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The Return of Fast Eddie

Eddie Jordan, the new head coach of the men’s basketball team, returns to Rutgers where, nearly 40 years ago, he was a pivotal player on a team that went undefeated en route to the university’s one and only men’s Final Four appearance. Now back where it all began, Jordan has every intention of returning the Scarlet Knights to their former state of grace as they prepare to enter the Big Ten. By Christopher Hann

Eddie Jordan
After leaving Rutgers, Jordan played for four NBA teams over seven seasons, scored more than 3,400 points, and won a championship ring with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1982. He is better known for having been the head coach of NBA franchises in Sacramento, Washington, and Philadelphia. Photography by Nick Romanenko

On a late-September morning, the day before his first official practice as coach of the Scarlet Knights men’s basketball team, Eddie Jordan is sitting inside his office at the Louis Brown Athletic Center (the RAC), dressed in scarlet workout clothes and flashing his familiar friendly grin. A poster on one wall shows a bearded Jordan in his NBA playing days, wearing the uniform of the New Jersey Nets, a peripatetic team that once played its home games at the RAC. Otherwise, the walls look pretty lonely. Jordan has been on the job for five months now, but his office has that still-moving-in vibe. When you’re hired under the circumstances in which Jordan was hired, there’s no time to dither over matters of interior design.

It’s no secret that Jordan walked into a firestorm at Rutgers. He was hired just 20 days after the dismissal of Mike Rice. On the day that President Robert Barchi introduced Jordan as the new coach, only four scholarship players remained. Jordan had a lot of work ahead of him, and he knew it. Beyond the fallout from Rice’s departure, Rutgers, which enters the Big Ten Conference in July, had not won an NCAA tournament game in 30 years.

Although Jordan played for four NBA teams over seven seasons, scored more than 3,400 points, and won a championship ring with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1982, most of Hoops Nation know him as the head coach of NBA franchises in Sacramento, Washington, and Philadelphia. In fact, Jordan has been coaching almost nonstop for three decades now—in the pros, college, even his youngest son’s freshman team at Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington, D.C., Jordan’s alma mater. Yet Rutgers fans of a certain age have an altogether different perception of Jordan. They remember him best as Fast Eddie, the supernaturally composed point guard who helped shepherd the Scarlet Knights through their glory days. (Think Cool Hand Luke with lightning hands and a rock-steady jump shot.) Starting in Jordan’s first year, 1973–74, Rutgers qualified for postseason play seven years running.

The pinnacle, of course, came during the 1975–76 season. From December 1, when Rutgers opened the season with a 40-point win, until March 20, when the Scarlet Knights won the NCAA Eastern regionals, Jordan and his divinely talented teammates achieved a state of perfection almost unheard of in college basketball. During that stretch of 110 days, the Scarlet Knights played 31 games, and they won them all. And one week later, they were lining up against Michigan in the Final Four on national television at the since-demolished Spectrum in Philadelphia, just 40 minutes away from playing for the national championship.

“We were long, we were athletic, we were quick, we were fast,” Jordan says, recollecting a Rutgers team that thrived on full-court pressure and pulverized opponents by 20 points a game, the largest average margin of victory in the nation. “And we just wiped people out.”

Eddie Jordan layup during game in 1975
Jordan holds the school record for career steals (220) and assists (585). “We were long, we were athletic, we were quick, we were fast,” he says, recalling the 1975—76 Rutgers team that pulverized opponents by 20 points a game. “And we just wiped people out.” Photography courtesy of Rutgers Special Collections and University Archives

December 1, 1975
On opening night, a capacity crowd of 2,800 squeezes into the College Avenue Gym, the squat brick building affectionately known as the Barn, to watch Rutgers toy with Bentley. Over the next three months, the Barn plays a vital role in the team’s success. The cramped seating puts fans within arm’s reach of the playing floor, and the noise level reaches such deafening heights that games often have to be stopped so that the ball boys can sweep away paint chips that fall from the ceiling. Rutgers 100, Bentley 60.

