March sadness is heavy on the basketball world. Cancellation of the NCAA tournament was a major disappointment. More than some, coach Steve Forbes, East Tennessee State University and faithful followers of the Buccaneers felt the pain.
This may have been the school’s best team. Five seniors and associates won 30 games, including the Southern Conference tournament, three victories in three days by an average of 16.3 points.
This Forbes story is today’s example of how things change, how you never know. There is a supporting quote: “Your attitude will determine your altitude.”
Nine years ago yesterday, Steve Forbes was clearing out his basketball office at the University of Tennessee. It was his 46th birthday.
The highly regarded assistant coach, an excellent recruiter, was part of the collateral damage of the Bruce Pearl crash and burn. Steve didn’t exactly lie to the NCAA investigator. He just failed to identify the setting and friends in the famous cookout photograph from Pearl’s backyard. He thought he was being loyal, covering for the boss.
Steve got a one-year show-cause penalty. Bruce got three. Steve was fired and got back pay for accrued vacation time. Bruce got fired, received $948,728 and went on vacation. After that, he became vice president of marketing for H.T. Hackney Co. He slid in safely with ESPN as a very entertaining analyst.
There was no soft landing for Forbes. He took a massive pay cut ($140,000) and what he could get, the coaching job at Northwest Florida State (formerly Okaloosa-Walton Community College) in Niceville. Johnetta Forbes went back to work as a fourth-grade teacher.
They got a two-bedroom apartment. They were allowed to keep the children but had to leave the family dog with relatives. Dogs weren’t allowed in the apartment complex. I don’t know for sure but they may have lost most or all of the five-year investment in their Knoxville home.
Forbes asked Jason Shay to come along for the ride. He was another former Pearl assistant who needed a job. His wife, Jana, could teach fifth grade.
Forbes and Shay did pretty well at Niceville, 62-6 in two seasons.
Forbes wasn’t sure he would ever get back to where he had been but he maintained a positive attitude. He thought he might have a chance somewhere because he knew a lot of people in a lot of different places. Sure enough, Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall called with an offer.
Near the end of Year 2 in Wichita, Dr. Richard Sander, ETSU athletics director, made an exploratory approach. He asked some tough questions.
Forbes said he thought he came out of the Tennessee disaster a better person and a better coach. He said he had taken responsibility for his mistakes. He wouldn’t recommend anybody going through what he went through, but he admitted it was a learning experience.
With the approval of visionary president Brian Noland, ETSU risked a bet on what was to come.
Steve Forbes is not a basketball blueblood. He grew up in Lone Tree, Iowa, on a farm along Highway 22. There was a family rule, no sitting around, be busy with sports or be working. He played four sports.
Steve was 1983 all-state in basketball, seventh team, according to the Des Moines Register.
He enrolled at Muscatine Community College. It was just out the road a piece. He was 24 when Southern Arkansas University brought him to Magnolia to play baseball and be a student basketball coach. In the approach to graduation, he sent out 200 letters but didn’t find a real coaching job. He did not go hungry. He returned to the MuleRiders as sports information director.
I am not making this up.
Forbes eventually scored, but not big. He twice made the jump from junior college assistant to head coach, at Southwestern Community College in Creston, Iowa, and Barton Community College in Great Bend, Kansas. This was good training for the reboot at Northwest Florida.
Along the way from back then to now, Forbes traveled widely and did 15 seasons as an assistant – at Idaho, Louisiana Tech, Illinois State, Texas A&M, Tennessee and Wichita State.
When he signed on with ETSU, Shay rejoined him as assistant. They immediately retooled the roster. They won the Southern title and went to the NCAA tournament in their second season.
Upon reflection, Forbes was proud that he didn’t try to hide from what he did at Tennessee. He did not play the blame game. He did what he always told players to do when they got knocked down: Get back up and start swinging for the fences.
This fifth season was very good. The Bucs went into Baton Rouge in December and bumped off LSU by 11. The coach got a $15,000 bonus. He has a comfortable contract, $650,000 a year guaranteed until 2023. He is Southern Conference coach of the year.
Nobody talks any more about the slashes and scars from the Tennessee ending and how Pearl walked away. It is now all about ETSU – the joy of winning 30 and some speculation about what might have been.
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