|Larry Eustachy is on his way back, finally. (Getty Images)|
The first time I met Larry Eustachy he was sober but talking about being drunk. It was May 2004. He was the new coach at Southern Miss. I was the Memphis beat writer at The Commercial Appeal. We were at the Conference USA spring meetings in Florida. And just I remember Eustachy walking out of one of the meetings mid-morning to take a bathroom break. He went in the bathroom and exited the bathroom, but rather than immediately return to the meeting he sat down on a couch in the lobby beside me, rubbed his tired eyes and started a conversation.
I didn't know Eustachy at all at the time.
I mean, I knew who he was but he didn't know me.
But I guess he could tell I was a reporter, and I was the only reporter covering the meeting. So he plopped down beside me, and we started talking, and this was roughly a year after he was fired at Iowa State after being photographed drinking and partying with college students. In hindsight, the scandal doesn't seem like a big deal given what we've dealt with over the past year. But at the time it was a scandal worthy of national headlines, and I was trying to figure out a way to eventually (and respectfully) bring it up because I knew I'd want to write about Eustachy at some point from the spring meetings.
Before I could settle on a strategy, Eustachy broached the subject.
"I used to drink till the sun came up, then go to these meetings," he said. "It's harder going to them sober."
I laughed and agreed.
I then introduced myself.
And we sat there for the next 30 minutes talking about his very public fall from grace. Eustachy was remarkably open. His candor was unique and refreshing (as was the case again when I spoke to him in 2009 right after Billy Gillispie was charged with DUI). Eustachy just seemed so comfortable talking about the lowest point of his life, and ever since that conversation I've pulled for him. I have no problem admitting I like the guy. Eustachy's fall was quick and hard and embarrassing, but he handled it as well as anybody could. He went from being the Associated Press National Coach of the Year at a Big 12 school to a fired and admitted alcoholic who lost his marriage and found himself alone in Hattiesburg with a seemingly impossible job. That's exactly the kind of stuff that drives a man to drinking. How Eustachy stayed sober I'll never know. But he did. He stayed sober and continued building a program as best he could, and he woke this morning in first place in Conference USA after Wednesday's dramatic victory over Memphis.
His Golden Eagles are 20-3 overall, 7-1 in the league and possibly headed for the Top 25 on Monday.
It's a terrific story of redemption.
It's a story I like.
It's now been nearly eight years since I sat with Eustachy in the lobby of that hotel in Florida, and it's been a long climb back to relevancy for him. But he's back. Against all odds, he's got Southern Miss on track to play in the NCAA Tournament. So I'm happy for him. And you should be, too.