Gary Tuell's name fits his coaching mission. Coach "Tool" is the man to call when you need something fixed.
After seven years of fixing Augusta State basketball into a winning program, Tuell is taking off to fix a little Florida college called Nova Southeastern.
"I love challenges, and I love fixing programs," Tuell said Tuesday before getting in his car to drive to find a new home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
"I've done it everywhere I've been. I did it here. Now this one needs fixing."
Tuell's life plan has never really followed a traditional script. He's a maverick - brilliant, funny and stubborn with more prominent friends around the country than he ever had on the Augusta State campus.
He does his job in the colorfully casual fashion that suits him, and he thanks Augusta State athletic director Clint Bryant for letting Tuell be Tuell.
"I've really enjoyed being able to work with Clint," he said. "He's treated me well."
Tuell certainly didn't figure on this move at this time.
"I'm a little bit overwhelmed right now," he said. "This is not what I expected to be doing. I'm kind of in shock."
It's funny how life takes you places you'd never expect to be. It was an unusual fix-it job Tuell did years ago that has him heading back to south Florida instead of preparing for an eighth season in Augusta.
On a flight to the Big East basketball tournament when he was an assistant coach at Miami, Tuell offered advice to a student trainer who asked for it. She didn't know whether to break up with or marry a boyfriend in Ohio with whom she was having a long-distance relationship.
A few years later, when Tuell was head coach at St. Thomas down in Miami, a young man came up to thank him.
"You don't know me, but I married a girl because of you," Mike Mominey told Tuell.
Tuell got Mominey a job as the St. Thomas sports information director and assistant baseball coach.
Now with a family and career path courtesy of Tuell, Mominey eventually became the athletic director at Nova Southeastern and once again called on Tuell for help.
"I was kind of his mentor when he started out," Tuell said. "Now he's my boss."
Tuell's decision to leave Augusta State goes beyond an old friendship. At the urging of Mominey, Tuell took a look at what Nova Southeastern had to offer, and he was impressed. The private college has facilities that would make larger universities envious.
Its business school was recently built by tycoon H. Wayne Huizenga. The library is colossal. The Miami Dolphins' offices are on the campus.
Best of all, the school is building a $52 million athletics facility to open for the 2005-06 season that Tuell says will be the finest of any Division II school in the country.
"That convinced me they were serious," Tuell said. "It should be a pretty easy sell to recruits. They have a lot of vision for the future of their athletics program."
Tuell, 54, admits he needs this kind of challenge at this stage of his career. He had taken Augusta State to new heights in recent years, but he wasn't sure whether he could take it to another level. It was something he considered before deciding to leave.
"Can I reignite the fire here or slide into mediocrity?" he said. "I feel like I've done about everything I can do here. I'm sure the next guy could do better."
Honestly, I'm not sure anyone can. In addition to being one of the smartest men you'll ever meet, Tuell is one of the smartest coaches with a knack for teaching and motivating kids to do their best. His Jaguars teams always finished seasons better than they started.
Nova Southeastern will soon learn that. After nine straight losing seasons and no tradition to speak of, Tuell will likely make his new team the class of the Sunshine State Conference.
And one day, sooner rather than later, Tuell will leave to face a new challenge.
"This'll probably be it," he said. "I'll call it quits."
Tuell, a former sportswriter who once sparred with Muhammad Ali and literally wrote the book on Louisville basketball, sees his next challenge as something more poetic than drawing up a zone defense or motion offense.
"I'd probably rather write when I'm 60," he said.
The coach who never lived by the book would like us to one day buy his books. Something along the lines of Lewis Grizzard-style Southern humor is his preference. Or maybe the definitive piece on the NCAA Championship game between Texas Western and Kentucky that changed the face of college basketball.
Whatever he chooses, bet on Tuell succeeding. Augusta will certainly miss him.
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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