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Hewitt's Media Savvy Minimized Fallout From Telfair Controversy

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

By Dave Glenn and staff
ACCSports.com

March 1, 2005 ATLANTA – Paul Hewitt has no shortage of opinions – on the state of college basketball, the NCAA, the ACC, officiating trends, his team and many other matters of public debate. He also has a bachelor's degree in journalism from St. John's Fisher, and he's not afraid to utilize the press to further his agenda or get his point of view across.

Hewitt, now in his fifth season at Georgia Tech, knows how to use the media, perhaps as well as any coach in the ACC. Some of that surely comes from his journalism background. Hewitt often says that, if not for coaching, he would have been a sportswriter.

"But the entry-level pay was not high enough," he says of the newspaper business, only half-joking.

Hewitt recently spent a day at the ESPN compound in Bristol, Conn. He did a segment on ESPN Radio, held a live chat on ESPN.com, did a spot on ESPNews and handled in-studio work for a night of college basketball coverage. He probably would have hosted the 11 p.m. SportsCenter if they had let him.

Youthful, handsome and well-spoken, Hewitt knows well what the exposure means to potential recruits watching at home. And he doesn't limit his time to just ESPN. Hewitt recently did a spot on Fox's Best Damn Sports Show Period, with co-hosts Tom Arnold and John Salley, the former Georgia Tech basketball great.

Hewitt's awareness of the press' influence recently played a large part in Georgia Tech's coordinated response to allegations made in the book "The Jump: Sebastian Telfair and the High Stakes Business of High School Ball," written by New York-based sportswriter Ian O'Connor.

In the book, Telfair claimed he was offered "hundreds of thousands of dollars, $250,000" by a middle-aged white man who claimed to be affiliated with the school to attend a "major college in the East." Telfair's brother Danny Turner and his best friend Bubba Barker named Georgia Tech as the school in question. Although Telfair said in the book that the incident occurred "at a game," he, Turner and Barker said they couldn't recall the game in question.

Hewitt claimed in the book that he stopped recruiting Telfair early in his junior year after deciding, in part because of conversations with Telfair's uncle and former Tech star Stephon Marbury, that Telfair would enter the NBA draft directly from high school.

In his recent public defense of Georgia Tech, Hewitt said Telfair never attended a game at Tech and would not have been able to do so without his knowledge.

"There's no way Telfair came to a game on our campus and didn't come into our locker room," Hewitt said.

Tech officials said they searched through official and unofficial guest-pass lists, and that Telfair never appeared on any of them.

As the story broke, around the book's early February release date, Hewitt used his media savvy to take control of the public message. In addition to relying on his own expertise, the coach consulted with friendly media members in the New York area to determine a proper response.

Their input: Go on the offensive. Silence makes you look guilty. Hewitt followed that advice, perfectly.

It was textbook media relations. Instead of shying away from the allegation – most coaches would have dismissed it as a "distraction," and many would have refused to answer questions about it – Hewitt spoke at length on the topic, presenting his side of the story and vigorously defending Tech in the process.

As the story picked up steam in the Atlanta market, Hewitt went on the Yellow Jackets' flagship radio station, which has an all-sports-talk format, to confront O'Connor.

O'Connor was supposed to promote the book alone, but minutes before the interview was scheduled to begin, O'Connor was told that Hewitt also would be on the line. The two exchanged sharp dialogue on the air with minimal interference from the radio hosts, who clearly leaned toward Tech on the matter.

Hewitt came out of the verbal sparring match ahead. His advantage only grew when Telfair seemingly denied the incident that night.

"Georgia Tech did not recruit me and never spoke to me," Telfair told the Associated Press. "That's a false statement, and I have no further comment."

Less than 24 hours later, Telfair backed off that sweeping denial, claiming that he "was approached by a man who claimed to be associated with the Georgia Tech program, and he offered me money. I dismissed the offer. I never had contact with Coach (Paul) Hewitt or anyone from the Georgia Tech program regarding this incident, nor was I ever approached by anyone or offered anything at any other time. To this day, I'm not sure if it was a joke. I wish Coach Hewitt and the Georgia Tech program nothing but success."

