In many ways Gary Tuell has a dream job at St. Thomas University.
He gets to coach men's basketball, his first love. His teams play at the NAIA level, where the lack of pressure, big money and nitpicking rules allow for a purer coaching experience. He has the adoration of his players, bosses and associates at the tiny Catholic commuter school in Miami.
He does not teach or have many other off-season responsibilities, which enables him to jet around the country and visit friends for weeks at a time. And then there's his living arrangement.
"He's Kato Kaelin," says Steve Condon, vice president of student services and acting athletic director at St. Thomas. "I mean, we're talking Kato and O.J. here."
"O.J." in this case is Earl "Butch" Buchholz, president and owner of the Lipton tennis tournament in Miami. For the last nine years, beginning while he was an assistant coach at the University of Miami, Tuell has lived rent free in the guest house of Buchholz's $2.5 million estate.
This includes maid service three times each week. This includes the use of the family Lexus on key recruiting trips. This includes the promise of a job with the Lipton tournament should Tuell, 47, ever tire of coaching.
Tuell's teams have gone 88-76 (.536) and won three Florida Sun Conference titles in his five seasons while playing a brutally ambitious schedule. He has six seniors and a full squad returning. The Bobcats, he says, are poised to win a national championship.
"There's a lot of things about living here," says Tuell, one of five finalists for Augusta State basketball coach, "that make me think I'm crazy to think about leaving."
Then again, when Tuell recently shared with Condon a ledger sheet of reasons to stay and to leave, the latter list was twice as long.
The Bobcats, for starters, lack an on-campus gymnasium. They play their home games across town at Dade-North Community College before miniscule crowds. They rotate practices at seven different sites. Sometimes they practice outdoors, sometimes at area high schools. Even when they get gym time at Dade-North, it's rarely convenient. St. Thomas practices have started at 6 a.m. and 11 p.m. and everywhere in between.
University officials have no plans to build a basketball facility. Their most pressing task is retiring a $20 million debt that stems from construction of a law school building that opened in 1986.
Scholarships are a problem as well. Next season, for the first time in Tuell's five-year tenure, St. Thomas has five basketball scholarships. Previously it had four.
What's more, the Bobcats operate in a media vacuum. With four major professional teams and the Miami Hurricanes right down the road, St. Thomas rates little more than a few lines of agate type in the daily newspapers. TV and radio? Forget it.
"All those things - no facility, no scholarships, pro city - it wears you down," says Tuell, scheduled to interview here July 18. "I've started to ask myself, `What else can I do here?' If they're not ever going to build a gym - which they're not - how long can you sustain what you do, and sustain your enthusiasm?"
For these reasons and several others, Tuell says he's very interested in the Augusta State job, the first position he's applied for since starting at St. Thomas in 1992.
Rick Majerus, a close friend for the last 10 years, has tried to lure Tuell to the University of Utah several times. Had Majerus taken the Golden State job this year, Tuell was set to join him in the NBA.
But this is different. This is a chance to climb the coaching ladder as a head coach. This is a chance to get a 50 percent raise - from just under $40,000 - and work for another friend.
Tuell worked with Jaguars athletic director Clint Bryant for one season (1987-88) at Miami, where both were assistants to Bill Foster. In fact, it was Bryant whose call convinced Tuell to apply for the job in the first place.
Cesar Odio, basketball coach at Miami's Barry College, called Bryant in May to recommend Tuell. Bryant, surprised that Tuell might want to leave St. Thomas, placed a call to his old friend.
"Clint's a good friend," Tuell says. "I would not leave here for almost any job. If Clint was not there, I'm not sure I'd do it now. His presence there means a lot to me."
And Tuell's presence at St. Thomas means a lot to the staff there.
"It would be a huge loss for us," says Dave Pezzino, a former sports information director at the school who now works in the admissions office. "He doesn't belong here. I know that and everybody here knows that. It's amazing what he does."
Saturday, Butch Estes
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