In the annals of Rutgers basketball, Jordan and his fellow starters on the Final Four team remain legend: 6-foot-4 senior Phil Sellers RC’76, from Brooklyn, a junkyard dog of a power forward, the only first-team All-American in Scarlet Knights’ basketball history; 6-foot-4 senior guard Mike Dabney RC’76, from East Orange, New Jersey, the team’s second-leading scorer; 6-foot-6 sophomore forward Hollis Copeland RC’78, a former state high-jump champion from Ewing, New Jersey; and 6-foot-9 center James Bailey LC’79, a long-armed, first-year student from Boston. All five were chosen in the NBA draft, and four played in the NBA. All five are among the top six Rutgers players in career field goals. Sellers is the team’s all-time leading scorer (2,399 points) and rebounder (1,111). Jordan holds the school record for career steals (220) and assists (585). Sellers and Bailey are two of just three men’s basketball players to have their numbers retired (Bob Lloyd RC’67 is the other).

They were brought together by their 43-year-old head coach, Tom Young, a former standout at Maryland, who had come to Rutgers from American University in 1973. That Final Four team grew especially close, and remains so today. “Tom Young had a vision that I don’t think anybody else could appreciate,” says Copeland, now a member of the Rutgers Board of Trustees. “He made us family. He knew what buttons to push and when to push them.”

It would be difficult to overstate the impact his four years at Rutgers had on Jordan. “This is my school,” he likes to say. (He’s even returned to the classroom, pursuing the 18 credits he needed to graduate when he left Rutgers in 1977.) Jordan has returned to his alma mater three times now, first as an assistant with Young, who recruited him to Rutgers, and then as an assistant with Bob Wenzel. Jordan sat beside Wenzel RC’71 during the 1990–91 season, when the Scarlet Knights last qualified for the NCAA tournament. They lost in the first round.

December 13, 1975
In the sixth game of the season, against Connecticut at the Barn, Young inserts Bailey as a starter, replacing Mike Palko RC’76. For the first time in Rutgers history, the starting lineup consists of five black players. “We were putting the five best players on the floor,” Young says. “It could have been five yellow guys. They were the five best players; that’s all.” Rutgers 96, Connecticut 83.

Jordan envisioned himself as a basketball coach even before he envisioned himself as a player. The inspiration struck after his first few organized practices, in ninth grade, when he saw the impact his coach, John Davis, made on him and his teammates. Jordan says the coach taught them to play as a team. Davis taught discipline. He taught structure. And Jordan saw how the team responded. If a coach can make this kind of a difference on a group of 14- and 15-year-olds, Jordan thought, That’s what I want to be.

Jordan’s coaching career began the day after his playing career ended. He retired from the NBA during the Portland Trailblazers’ training camp in 1984, and that night he took a red-eye across the country so he could attend practice at the RAC the next morning, as a volunteer assistant under Young. Two decades later, when Jordan became head coach of the Washington Wizards, he hired Young as an assistant.

Eddie Jordan coaching men's basketball team
Eddie Jordan envisioned himself as a basketball coach even before he envisioned himself as a player, seeing, as early as ninth grade, the impact his coach made on him and his teammates. Jordan’s coaching career began the day after his NBA playing career ended in 1984, when he took a red-eye across the country so that he could attend practice at the RAC, as a volunteer assistant under his former Rutgers coach, Tom Young. Photography by Nick Romanenko

Jordan says he had no ambition to become a head coach anywhere on the college level except at Rutgers. In the chaos created by Rice’s exit, Jordan saw himself as the ideal antidote.

“Fitted me perfectly,” he says.

“Rutgers needed a passionate, experienced head coach, and at the same time someone who has the personality and the attitude that I have,” Jordan says. “I love coaching the game. It’s almost like when I went to the Wizards for the first time. I was the right personality for that team. And I’m the right personality way more for us because this is my school. And with my résumé, I thought—not thought—I know it’s the most prepared anybody could ever be taking over this job.”

His former teammates had quietly lobbied on Jordan’s behalf for years. “I was elated,” Dabney says of Jordan’s hiring.

“I don’t think they could have found a better choice,” Young says.

“He would have no problem communicating with a kid’s parents,” Bailey says, “to be able to walk into the living room and let them know, ‘I’m going to take responsibility for your child for the next four years.’”