Telfair personally read the statement to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and his agent read it to several other media outlets. Despite its location in an enormous market, Tech is the smallest beat in the ACC, with only two daily newspapers – the AJC and the Macon (Ga.) Telegraph – covering the Yellow Jackets on a full-time, home-and-away basis.

But the damage was done by then. Hewitt portrayed Telfair's statement as merely a ploy to get some money out of the book.

However, the story barely registered a blip outside of the Atlanta and New York markets. Across the rest of the nation, Hewitt's response received far more coverage than the original story. USA Today writer Malcolm Moran, among others, provided the Tech coach with a platform for his prompt and effective rebuttal.

"I know it's not true," Hewitt said, "but I don't want to leave it to chance that anyone thinks that it's true."

Hewitt mostly succeeded in squashing what could have been an embarrassing public relations story for Tech and turned it into an affirmation of a program on the up and up. Telfair's flip-flop and the somewhat sloppy nature of the reporting involved certainly helped, but Hewitt's damage-control contribution can't be overlooked. From the beginning, he obviously realized the importance of his public participation.

"The bottom line is this is a very competitive arena, college basketball," Hewitt said. "When you are recruiting kids who are being recruited by 20-50 schools at a time, it can be quite a strain on kids. And as they start to whittle down their list, they almost start looking for reasons to eliminate schools just to get it down to a manageable number.

"I don't need any untruths, no matter how trivial somebody might think they are, to harm our chances. We play in the most competitive college basketball league in the country. When you're in that environment, you don't need any handicap, no matter how minor the author thinks they are."

For those who have followed Hewitt's career at Tech, the Telfair incident was merely the juiciest in a series of issues the coach has argued in front of the media.

He used last year's pre-Final Four press conference to argue against NCAA academic reform and the use of graduation rates alone to determine academic performance by member institutions. At the same press conference, he outlined his objections to the now-defunct five/eight scholarship rule, claiming it cost more than 100 student-athletes a chance to attend school on scholarship.

In the middle of last season, Hewitt went to the airwaves to defend center Luke Schenscher from criticism the coach felt was unfair and over the line. (A local radio host had called Schenscher an "oaf," among other things.) While in his car to take his child to school, the coach called into the station for a lively, on-air discussion that got his point across without making him sound thin-skinned or unreasonable.

More recently, just weeks after the Telfair incident, Hewitt took on influential ABC/ESPN announcer Dick Vitale in a similar one-on-one radio segment. Hewitt argued that Vitale's constant cheerleading for Duke and North Carolina made it tougher for other schools in the conference to recruit against them.

In the interview, Hewitt also argued against what he sees as the league's constant promotion of the rivalry, saying that Duke-Maryland has become a more compelling story in recent years. That's a view many other coaches share, no doubt, but not many are willing to go public with such an opinion.

Hewitt's approach is refreshing, and it certainly has earned him respect – and likely some admiration – from the college basketball press, which consistently calls him for comment on issues of national importance. His ease with the media, outgoing demeanor and reasonable accessibility have made him a favorite of reporters nationwide.

Hewitt gets what he wants: more name recognition for himself and his school, certification as a leader in his industry and, hopefully, an extra recruit or two. The press also gets what it needs: an articulate, knowledgeable coach who's not afraid to voice his opinion even if – and perhaps especially when – he dissents from the majority point of view.

That kind of long-term goodwill is exactly the kind of thing that, when controversy does arise, will cause most in the college basketball world to give Hewitt – and, by extension, Georgia Tech basketball – the all-important benefit of the doubt.

Maryland Quietly Hired, Fired AD

COLLEGE PARK – Did you hear about the assistant athletic director that Maryland hired, then fired, within the span of just a few weeks?

