Somewhere is the tape for the 2004 national championship game, still available for viewing. The head coach who lost doesn’t care.
Has Paul Hewitt ever sat down and watched one moment of Connecticut beating his Georgia Tech team 82-73?“No.”
Will he ever?
Ten years ago, the Final Four came with drama on Saturday and dominance on Monday. In the first semifinal, Georgia Tech beat Oklahoma State 67-65 on Will Bynum’s last-second layup. Connecticut followed that by coming from eight points behind in the last three minutes to stun Duke 79-78. It remains the only national semifinal round in the past 36 years to have two games so close.
What would championship night do for an encore? Nothing nearly so compelling. Connecticut took a 41-26 halftime lead and breezed. Jim Calhoun had his second title, led by Emeka Okafor. No surprise, really, since the Huskies were ranked No. 1 in the preseason.
But there was something about the unheralded team they beat the night. Georgia Tech had a tumultuous magic carpet ride in 2003-2004. The Yellow Jackets went from a preseason forecast of seventh place in the ACC, to starting 12-0 (including upsetting No. 1 Connecticut by 16 points in November), to going 9-7 in the conference, to a stirring March run as a No. 3 seed that featured a tutorial on how to survive and advance.
Georgia Tech’s first three NCAA Tournament victories were by five, three and five points, all of them in doubt in the final minute. The Yellow Jackets beat Kansas in overtime to win the St. Louis regional, despite an injury to leading scorer B.J. Elder, thanks to 29 points by Jarrett Jack. Then came Bynum’s buzzer-beater in the Final Four. It was a constellation without big stars. Four different players led Georgia Tech in scoring in the six tournament games.
“Anytime you have a group that succeeds at a high level, it has to be about guys coming together and sticking together,” Hewitt said 10 years later, now as coach at George Mason . “It was a team. That’s exactly what it was.”
Hewitt was in his fourth Georgia Tech season, and few saw him or his team coming. When they slid past Oklahoma State to get to the national championship game, the big news was his lucky coat. He had worn the camel-hair coat for the first time when the Yellow Jackets ended Duke’s 41-game home winning streak. He wore it again for a victory in the ACC Tournament. And there it was again, to beat Oklahoma State, though 19 points by 7-1 Australian product Luke Schenscher and Bynum’s shot had something to do with it, too.
Some coaches wait a lifetime for such a March.
“Did it change me? I don’t think so, or my wife would have told me a long time ago. She’d have told me to knock it off,” Hewitt said. “I guess it does come with your name now. You coached in the national championship game.”
And yet the loss still haunts, and always will. That lingers more than the triumph of getting there, leaving Hewitt as the perfect example of the young coach who nearly hits the jackpot, and is forever driven to return.
“It’s a double-edged sword. You want to get back there again. My mission ever since that day is to try to assemble a group of kids and a group of people to get back,” he said. “It was a great run, and I’m happy for the players who got to experience something like that. But they moved on. All you can think about is, `Man, I’d love to have another crack at that. I’d like to try to get it right.”’
The worst part is that a coach, once there, will forever know what he’s missing. When Hewitt went to the Final Four in 2005 to attend the coaches’ convention, he was so depressed, he had a hard time coming out of his hotel room.
“I used to enjoy going to the Final Four when I was an assistant coach and my first years at Tech,” he said. “I really haven’t enjoyed going to the Final Four since that ’04 year.”
Hewitt said that spring taught him the value of people; having players willing to pull together, and a support staff unified in its purpose, no matter what issues had to be addressed. Among the Yellow Jackets that season was Isma’il Muhammad, a practicing Muslim who had to follow the fasting principles of Ramadan. Hewitt’s man in charge of team nutrition made it all work.
So onward, Georgia Tech marched, to one of the moments of all their lives. Hewitt coached 11 years at Georgia Tech before being fired, and is now trying to get George Mason through its growing pains of joining the Atlantic 10. But what happened in 2004 will always tell him something.
“As I get older, it’s a blue print for what you have to do to achieve success at a high level. It always comes back to the people and the personnel you have around you,” he said. “When you go back and evaluate where those kids are today and how successful they are now, it makes perfect sense why we went to the Final Four. They’re all doing really, really well in life,
“Nothing’s going to change the bond we have with those players. That’s something that’s going to always hold us together. That team will always be the team that played for the national championship at Georgia Tech. I still have people that walk up to me and say they remember that team. Not as many as there used to be, but I’m still surprised by how many.”
And the camel-hair coat?
“It’s still around, I get it out every once in awhile,” he said. “There’s not as much luck when you don’t have Will Bynum and Jarrett Jack in the backcourt.”