David Zalubowski/Associated Press file photo
David Zalubowski/Associated Press file photo
FORT COLLINS – Sometimes, Larry Eustachy isn’t in the mood to trudge through his alcohol-filled past.
After all, it was years ago when he resigned as head coach of Iowa State after photos of him partying with students surfaced. And this is a different Eustachy sinking deeper and deeper into the cozy, black leather chair in his new office at Colorado State, sipping one of his 14 Diet Cokes of the day as he chatted about his basketball team’s fast start to the season.
“There are times I just want to say, ‘I’m done talking about this stuff anymore,’” the Rams’ first-year coach lamented.
Only, he realizes the importance of talking about his battle with alcoholism. As many times as necessary, too, in part because of all the letters piled up on his desk at home, the ones offering support since they’re from people just like him – coping each day with the demons of the disease.
Maybe speaking about it – again and again and again – will reach someone. That’s his hope, anyway. That’s why he remains so open on the subject, even if he would much rather break down his team’s 10-2 start.
This April, shortly after an NCAA champion is crowned, Eustachy will mark 10 years of sobriety.
It’s a number he mulled over for a moment as he stared straight ahead at all the nets he and his teams have cut down through the years, the ones now encased in frames and hanging on his office wall.
Eustachy has had plenty of friends and acquaintances who haven’t made it this far, who’ve slipped back into the disease – or worse. One step at a time, one day at a time, he’s managed to reassemble the pieces of his life.
“I think the only crime somebody can commit when they find themselves in the gutter is to not get out of it,” he said. “I’m really proud that I held myself accountable.
“But there’s a microscope on you. A lot of people are waiting for a guy to screw up again. What’s great about this country, though, is this: People love second chances.”
He’s certainly made the most of his.
Shortly after his resignation at Iowa State in 2003, Eustachy went into rehabilitation to treat alcoholism.
Following a year away from basketball, he was given another opportunity at Southern Mississippi, where he steadily built the program into a Conference USA contender. He turned in four 20-win seasons with the Golden Eagles and led them into the NCAA tournament last season.
When CSU coach Tim Miles bolted for Nebraska last spring, Eustachy jumped at the chance to take over the Rams.
Here, though, expectations are elevated. Eustachy inherited a veteran-heavy team coming off an NCAA tournament appearance.
His team has been quick to grasp his concepts, beating Virginia Tech 88-52 in the Las Vegas Classic championship game last Sunday. Eustachy preaches more of a defense-first, take-care-of-the-glass philosophy.
“A good friend texted me the other day that our offense seemed out of rhythm. Well, that’s Tim Miles’ fault, because we’re running his offense. So, blame him,” Eustachy said, chuckling. “I’ll be accountable for the other areas, the ones that we’re leading the nation in.”
Eustachy’s players appreciate his candor, because if he doesn’t like something, well, he won’t hint around. His door is always open, too, as senior forward Pierce Hornung recently found out. The two chatted for more than an hour about all things basketball.
“It’s never a bad thing to get outside your comfort zone. It’s never a bad thing to have change as long as you embrace it with the right attitude,” Hornung said. “You can have two attitudes – buy in or get frustrated. One of them works, and one doesn’t. So, we chose to go with the one that does.”
Eustachy will love seeing that sentiment.
See, he doesn’t pay attention to stories written about the Rams. But he will have his assistants cut out quotes from his players, just to make sure they’re delivering the proper message.
“It’s not going to be a smooth sail, but nobody wants to hear how rough the water is,” Eustachy said. “They want to know if you rowed the boat home – that’s the bottom line. I believe in our guys, and I feel they believe in me.”
They do at that. His baggage from the past? Didn’t really matter to his players.
“All we cared about is that he’s a successful coach everywhere he’s been. That’s the reputation we heard and cared about,” Hornung said. “He’s a very well-respected coach.”
Eustachy has only had four losing records in 21 seasons at Idaho, Utah State, Iowa State and Southern Miss.
His best season was 1999-2000, when Eustachy had Jamaal Tinsley and Marcus Fizer running the show and helping the Cyclones to a 32-5 record, along with a spot in the final eight.
For that, Eustachy was named AP Coach of the Year.
“The guy who should have that award is Jamaal,” Eustachy said. “We were 15-15 the year before, and then he showed up, and we were 32-5. So I became AP Coach of the Year in one year?”
That trophy rests on a shelf in his office. On this day, it had just been dusted and sparkled under the lights. Eustachy insisted the trophy – along with other trinkets around his office – were only on display to impress potential recruits.
To validate this point, he hollered down the hall to his director of basketball operations, Tiffany Beckham, who also worked in the athletic department at Southern Miss.
“Hey Tiffany, have we ever had this coach of the year award out?” he said.
“No,” she answered.
“I try to earn respect,” Eustachy said. “You don’t see me wearing rings or watches in front of my players. I’ve got to earn their respect through showing them I kind of know what I’m doing.
“I’m really comfortable with who I am. But life’s a journey. Is it a smooth sail? No. We all have our demons and our struggles. We just do.”
Since giving up drinking, he’s channeled his energy into hoops.
“I watch more film. I put more thought into it,” said Eustachy, who has two sons. “I don’t think I’ve ever put more time into teams than I have recently.”
He also never strays too far without a Diet Coke in his hand. He had 40 12-packs of the soda stacked neatly in a corner outside of his office, just so he doesn’t run out.
“Ever since I stopped drinking, I’ve started drinking these,” he said, hoisting a fresh Diet Coke can. “It’s really bad for you, but I got to have something. I gave up cigars a year ago.”
The letters still arrive from all over, random folks reaching out to offer encouragement. He tries to answer as many as he can, but he’s fallen behind.
“I’m so bad at writing back. But they do mean so much,” Eustachy said. “It’s a deadly disease. So if I can help someone, that’s neat.”
On April 23 – his mom’s birthday – he will celebrate 10 years of sobriety.
A big milestone, right?
“It’s about as good as a 24-hour chip, because it’s only as good as the day you have it,” Eustachy said. “The chips (to mark sobriety) were very important to me at one time. But you learn, and you see some people that have been there a long time and something happens. It’s an issue you deal with every day.”
V. Richard Haro/The Coloradoan