    No, you didn't, because Maryland never announced either move, and because none of the beat writers who cover the school ever got wind of it.

If not for some solid investigative work by Ron Dickerson, a writer with the Springfield (Ill.) State-Journal Register, the strange saga of Nick Adams might never have been exposed in the public forum.

While some details remain murky, here is what is verifiable.

At some point in late October, Maryland interviewed and decided to hire Adams as an assistant athletic director. According to Adams, he signed a contract, then attended the Maryland-Florida State football game on Oct. 30 in College Park.

Things began to unravel when the State-Journal Register ran an article on Nov. 2, in which Adams announced that he was resigning as the athletic director at Illinois-Springfield in order to accept the Maryland position. That news would have warranted little more than a transaction line in the Baltimore-Washington area newspapers, but it certainly raised some eyebrows in Springfield, where Adams departed with a less-than-sterling reputation.

During his three years as the AD at Illinois-Springfield, Adams presided over a program that seemed to be heading quickly toward rogue status.

University officials were forced to order an independent investigation of the athletic department after numerous improprieties came to light. Adams was criticized harshly in the final report, which uncovered rules violations, fiscal mismanagement and poor oversight. Even more serious were allegations that Adams approached faculty members in an effort to influence athletes' grades, eligibility and financial aid.

Adams' contract at UIS was to expire on Dec. 31, 2004, and there was virtually no chance it would be renewed or extended. It appeared that he had made a safe landing at Maryland, telling the State-Journal Register he was scheduled to start in College Park on Nov. 15.

"I feel like I've just landed the dream job," Adams said.

That might be because Adams knew his athletic administration career was in jeopardy back in March 2003, when he temporarily was reassigned in the wake of problems involving the Illinois-Springfield men's basketball program.

Things were serious enough that Illinois-Springfield convened a panel to investigate the athletic department. A 14-page final report presented in June to vice chancellor of student affairs Dr. Christopher Miller concluded that the athletic department was "beset by problems." The UIS Athletics Review Task Force found that 60 percent of "serious" violations and 42 percent of "minor" violations were committed in men's basketball.

Among the more damning findings were six instances in which UIS athletes had tested positive for drugs prohibited by the NCAA. Those were among 10 "serious" infractions uncovered by the task force. Because Illinois-Springfield is a member of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), it is not subject to NCAA rules or penalties.

On a broader scale, the university task force reported that the athletic department had "grown rapidly without the opportunity for full consideration of comprehensive policies, procedures and structure to consistently guide and direct the program."

Pat Langley, chair of the campus senate and a member of the Athletics Review Task Force, called the situation one of the "growing pains" suffered by the school since joining the University of Illinois system.

"When we were Sangamon State, we were what I would call a ‘mom and pop university.'" Langley said. "There weren't a lot of rules and procedures."

The task force found that the UIS athletic department budget rose from $248,000 in 2001 to $715,156 in 2004. During that same three-year time frame, the athletic deficit increased from $49,000 to $360,000.

Dr. Miller said Adams ultimately was responsible for overseeing the athletic department budget. He agreed with the task force recommendation to hire a full-time business manager and created a six-year plan for alleviating the debt run up during Adams' tenure.

Among the most disturbing charges investigated by the panel were rumors that athletic department personnel had been intoxicated on institutional time and property. The task force found some merit to the rumors and recommended that university police conduct a more thorough investigation.

Adams said he interviewed with a "rather large" search committee at Maryland and was selected from among a pool of applicants on Oct. 27. That Adams oversaw an athletic department run amok at Illinois-Springfield somehow eluded whichever Maryland official hired him to oversee the marketing of the school's 15 women's and 12 men's programs.

"My job is to sell tickets and fill the house," Adams told the State Journal-Register. "For me to be at one of the top athletic programs in the country, it's an opportunity that is overwhelming and exciting."

What remains unclear is whether Maryland knew about Adams' past and chose to overlook it or whether athletic department officials found out only through the State-Journal Register article.

