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Troy State’s Don Maestri

March 10, 2003 Columns No Comments

Maestri the Maestro

by Jed Tai

You’re somewhat forgiven if you’ve never heard of Troy State head coach Don Maestri, much less realize that he’s on the doorstep of being legendary.

But after his Trojans captured the Atlantic Sun Tournament title with a 80-69 win over Central Florida to send TSU to its first-ever Division I NCAA Tournament, you’ll sure to hear more about him.

Why? Because Maestri is a fantastic coach. And has been for a long time.

True, Troy State reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time since they became a Division I member in 1993 is a great achievement. But, it’s not as if a Maestri-coached team hasn’t reached high heights before.

Before the Trojans made the move up to D-I, they were a powerhouse in Division II under Maestri. When he first arrived prior to the 1982-83 season after a couple of seasons on the Alabama sidelines as an assistant, he immediately made his mark. He molded TSU into a defensive-minded team, and after a few seasons of development, his 1987-88 squad reached the NCAA Division II Final Four as one of the top defensive teams in the country.

But two seasons later, Maestri made a change in his philosophy, creating a stigma that remains with him and his teams to this day. Switching to a high-octane running game, featuring three-point shooting and pressure defense, the Trojans became one of the top offensive basketball teams at any level. In 1992, the Trojans set an all-divisions record with 258 points in a single game against DeVry Institute, a season they averaged 121.1 points per game. And, in 1992-93, Maestri brought the Trojans to the brink of a Division II championship, reaching the championship game before bowing out to Cal State Bakersfield.

At this point, the program made the move up to Division I, with hopes that the bright lights of the big time would bring money and recognition to the school. However, times were tough for the Trojans when they moved up to play with the big boys. NCAA rules at the time made new D-I members ineligible for post-season play for eight seasons, so the team didn’t have much to play for. And while TSU continued its high-scoring ways, it didn’t show in the win-loss column. The first conference the Trojans were a member of, the East Coast Conference, folded. A three year stint in the Mid-Continent conference resulted in three non-descript seasons. TSU finally found a home in the Trans-America Atlantic Conference (which has since been renamed the Atlantic Sun) in 1997-98, but struggled its first two seasons there, going 7-20 and 9-18 in two of the worst seasons in school history.

Normally, in the high stakes of Division I basketball, the axe probably would have come down on Maestri. But despite the losing, the TSU administration stuck it out with their long-time head coach, and the move would pay off. In 1999-2000, TSU bounced back to win 17 games, the most since moving to D-I. The next year, TSU won 19 games and reached the TAAC tournament finals. And last year, the Trojans went 18-10 and captured the #1 seed in the Atlantic Sun Tournament before getting upset by Jacksonville State in the first round.

Then came this season – which was supposed to be a rebuilding year by all accounts. But behind veterans Ben Fletcher and Rob Lewin, and getting key contributions from JC transfers Eddie Baker, Greg Davis, and Kendrick Johnson, the Trojans instead ran out to a 26-5 record. They tied for the regular season conference title at 14-2, and swept through the competition in Atlanta for the tournament title and automatic bid. In fact, the Trojans enter the NCAA Tournament as one of the hottest teams in the country having won 14 of their last 15 games.

If anything, the success of Troy State should be an example to schools out there that are looking to move up to Division I (some of whom in upcoming years include the likes of Northern Colorado, UC Davis, and Utah Valley State). Instead of going out and getting that young whippersnapper or retread coach to “build” your program, why not stick with the old hand that got you there in the first place. Troy State might have taken some lumps with Don Maestri along the transition to Division I path, but the administration and fans were patient, and the end result has been well worth their time. And going by the current returns, TSU won’t be alone in using this method to success. It probably won’t be long before we see the likes of High Point (behind Jerry Steele) and Belmont (Rick Byrd) dancing in March.

But until then, we’ll be watching the Trojans playing on in two weeks. And even though the odds are they’ll be out after the first day, they can at least say that they got there.

And now, you’ve heard of Don Maestri. And you’ll continue to hear more about him.


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