When Larry Eustachy saw Southern Mississippi flash on the TV screen, he started looking for someone to hug.
Eustachy, the coach of Southern Miss, was surrounded by a mob of supporters at a local restaurant in Hattiesburg, Miss. So he didn’t have to look far.
As everyone screamed and pulled out their cell phones to spread word of the achievement, Eustachy started saying thanks to those who helped make this surreal moment a reality.
“Now,” he would later say triumphantly, “it’s our time.”
Eustachy has been a part of the NCAA Tournament before. Fans of Kansas State, the team Southern Mississippi will face at 11:40 a.m. Thursday at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, remember him well.
He recruited standout players Marcus Fizer and Jamaal Tinsley to Iowa State, and coached them to back-to-back Big 12 regular-season championships in 2000 and 2001. Eustachy was chosen national coach of the year for guiding Iowa State to the Elite Eight in 2000, and was well-known for his ability to get his teams to play hard.
That was the peak of his career. Sunday was his redemption. It was a long road in between.
Shortly after winning his second conference title at Iowa State, everything started falling apart for Eustachy. The Cyclones lost in the first round of the 2001 NCAA Tournament as a No. 2 seed. The team that beat them, Hampton, became famous for their wild celebration afterward. Eustachy hasn’t been a part of March Madness since.
He hasn’t been associated with Iowa State 2003. He was fired when embarrassing photos surfaced of him drinking with college students after away games. It was a first-of-its-kind public dismissal that was covered on a national scale.
The episode was enough to get him to give up alcohol. He tried to start over at Southern Mississippi in 2004. It was a slow climb back to national relevance, but after eight years of trying he finally got the Golden Eagles to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1991. They have never won a tournament game in three trips.
With Eustachy in charge, players are hoping to end that trend.
“It’s the first time we’ve been in 20 years,” guard LaShay Page told reporters Sunday. “It’s very exciting, but we don’t just want to get to the NCAA Tournament. We want to make a little noise.”
The Golden Eagles are confident because of the way they played in the regular season. They beat NCAA Tournament teams Colorado State, New Mexico State and South Florida in nonconference play. They also beat Arizona State and Memphis.
Behind leading scorer Neil Watson and a hard-nosed, physical style, they surged to the top of the Conference USA standings in the middle of the year and eventually finished second.
Players are looking forward to facing a similar opponent and coach in K-State’s Frank Martin.
“Their coach, he’s tough on them just like ours is tough on us,” said senior Angelo Johnson, who was a member of the Southern Cal team that lost to K-State in the 2008 NCAA Tournament. “They’ve got a great coaching staff, and they get players to work hard just like us. It should be a great game.”
Leading up to the game, much of the focus will be on Eustachy and his comeback story. But once it starts, the focus will turn to his team and how it plays against K-State. Eustachy is looking forward to that moment, too.
“They also put a lot of time in practice and have a lot of physical-ness,” Eustachy said Sunday. “It’ll be a marquee matchup when it comes to that.”