Adams claimed he informed Maryland officials of the problems at UIS, although it's easy to wonder about the degree to which he was forthcoming. If normal hiring procedures were followed, the information about Adams' tenure at UIS likely would have been discovered by those doing the hiring at Maryland.

The ACC Sports Journal quickly located numerous articles about the athletic department improprieties at Illinois-Springfield, along with the 14-page report issued by the UIS Athletics Review Task Force. Shouldn't someone at Maryland have done similar research?

What is obvious now is that Maryland was embarrassed by the original article about Adams' hiring, which was linked to a website operated by a service that tracks collegiate athletic department news. Sources told the Sports Journal that Maryland athletic department personnel received calls from colleagues who asked various versions of the then-obvious question: "How could you hire a guy like this?"

By the end of the week, Adams was out of a job at Maryland. He told the State-Journal Register in December that the Nov. 2 article "did me in." Either Maryland officials didn't know about the improprieties at UIS or didn't like when they were printed in an article that was seen by athletic administrators across the country.

According to sources, the Adams-Maryland divorce included a monetary settlement.

"They paid him off," an athletic official at another Division I university said, "to shut up and go away."

Adams was indeed close-mouthed when contacted by the State-Journal Register about his abrupt departure from Maryland, declaring that he had "already said too much."

He rebounded by being named athletic director at Mesa State College, an NCAA Division II school in Colorado. Given his background, that seemed a far more appropriate place for a second-chance opportunity than anywhere at or near the ACC level.

Devils-Hokies Rivalry Rated PG

BLACKSBURG – Of all the new rivalries created by ACC expansion, the one that no one would have anticipated was Duke-Virginia Tech.

   The Hokies were a power in football, where Duke traditionally has been weak, and the Blue Devils have been a power in men's basketball, where Tech has been rebuilding. There was no indication the games would be close enough to foster much animosity.

Some of that changed on Jan. 30, when Tech coach Seth Greenberg was ejected after picking up two technical fouls in the Hokies' 100-65 loss at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Greenberg later complained about the treatment he received from the Duke crowd, saying he was nearly poked in the eye by students waving their fingers at him as he left the floor.

That game wasn't close, but when the Hokies upset the Blue Devils 67-65 on Feb. 17 in Blacksburg, it sparked a celebration that spilled over into the area close to the Duke bench. The Devils had left the floor by that point, accompanied by two or three police offers, but the Duke fans who had been seated behind the bench got an earful from the Hokies' fans.

"They were cursing us and taunting us. About 10 minutes went by, and they started throwing things," said Ken Redick, father of Duke star J.J. Redick from nearby Roanoke. "One person picked up a chair and acted like he was going to hurl it into the crowd."

When Ken Redick later caught up with Tech athletic director Jim Weaver, he received little

satisfaction.

"I stopped him and said, ‘There's no security behind the bench,'" Redick said, "and he said, ‘Just like you provided coach (Greenberg) at Duke.' I thought it was a telling statement. It was like, ‘To heck with you guys.'"

Weaver said he had been approached by a Duke fan who had gotten in his face. He didn't know it was Redick until later, when he commented to a Hokie supporter, "Boy, this person seems like a tough, or a sore, loser," Weaver said. "Then, one of the Hokies said to me, ‘Well, that's Mr. Redick.'"

Tech fans blasted the Roanoke (Va.) Times for its coverage of the incident, with much of the criticism directed at the placement of the story on page A1. Also, it was suggested that the Duke fans were hypocritical for complaining about the security at Cassell Coliseum, given the raucous behavior of their Cameron Crazies over the years.

There was enough corroboration of Redick's account to suggest that the Tech fans had been rude to a gathering of 29 friends and family members, including Ken Redick's 79-year-old mother. Weaver said he apologized to Duke athletic director Joe Alleva for the lack of security for the Duke fans and said Tech will consider leaving one of its police officers in the bench area after the teams leave the floor at the end of the game.

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