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Conversation with Cy Alexander

October 31, 2003 Columns No Comments

A Conversation with Cy Alexander

by Adam Shandler

Last year the Tennessee State basketball program had more issues than a corner newsstand.

The Tigers’ 2-25 record, 0-16 in the OVC was nothing to write home about, unless you were writing home to say, “GET ME OUT OF HERE!!!” Even worse was a series of events that dumped a deluge of negative attention on the Nashville school. Straight out of an episode of ESPN’s Playmakers, head coach Nolan Richardson III brings a gun into the Gentry Center after a Christmas night scuffle with assistant coach Hosea Lewis. Richardson resigns, so everything’s cool, right? Not so much.

Lewis, named interim coach following Richardson’s exit, then becomes involved in an in-game brawl against Eastern Kentucky that, after ejections, left both sides with four players. Oh, TSU lost game on the scoreboard as well.

The subsequent game, against OVC rival Austin Peay, left Tigers athletic director Teresa Phillips without an answer or a head men’s basketball coach. So she became both. Even though the Tigers dropped their 17th straight game that night, some light did shine through the cracks. Phillips became the first woman to head coach a D-I men’s basketball team.

2003-04 was supposed to be the year of the clean slate for Tennessee State, but on October 24 the NCAA handed down a three-year probation for a shopping cart’s worth of violations under Richardson. The transgressions include everything from recruiting inducements to coaching staff limitations to off-season practices. But if one man can weather such a storm, it’s this man. Longtime South Carolina State coach Cy Alexander.

You might think “Cy the Guy” as a Jobian figure. He’s man that was passed over for so many big time head coaching positions that he’s memorized the words to Chicago’s “Mr. Cellophane.”

Alexander may have just stepped in a big ol’ stinky pile of basketball poop at TSU, but if his prior record proves he’s just the man the Tigers need. In 1987, he took over a program that had suffered nine straight losing seasons and made the Bulldogs synonymous with MEAC excellence. A distinguished gentleman of college hoops, Alexander brings to Nashville a reputation more spotless than Mr. Clean and a focus on building a consistent winner.

I spoke with Coach Alexander just one day before the NCAA stomped their boot on Tennesse State. In this edition of Conversations with Adam, I ask Alexander about credibility, turning the Tiger program around and his bygone days in Orangeburg.

Adam Shandler: So, how was your first Midnight Madness at TSU?

Cy Alexander: A lot of fun. The crowd came out real strong. Unfortunately it was during the fall break, but we still had a nice crowd and I was very appreciative of the turnout.

It was a very nice evening for both the men’s and women’s teams. We had an intrasquad scrimmage at midnight but I had the team come back out on the floor for a practice at 10 in the morning the next day.

AS: You spent 16 seasons at South Carolina State, turning that program around and making it a consistent MEAC contender. Have you had a chance to look back upon your tenure there?

CA: I would have to say it was successful. Before I got there [SC State] had nine consecutive losing seasons and two sports: football and spring football. But we had five NCAA appearances, six conference championships, nine years in a row where we finished either first or second in the conference, and we never finished lower than fourth in the MEAC the whole time I was there. We graduated 55% of our players and sent a couple guys to the NBA. It was a nice run.

The nine years in a row finishing either first or second was something I was really proud of. I talked Coach Krzyzewski about that recently and even he thought that, no matter what league you’re in, to have that kind of consistency is something to be proud of.

AS: Did you think you’d end your career there?

CA: I did. I’ve been the bridesmaid for a lot of [college coaching] jobs. I was a finalist for the Ohio State job when Randy Ayers got it, I was a finalist for the Old Dominion job when Jeff Capel got it, I was a finalist for the Southern Illinois job when Bruce Weber got it, I was a finalist for the American job when Jeff Jones got it and I was one of five finalists at Miami when Perry Clark got it. So I resigned myself to being at SC State for the rest of my career.

AS: You were quite the success story at SC State. Why make the jump to TSU?

CA: I met with the athletic director, Teresa Phillips, and (James Hefner) the president of the university and I liked their commitment to the program. It was rock bottom here with the coaching staff, with winning, with NCAA problems. When Ms. Phillips called me to take the job, she said she wanted someone who was committed to turning the program around and that I was the guy for the job. I knew it was going to be a challenge here and I liked that.

The OVC was an upgrade in competition, too. The OVC is ranked, I think 16th (in the RPI rankings). So if you win the conference, there’s a good chance you could be an 11 or 12 seed and have the chance to win a first-round game.

I think I did all I could at SC State. But they did everything they could to entice me to stay. They even gave me a 10-year contract. But I knew there was going to be a challenge here and I wanted that challenge.

AS: In addition to winning with SC State, you kept a pretty clean program. Do you think Ms. Phillips saw you as the antidote to restoring dignity back to her program?

CA: Yes, she was looking for someone well-respected in the business with a clean record and past history of success; someone credible and who could bring credibility to the program. She knew that I had success not just with the [SC State] basketball program but off the court as well.

AS: Did you know Teresa Phillips before she approached you about the job?

CA: Just in passing. I had known her as one of the top women’s coaches in the OVC. Sports Illustrated named her the 91st most influential African-American in sports, and in Tennessee she is the second most influential woman in sports behind the women’s coach at Tennessee, Pat Summit.

She’s really working her way up the ladder of recognition. She’s on a number of NCAA committees and she coached and played at Vanderbilt. She knows what it takes to run a major-line program and I was very impressed the way she approached her conversation with me.

AS: Tell me what you know of the Ohio Valley Conference.

CA: It’s a very tough conference with excellent coaching. Austin Peay is going to be one of the top teams in the conference again this year. Morehead State’s going to be be very good. Murray State has a new coach, Mick Cronin, who coached a few years at Louisville under Pitino.

The OVC is an upper-mid-major league that is going to challenge every fiber of my being as a coach.

AS: The predominantly African-American schools seem to be getting more competitive of late. Back in ’97 Coppin State upset South Carolina in the first round of the NCAAs and lately we can always count on Hampton for an interesting first-round game. Are the historically black schools starting to get the respect from the big time programs or do you think they have a ways to go?

CA: I think we’re getting there. Our respect level is certainly increasing. But the respect needs to come, not so much from the coaches, but from the media. The media doesn’t give the MEAC or the SWAC their due and there’s some good basketball being played there. If the word isn’t spread then it’s very difficult for those schools to be respected. My coaching brethren knows the quality of basketball in the MEAC and the SWAC.

AS: You’re on the recruiting committee for the NABC. Did you attend the recent conference in Chicago?

CA: Sure, everybody did.

AS: Was it a productive session?

CA:I think it was productive in that we were able to hear from the high profile coaches in NCAA basketball. We got to hear from our president Kelvin Sampson and Coach K spoke.

We know we have to do a much better job of representing the sport in a quality manner. Most people that coach on the D-I level are good people. Like in any profession, coaches make mistakes and if you make a mistake, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a bad person. If an English professor here at TSU goes and gets a DUI no one will know about it because it won’t be in the papers. But if Cy Alexander goes out and does it it’ll be all over Nashville, all of Tennessee, and the whole country.

We all left the conference knowing we have to revisit some agendas and become role models and represent college basketball as a complete body and association. And [NCAA President] Myles Brand was there so it was good to see him opening up and reaching out.


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