Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
Gary Waters is going dancing, and Rutgers is not.
Behind 19 points from former St. John’s guard Cedric Jackson, Waters’ Cleveland State team downed No. 17 Butler 57-54 Tuesday night to capture the Horizon League’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
The coach raised two fists to the air in celebration, an image that is all over this morning’s SportsCenter.
“For the program, it’s unbelievable,” Waters said Wednesday morning by phone. “That program was dormant, it was just there and nobody really paid any attention to it. Now we can go out and we can recruit and bring people into this program.”
In an ironic twist of fate, Cleveland State’s victory came on the same night that Rutgers, Waters’ old team, played its final game of the season, losing to Notre Dame in the first round of the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden.
The program’s three seniors, Anthony Farmer, JR Inman and Jaron Griffin, were all originally recruited by Waters, who led Rutgers to the NIT final in 2004. The trio has gone a combined 32-60 in three years under Waters’ replacement, Fred Hill.
“I spoke to them Saturday night and Sunday because that was their last Big East game and I wanted to try to make contact with them to make sure they realize that I’m behind the scenes following them,” Waters said of the trio known as ‘FIG.’ “They’ve had a great career there. I wish it would’ve been better. Inman and Anthony, you remember were on the All-Freshmen team. I expected them to really excel by this time, and sometimes those things don’t happen as well, especially when there’s a [coaching] change. But they’ve had a great career, and I know they’ll have a great after-life.”
Waters says he doesn’t hold any ill will toward Rutgers for letting him go three years ago after he was caught in a snowstorm while attending a Kent State Hall of Fame induction event that caused him to miss a Rutgers home game.
“Not really because I wanted to see our kids do well,” he said. “Whenever I take a program, I want it to go well after I leave. If you remember I took the Kent State program and they had 10 straight years of 20 wins. That’s what I wanted to happen at Rutgers because my last year there we won 19 games and went to the NIT. So it wasn’t like we weren’t performing. I wanted them to do well. I wanted them to continue to excel.”
Waters is a Midwestern native, but still felt he could’ve turned things around at Rutgers had he stayed.
“I was going to eventually come back to the Midwest anyway,” he said. “If you can go back to where your roots are and where you can recruit better and everything. But I will say this. I had started learning the landscape of that place and we were about ready to turn the tide there.”
As for the recent firing of former Rutgers AD Bob Mulcahy, the man who asked Waters to take a $550,000 buyout, the coach took the high road.
“I have a lot of respect for Bob and I know he wanted the athletic program to excel,” Waters said. “And I know he worked hard at it. And I hated to see that he didn’t get a chance to go out on his own terms. When they brought me there, the program was down. Greg Schiano came into a program that had never won, and I had a basketball program that was in shambles. So he had built that thing up as a football program that’s now on the national stage and he was hoping that the basketball program will be at that point, but one day it will. I hated to see him leave, but I know he’s got to feel better about himself because he did get that thing going.”
And what does Rutgers need to do to get the basketball team turned around?
“I’m going to say this, they’re working hard at it. When they brought in the young man from St. Anthony [Mike Rosario], they’re getting the right kind of talent. Now they just have to excel out on the floor. And I’m going to say this, that is a talent-laden league. It took me a while to learn that. It’s just not about coaching. He’s getting some positive results from one area, but now you gotta do a better job on the coaching end of it.
“You got great coaches in that league. The best there are, you got Louisville, you got Connecticut. These are the two best coaches in America. And then you got 16 of them so you really have to put it together. But first it must start with your talent level.”
Cleveland State is going to make its first NCAA appearance since 1986 when it upset Bob Knight’s Indiana team and St. Joe’s before falling in the Sweet 16 to David Robinson and Navy.
How far can this year’s team go?
“We’ve already had a goal set,” Waters said. “We were picked to win the Horizon from they very beginning. The championship wasn’t our ultimate goal. We’re going into the tournament not just happy to be there. We’re going in there to compete.”
Rutgers can only dream of following its former coach to the Big Dance one day.
(Photos courtesy Cleveland State, the AP, Sports Illustrated)
Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.