February 2, 1976
Rutgers, winners of 16 straight, travel down Route 1 to play Princeton in Jadwin Gym. Ranked sixth in the nation, the Scarlet Knights average nearly 99 points a game. But the Tigers, undefeated in the Ivy League, are the nation’s best defensive team. The game is close throughout. With 11:30 left to play, Rutgers leads by two. When Princeton goes into a stall, trying to kill time with its star player, Armond Hill, in foul trouble, Dabney darts in for a steal and an easy layup. The Knights never look back. Rutgers 75, Princeton 62.

Ask the current Rutgers players what they know about Eddie Jordan the basketball star, and you get mostly blank stares. Maybe it’s no surprise. The eldest among them, senior center Wally Judge, was born 13 years after Jordan’s senior season. Judge also grew up in Washington, D.C., not far from junior guard Jerome Seagears, who’s from Silver Spring, Maryland. Both knew about Jordan from the five-plus years he spent coaching their hometown Wizards.

When Jordan talks to his team, he rarely mentions his Rutgers playing days—the undefeated season, the Final Four. “Heck, those guys don’t know guys from 10 years ago, much less 30 years ago,” he says. “It’s all about what’s right now and what they can relate to in the present.”

It’s October 22, Media Day, wherein Jordan assesses the first three weeks of practice for the assembled basketball press, players are made available for interviews, and the team’s practice session is open for viewing. Among the players, Jordan’s early reviews are stellar.

Eddie Jordan on side line at game
During games, Jordan spends most of the time seated on the bench, chin in hand. This is not to say that the coach does not emote, and certainly the early part of the season gave Jordan plenty of opportunity to raise his voice. Photography by Nick Romanenko

“He’s a great person,” says 5-foot-9 junior guard Myles Mack, the most accomplished returning starter from last year’s team. “He’s very passionate about the game. He likes teaching a lot. He wants us to be good people and have good character, on and off the court.”

Senior forward J.J. Moore, 6-foot-6 and 215 pounds, a transfer who played the past three seasons at Pittsburgh, says Jordan was a big reason he chose Rutgers. “I kind of fell in love, just the way he was: his personality, his coaching standpoint, just his mentality of winning,” Moore says. “He told us he wants to be a winning coach.”

“He lets us play through our mistakes,” says Greg Lewis, a 6-foot-9 sophomore forward. “He’s very patient.
He gives us opportunities to fix our mistakes.”

Why is that important?

“It builds confidence. He gives us plenty of chances to build our confidence up.”

What would people be surprised to learn about Eddie Jordan?

“He’s a joking guy. He jokes in practice.”

March 1, 1976
In the final game of the regular season, at the Barn, St. Bonaventure leads by seven points with 6:08 left to play. A perfect record hangs in the balance. At 2:21, a Sellers layup gives Rutgers a one-point lead. When the final buzzer sounds, fans storm the court. As Jordan hurries toward the locker room, a young boy races over to jump into his arms. In the history of college basketball, only 18 teams have finished the regular season undefeated. Afterward, players and coaches board a bus to the other end of College Avenue, where thousands of students are celebrating. The players take turns ringing the bell in the steeple atop Old Queens Building, a gesture reserved for the university’s most momentous occasions. Rutgers 85, St. Bonaventure 80.

Two games before the season opener against Florida A&M, the starting squad is running a full-court offensive drill during practice at the RAC. Every player has an assigned route from one end of the court to the other. But this time down the floor, Kadeem Jack, a 6-foot-9 junior forward, finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“Kadeem,” Jordan shouts. No response.

“Kadeem!” Still none.

Even louder: “Kadeem, I’m talking to you!” The coach’s voice echoes in the empty arena.

“I would like to say that we’re on the top of our game,” Jordan tells reporters after practice. “To me, it looks like we’ve taken half a step back.”

Forty-eight hours before his debut, the new Rutgers coach has his game face on.

