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San Diego Sportscene / Dave Distel

For Toreros' Egan, the Years of Patience Are Rewarded at Last

March 11, 1987|DAVE DISTEL

Hank Egan is a patient man, given more to contemplation than to exercises in spontaneity.

Consider that his hobbies are golf, fishing, reading and crossword puzzles. These are all endeavors appealing to a man who is not enamored with instant gratification and its sometimes fleeting rewards.

Egan, the basketball coach at the University of San Diego, has had a career that would have tested a less patient man . . . and probably driven him out of coaching or into an asylum, or both. There have been many times when "five down" and "nine across" simply would not fall into place.

For 16 years, this man has been a head coach. There were 13 years at the Air Force Academy and there have been three at USD.

Finally, it all has fallen into place.

Hank Egan, for the first time, is coaching in the NCAA tournament. His Toreros leave this morning for Indianapolis and a first-round date with Auburn Thursday in the Hoosier Dome.

Isn't that what this game is all about? Playing basketball in Indiana in March?

Basketball in Indiana is baseball in Yankee Stadium, golf at St. Andrew's, wine in the Loire Valley, Shakespeare on the Avon and mountain climbing in the Himalayas. The whole state is a shrine to the sport.

What could be more perfect than going to Indiana for a first taste of collegiate basketball's premier event?

"That's something, isn't it?" Egan said.

The man may be 49, but he's not too old to savor something as special as this. He is not inclined to yawn and say it's just another day . . . or week . . . on the job. This is basketball.

Hank Egan has had many days and weeks and months and years on the job. It is known as paying dues.

"I've had a few ups and downs," he conceded.

The deepest of those downs was after the 1983-84 season, when he was fired from the Air Force Academy. He had been there 18 years, 13 as a head coach.

"Getting fired," he said, "is about as down as you can get. Has it ever happened to you? I hope it doesn't. It's not any fun at all. It's the only time in my life I've ever been told I wasn't doing a good job, whether I was working in a restaurant as a bus boy as a kid or coaching a basketball team."

The job could not have been done much better than Egan did it at the Air Force Academy. Forget the won-lost record (148-185). It took an exceptional coach to win that many games at Air Force.

The problem is that Air Force simply cannot attract blue-chip basketball players because of its five-year commitment to service after graduation. The service academies don't get David Robinsons very often. To my reckoning, it has happened once.

"Kids are idealistic," Egan said. "They think they're pro prospects, so they don't want to go to Air Force. You can look at them and tell there's no way they'll ever play pro ball, but there's no way you can tell them."

So Egan suffered the ignominy of being fired for losing in a no-win situation. Significantly, the same year he was fired by Air Force, he was the alternate coach for the U.S. Olympic team.

Nice, but no glory.

Of course, Egan was not unemployed for long. USD hired him, and he put together 16-11 and 19-9 seasons before this seasons's 24-5 piece de resistance.

If being fired was the deepest of downs, this is the highest of ups.

And even this has not been easy.

USD had won 14 straight games going into the West Coast Athletic Conference tournament but stumbled in the semifinals and lost, 64-63, to Pepperdine. Egan was sincerely concerned that it all may have been for naught, what with the NCAA's proclivity for token western representation.

But USD was a lock . . . whether it knew it or not. It was seeded ninth among the 16 teams in the Midwest Regional. It needn't have endured its "weekend on the brink." It was in.

And so was Hank Egan.

Typically, Egan wanted to talk about his young men and how this was a reward for their hard work and solid play.

"Players like these win as much with their character as they do with their athletic ability," he said. "I've always had good kids, but I've never had a better collection of human beings than the kids I have now. And I said this before the season started."

That's an important point. To Hank Egan, these are not exceptional young men because they won . . . but rather winners because they are exceptional young men.

It is a marvelous alliance, this coach and these players. What has happened to these people is nice . . . nice for the players, but nicer for the coach.

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