my best to help them. I have been fortunate to work with some guys who went on to play at the NBA and a lot of guys who are playing in Europe professionally. I will do everything I can to help them make money playing basketball, but it will never be at the expense of getting their degree. Having a degree, being credentialed, will probably determine the quality of their life from whenever they do have to put the ball down. You have a wonderful success story here with Rodney Stuckey, a guy who was a partial qualifier who came here and has been an unbelievable academic success. Everybody knows what he has done on the floor, but it says a lot about the institution and about that young man what he did academically during his time here. If he can do it getting 25 a night and still go to class and make the grades and do what he did academically, we can all do it."
Introductory Comments by Interim Athletics Director Michael Westfall
Westfall's opening comments
"Thank you for coming out to campus today. The process has been a quick one over the past two weeks. I want to say a sincere thank you to the search committee that was involved with the process and Dr. Arevalo's leadership and assistance in making the final decision to hire Kirk Earlywine as our next men's basketball coach. We had great applicants and the final four were all outstanding individuals. It was a tough choice, and I really think it was the right choice. All three of the other candidates that did apply, we appreciate their time. In conversations with all of them after the selection was made, I shared with them how much respect I had for each of them and their careers. Each of them brought different things to the table in terms of what we were looking for. It came down to four main areas that we really wanted. One was experience; all four were experienced and, in coach Earlywine's case, over 22 years of experience coaching college basketball, 21 years at the (NCAA) Division I level."
Westfall on Weber having similar experiences to Earlywine
"One of my side conversations that I had with Bruce Weber, who is with Illinois now (as head coach) but was a long-time (18-year) Purdue assistant, readily identified with coach Earlywine. Bruce explained that he had applied for a Mid-American Conference head coaching position a grand total of 15 separate times and he went on 15 separate interviews within seven schools. With long-time assistants, it can be hard to break that seal, and he was able to do that and he was happy to see Kirk get the opportunity here."
Westfall on hiring a coach with Big Sky experience
"We were also looking for Big Sky (Conference) experience. When coach Earlywine was with Weber State during that seven-year period (1999-00 through 2005-06), they won 116 games, which was tops for the Big Sky in that time period. They were also 14-0 in conference play (in 2002-03) and had the highest RPI ranking in conference history, 44. And a lot of those players Kirk obviously recruited and coached. While in the Big Sky, he recruited three Big Sky Players of the Year."
Westfall on hiring a coach with head coaching experience
"Head coaching experience was also something we were very interested in. As a head coach at Pfeiffer University in North Carolina (in 1995-96), Kirk took over a program in June or July that was making the transition from NAIA to (NCAA) Division II for the very first time. He inherited two basketball players on that team. Due to the recruiting efforts of coach Earlywine in July, that team went on to finish 21-8 and receive an at-large bid to the NCAA Division II Tournament. In that tournament, they knocked off the 12th-ranked team in the country (North Carolina Central) and came within two points, a basket, of beating undefeated Virginia Union and Ben Wallace, a future NBA All-Star. That was a heck of a coaching job."
Westfall on hiring a coach with high-quality recommendations
"Finally, we looked at recommendations and what peers thought of our various candidates. Dr. Arevalo followed up with a lot of reference calls that came in, along with the references noted on the various coaches' resumes. We were very impressed with the caliber of coaches who called to support coach Earlywine. We counted four coaches who were former national coach of the year award winners who called on coach Earlywine's behalf. You have the experience of Rick Majerus, who is one of the top teachers in the game. Kirk spent six seasons with Rick Majerus (two at Ball State and four at Utah) and was integral in those programs. And that was directly from the mouth of Chris Hill, the A.D. at Utah. We heard from Bruce Weber at Illinois, Matt Painter at Purdue, Bo Ryan at Wisconsin (all head coaches). Bo Ryan's connection to coach Earlywine came in that Bo Ryan took over the Wisconsin-Milwaukee program that Kirk left and, as a result, inherited a lot of those players. So, he knew first hand coach Earlywine's ability as an evaluator of talent. One of those players was an unsigned athlete who was only offered one scholarship and that individual turned out to be the school's all-time leading scorer (Clay Tucker, who scored 1,788 points from 1999-03)."
Westfall's concluding comments
"When you look at all the areas we at Eastern were looking for, coach Earlywine had experience in all of those and was very successful in each of those areas, so the choice became very obvious. Through Dr. Arevalo's leadership, we were able to extend an offer which coach Earlywine gratefully accepted. We are more than pleased and looking forward to the direction that coach Earlywine is going to take our men's basketball program."