March 13, 1976
In the first game of the NCAA tournament, Rutgers (28-0) draws a most thorny assignment: Princeton (22-4). Before 12,189 fans at the Providence Civic Center, the Scarlet Knights lead by 10 points early in the second half. But the Tigers whittle the lead—to seven, to five, to three, to one. With four seconds remaining, Jordan fouls Princeton’s Pete Molloy, a reserve guard. Molloy steps to the foul line for the chance to end Rutgers’ dream season. Tom Young calls a timeout, giving Molloy time to think about the implications of what he has to do. As the teams return to the court, Young calls a second timeout. Molloy has attempted only 16 foul shots all season and made nine. When play finally resumes, he steps to the foul line again. He crouches. He shoots. The ball hits the back of the rim and arcs forward, all the way to Dabney, third in line along the foul lane. Dabney cradles the ball. Rutgers 54, Princeton 53.

Turns out that Kadeem was listening, after all. In the Scarlet Knights’ season opener, Jack scores a career-high 30 points in a 92–84 win over Florida A&M before more than 5,000 fans at the RAC. Afterward, Jordan confides it felt “different” to be coaching his former team, four decades after playing his first game for Rutgers. “Just coming into the game, I had some feelings, but I had to fight against those,” he says. “I had to say, ‘Look, I have got to lock in.’”

During games, Jordan spends most of the time seated on the bench, chin in hand, clad in a muted V-neck sweater (a block R on the chest) over a dress shirt and tie and sensible slacks. This is not to say that the coach does not emote, and certainly the early part of the season gives Jordan plenty of opportunity to raise his voice. The team shows flashes of grace and speed, but also moments of sloppiness and incoherence. The nadir comes in an unthinkable loss to Fairleigh Dickinson, a Division II school, 73–72, before fewer than 500 fans at the RAC. It’s late November, when every college basketball team is a work in progress. Still, after eight games, Rutgers has won four and lost four, and the new coach is searching for answers.

In his postgame press conference, Jordan is asked if he’s not connecting with his players. “I have to see if there are other buttons I have to push,” he says. “I’m not changing my personality. I’m not changing my beliefs and principles of basketball. I’m not changing that.”

March 27, 1976
Rutgers, 31-0, has never played in the Final Four, never even been close. They got here by winning the Eastern regionals, when Jordan, with 23 points in the finals, was named the most valuable player. The team is confident as it travels to Philadelphia, where it will play Michigan in the first semifinal. “We looked at game film of Michigan,” Dabney says, “and we felt we definitely could beat them.” But Michigan jumps out to a fast lead. Rutgers is not hitting shots, not executing its fast break. Before the team can settle down, Michigan leads by 10. At halftime, the lead is 17. “I wanted to win a national championship close to home,” Dabney recalls, “but it just wasn’t meant to be.” Michigan 86, Rutgers 70.

Jordan might not harp on his Final Four experience with his players, but here, in his office, on the day before his first official practice, he clearly relishes the memory of that magic carpet ride. Before the season began, he and Sellers, his roommate, had looked over the schedule and come to the conclusion that they should win every game. “We had an inner confidence that we could beat anybody in the country,” Jordan says.

What about the loss to Michigan? Thirty-eight years later, does it still rankle? “Not really,” Jordan says. “You know, you experience failure to get better.”

It’s a good lesson to keep in mind these days while Jordan tries to return the men’s basketball program to those heady days of yore. The Knights opened their American Athletic Conference schedule with a solid win over Temple on New Year’s Day, then hung with Louisville, the defending national champion, before losing 83–76 in front of a near-sellout at the RAC. But at Cincinnati a week later, Rutgers fell apart in the second half, going without a field goal for nearly the last 12 minutes of the game, a 20-point loss. “Patience is a key,” Jordan says. “One of the biggest and most often-used phrases I’ll have on my team is: ‘Compete with composure.’ You play with all your passion, play with all the emotion that’s involved, but do it with poise and class.”

This year’s team motto is “Right Now.” The message is clear. Rutgers might have gone through a dark period last spring, but Jordan won’t use that as an excuse. He wants to win. He expects to win. Today, not tomorrow. But remember what he said on the day before his first official practice. You experience failure to get better. He was talking about Michigan, the Final Four, 1976. But he could have been talking about here and now. •