Originally created 11/14/97

Tuell dreams of day Jags will be a power



Gary Tuell has a dream.

He dreams of a day when Augusta State basketball is known throughout the country for excellence and quality.

He dreams of a day when the community turns out regularly to support the Jaguars in their spacious home gymnasium on Wrightsboro Road. He dreams of sellouts and noisy winter nights and a true home-court advantage.

Tuell, the new men's basketball coach at Augusta State, goes further still with his dream. For the past 31/2 months, almost from the day he arrived as Clint Bryant's sideline replacement from Miami's St. Thomas University, he has been sharing his dream with strangers and new friends alike.

The 47-year-old spends little time in his cramped-but-homey office, a converted storage area across from the trainer's room. He's usually out meeting the people of Augusta.

He stands at the front of banquet rooms and conference coveys and speaks in hushed tones. It's a conspiratorial whisper, really.

He stares directly at his audience of Rotarians and Kiwanis Clubbers and church leaders and says the craziest things. He challenges them to embrace the very same dream he can't shake.

Thursday afternoon, on the eve of tonight's season-opening game against Morris at Paine College, Tuell addressed the Augusta West Rotary Club. He won over the three dozen men and women in the audience with an opening burst of gentle humor and self-deprecating stories.

Then he lowered his voice and with it the boom.

"I want to win a Division II national championship at Augusta State," Tuell says without blinking. "That is my dream."

At the tables stacked with the remnants of roast chicken and fried fish, heads nod slowly. Eyes widen. Glances are exchanged.

Nobody has ever talked this way before about Augusta State basketball. Nobody.

DEEP DOWN, TUELL IS a realist. He knows the Jaguars haven't had a winning season in four years. He knows his team is undersized, overmatched and expected to finish near the bottom of the Peach Belt Athletic Conference.

He also knows a torrent of injuries and academic casualties have given his first club a perfect excuse to fail.

Mac Young and Patrick Woodward were declared academically ineligible this summer. Junior forward Brian Calvin will redshirt to rest his arthritic knees. Sophomore forward Reggie Rosier will redshirt to add needed muscle.

Then came two more bombshells. Mike Mills, a talented junior transfer from Daytona Beach Community College, blew out a knee. William Baker, another junior forward, did the same. Both will miss the season.

Even the walk-ons haven't escaped the curse. They've been chased from the team or to the sidelines by a hyperextended knee, a ruptured Achilles and shin splints.

All this, and the season hasn't even started yet.

"We took our team picture," Tuell jokes, dusting off an old one. "It was an X-ray."

One night after practice, Tuell gathered his seven remaining healthy players in the locker room and asked them a question.

"Do you guys know what you're up against?" he said. "I mean, do you really understand what this looks like from the outside?"

The players laughed. They nodded and laughed.

"Yes, coach," they said. "We understand."

WHEN TUELL SPEAKS of his championship dreams, he leaves out the part about building in stages.

This year will largely be about survival. He'll implement his up-tempo system, win over as many converts as possible and hope for the best.

Year Two will be more of the same, garnished with the addition of Baker and Mills, the latter of whom Tuell calls "an absolute warrior. He would have been our best player."

Year Three? That's when things will get really serious.

"My plan is to win this league in three years," says Tuell, whose 10-year coaching record is 196-116, for a winning percentage of .628. "That's my goal. I've got to figure out how to do that. If we're not in position to win the league in three years, then I haven't done my job."

In the meantime, Tuell and his players will take some lumps. They will be tested. He knows this.

But he won't take the easy way out. He won't compromise his system to win an extra game or two. He never did that at Cincinnati Bible College or Milligan College in Tennessee or at St. Thomas, an NAIA afterthought that had to practice in a series of borrowed high school gyms.

Sorry, Tuell says, but the Jaguars won't play a sagging 2-3 zone defense and hold the ball on offense just to keep things close.

"It sends the wrong message to my players," Tuell says. "It says, `You can't win because you guys only have seven healthy bodies. The seven dwarfs can't beat the giants. Let's back up and let's all hold hands here and hope the roof doesn't fall in on us.'

"You know what happens when you do that? The roof's going to fall in on you. You've got no chance to blow the roof off. Our only chance to blow the roof off is to get out and make it happen ourselves. I'd rather go down swinging than just sit back and let them knock me through the ropes."

SUCH STUBBORNNESS serves as a metaphor for Tuell's challenge as a whole.

He sees opportunity where others squawk about dead ends.

He sees a barren storage room with cinderblock walls, orders a few plants, some bookshelves and some simple furniture and -- Voila! -- creates an office.

He sees all those empty blue seats rising to the rafters -- seats the Jaguars have never managed to justify -- but he only imagines them filled with cheering fans.

He sees sporting goods stores around town offering Bulldogs, Gamecocks, Tigers and Yellow Jackets apparel and wonders how soon he can wedge in some Jaguars stuff.

"The City of Augusta is our base," he says, leaning forward across his desk. "We wear `Augusta' on our shirt. We're the only team that I know of that wears Augusta across its chest. We represent the city of Augusta 27 or 28 times a year. We want the people in this city to be proud of us, and we want those people behind us."

But can it happen? Tuell thinks it can.

"I think the people in this city want to see a team that goes down swinging," he says. "They want us to go out on that floor and play our guts out and leave it all out there. That's what we want to do. We want people to come see us play, and when they leave, win or lose, we want them to say, `Hey, that team left it all out there for us. They gave us all that they could give us."'

With that, the dreamer sinks back in his chair and smiles.