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Reggie Theus brings star power to Cal State Northridge

The former NBA player, broadcaster and coach is happy to have a job close to home and looks forward to the task of turning around a program that finished 14-17 last season.

April 28, 2013|By Gary Klein
  • Reggie Theus was all smiles at his news conference announcing the former NBA star as coach at Cal State Northridge.
Reggie Theus was all smiles at his news conference announcing the former… (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los…)

Reggie Theus played in the NBA for more than a decade, covered the league as a broadcaster and coached the Sacramento Kings.

So postseason drama at Staples Center draws his attention.

"I've been a Lakers fan since I was a kid," said Theus, who starred at Inglewood High in the mid-1970s, "and I know a lot of guys on the Clippers."

But Theus has no time to be immersed in the playoffs.

For the last three weeks, Cal State Northridge's new coach has been busy on campus or on the road recruiting, laying the groundwork to turn around a program.

Theus, 55, has already done it once: He transformed lowly New Mexico State into an NCAA tournament team in two years.

Now, after a short stint with the Kings, a few years as an NBA assistant and a season coaching the Lakers' entry in the NBA Development League, Theus brings a major name to a mid-major university looking to raise its national profile.

Northridge, of the Big West Conference, plays in a modest 1,600-seat, flat-roofed gymnasium dubbed "the Matadome," a play off the school's nickname, the Matadors.

Theus does not seem bothered by the absence of glitz.

"It's taken me four years," he said, "to get back to where I think my heart really is."

Rick Pitino needed persuading.

When Theus called and inquired about an open position on Pitino's Louisville basketball staff nearly a decade ago, the coach at first barely considered the possibility.

"I had no intention of hiring someone I didn't know," Pitino said in a phone interview.

Pitino's reasoning: It was highly unlikely that a pampered former NBA All-Star known as "Rush Street Reggie" during his years playing for the Chicago Bulls could be counted on to be at the office at 6:30 a.m., to "grind it out and do what college coaches do."

But during several meetings with Pitino, Theus made his case.

He recounted a youth spent working alongside his father as a janitor, and taking over the business as a teen after his father unexpectedly died. He spoke of basketball skills honed with sweat, not swagger, under former Nevada Las Vegas coach Jerry Tarkanian. And he pointed to his work as an AAU coach and a year spent as a volunteer assistant at Division II Cal State Los Angeles.

"To grind it out," he said, "is what I've always done."

Theus got the job, thrived as a recruiter during a two-year apprenticeship under Pitino and helped Louisville reach the 2005 Final Four.

He took what he learned to Las Cruces, N.M., guiding a New Mexico State program that finished 6-24 the season before he arrived to a 25-9 record in 2006-07.

Now, he takes over a Northridge program that finished 14-17 last season and has made two NCAA tournament appearances in 23 years at the Division I level.

Pitino, who recently won his second national title, has no doubt about where Theus and the Matadors are headed. "In a couple years," he said, "he'll have them in the hunt for an NCAA bid."

Theus interviewed for an opening at DePaul in 2010 and was a finalist at UNLV in 2011. But he longed to coach college basketball near home, where he and his wife, Elaine, have raised three children in View Park.

USC's coaching job turned over twice in the last four years and Theus met with university administrators both times.

In 2009, after Tim Floyd resigned, Theus interviewed with former athletic director Mike Garrett, but USC hired Kevin O'Neill. When O'Neill was fired in January, Theus said he subsequently had a "great" conversation with Athletic Director Pat Haden.

"I tried to illustrate, in the best way that I could, what I would bring to that program with my relationships in L.A," Theus said.

But Haden chose Andy Enfield, who had guided Florida Gulf Coast to the Sweet 16.

Meantime, new Northridge Athletic Director Brandon Martin pursued Theus. Martin, a former Trojans basketball player, was a USC senior associate athletic director in 2009 and had been involved in the school's coaching search.

On March 19, Northridge announced that it would not renew the contract of its 17-year coach, Bobby Braswell. Martin had played for Braswell at Reseda Cleveland High.

"I love Coach Braswell," Martin said a few weeks later. "That was a very difficult conversation."

But Martin has big plans. New university President Dianne Harrison had given him "a charge to elevate this program."

Theus — "a game-changing hire," Martin said — brings a pedigree.

As a sophomore guard, he helped lead UNLV to the 1977 Final Four. Nearly 30 years later, he helped land players that contributed to Louisville's 2005 Final Four run.

At 6 feet 7, Theus cuts a handsome, charismatic figure. "If he walks into your house and meets your mom," former New Mexico State player Trei Steward said, "your mom might fall in love with him."

Players have ribbed Theus about circa-1980s beefcake photos found on the Internet, but perception is not always reality. For example, Theus is an avid target and wild-game archer, an interest he picked up during his NBA-playing days in Sacramento.

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