Once you tear down the protective wall of Todd Bozeman, a partition which these days is made more from paper than that of rock, he can be quite captivating. You feel comfortable when you talk to Bozeman. He wants to know about your life. He makes you laugh.
It takes hours for Bozeman, the former University of California basketball coach, to sail through history, through his basketball melodrama and his life thereafter. His thoughts generally swing back to Cal. Most of it is familiar by now. How much he loved his avocation, the mistakes he made, the resentment he caused and the relief he felt when it was over.
Then, he sways to his life after basketball, how he embraced Christianity and how much he missed being a father and husband when basketball was the priority. He realizes the perceptions of him aren’t necessarily positive, that he ran an unlit program, lied to people who trusted him and how at least one image came to life when he threw himself on the mercy of the NCAA and admitted paying a student-athlete’s father.
“That doesn’t make you a bad person, it means you made a mistake,” Bozeman says now. “You can’t live those same circumstances for the rest of your life. Other folks might want to, but that doesn’t mean you have to. Life goes on.”
And the more you talk with him, the more you realize that Todd Bozeman is truly at peace.
The marriage of Cal basketball and Bozeman was unconventional to say the least. He was named interim coach of the Golden Bears five years ago after Lou Campanelli was fired 17 games into the season in which Cal was headed for, at best, a berth in the National Invitational Tournament.
A much-needed lift
Bozeman, then 29, gave Cal and college basketball a bolt of excitement. Led by freshman point guard Jason Kidd, Cal won 11 of its next 13, reaching its zenith when it knocked off defending national champion Duke in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The Bears advanced to the Sweet 16 and Bozeman was given the full-time job.
“It was a helluva run,” said current University of Washington assistant Eric Hughes, the lone member of Bozeman’s staff at the time.
But it was a run that came with a heavy price. Bozeman was not popular among his peers.
Many felt Bozeman stabbed Campanelli in the back, and he was never truly accepted into the coaching brotherhood.
“A lot of coaches were very weary of him,” said Dan Wetzel, associate editor of Basketball Times, who met Bozeman along the summer camp circuit. “You have to look at it like this: He’s a young, very successful black assistant coach. There are a lot of young, successful black assistants in the country. The head coach gets canned and the assistant takes over on an interim basis. They make it all the way to the Sweet 16 and now he has the job. If you’re a head coach out there, you have to worry about that becoming a popular scenario.”
The images hit the media, an avenue that Bozeman didn’t trust and therefore didn’t court. He poured himself into work, especially recruiting.
Young, handsome and personable, Bozeman was a relentless recruiter who conducted extensive research. In a show of respect, he knew to remove his shoes while inside the Muslim home of Shareef Abdur-Rahim.
Just six years before, Bozeman had no aspirations of becoming a coach.
Bozeman, a heady point guard who never lacked for intensity, finished playing at Rhode Island in 1986. After he graduated and went home to Washington D.C., the coach at Potomac (Md.) Senior High asked Bozeman to help out.
Immediately Bozeman made a connection with the kids, especially with a young, raw sophomore named Monty Williams, who was later drafted in the first round by the New York Knicks. After a year, coaching basketball became Bozeman’s passion.
He picked up bits and pieces from nearly every coach he came in contact with. In time, he developed a coaching philosophy.
“I wanted to always be on the attack,” he said. “I never wanted my guys to think about the opponent or the gym they were playing in. I always wanted them to focus on the game.”
Bozeman constantly told his players: “Two baskets and a ball.” It was a statement referring to his players’ concentration on the road, but it had a deeper meaning that would later come back to haunt Bozeman. One of tunnel vision.
“I might have placed too much emphasis on that,” he said.
Bozeman was distant with the media and alumni. He felt he didn’t need an endorsement from someone like Dick Vitale or Billy Packer. He had few friends in the coaching community.
“I thought winning would supersede all of that,” Bozeman said.
The beginning of the end
Recruiting was a vice. He began stockpiling his roster with All-Americans.
“That’s what got me in trouble,” he said. “But the more I was there, the more I was trying to go for chemistry.”
Jelani Gardner wanted more playing time. Run more plays for me, Tremaine Fowlkes said. Both left Cal after the 1995-96 season. Then Gardner’s father, Tommy, informed the NCAA that Bozeman paid him $30,000. Initially, Bozeman denied it.
The NCAA tightened its screws and Bozeman was fired in August of 1996 and replaced with Eastern Michigan’s Ben Braun.
Had Bozeman gone to the NCAA and lied about paying Gardner, perhaps he would still be in coaching as an assistant coach or a head coach at a smaller school. But Bozeman had lied enough.
“If they ask me about it,” Bozeman said, “I’m not going to lie.”
For eight years, an NCAA school must “show cause” as why it should hire Bozeman, a sentence he can live with. Yet the perception that he ran a dirty program where players were paid-for-hire will always encircle Bozeman’s reign at Cal.
Said Wetzel: “Obviously, he lied to a lot of people. I mean, he did it. It was a foolish way to do it. Once he did that, everything that anyone ever said about him became reinforced.”
Bozeman thought of the words from the late Jim Valvano, himself an embattled coach during his final days at North Carolina State: “The seeds of our labor,” Valvano once said, “end up being the fruits of our destruction.”
Then Bozeman received a note from Portland State coach Ritchie McKay which read: “The Lord molds your character to fit your next challenge.”
It was time for Todd Bozeman to return home.
Todd Bozeman said while at Cal, he simply rejected the notion of the role God played in his life. He was always too busy building a winner.
Lorenzo Romar, then a UCLA assistant, told him how blessed Bozeman was and how God was watching out for him.
“What are you talking about?” Bozeman thought to himself.
He noticed that other people in his life were embracing Christianity. In November, 1996, Bozeman and his wife, TeLethea, gave their lives to God.
“It has been awesome what the Lord has done in my life,” he said. “A lot times, people think of and focus on the negatives a lot, but people don’t think of the positives. I’m blessed to have my kids, my wife, my family, my friends, my peace of mind. We are blessed to wake up every day.”
While concentrating on basketball, Bozeman said he missed so much growth in his children, Blake and Brianna. Now, he understands the tender balance between family and outside endeavors.
Driven to succeed
Last spring Bozeman and five friends drove to New York City from D.C. to watch the Knicks-Heat playoff game. Soon the conversation turned from basketball to God.
“We didn’t turn the radio on once,” he said. “We fellowshipped all the way up, and all the way back. No beer, no cursing. If I get another shot at coaching, I’ll make sure I’ll share that with my players.”
But is that realistic?
Second chances are hard to come by for African-American coaches. It’s a cold fact.
Tony Yates, Larry Finch, Wade Houston and Walt Hazzard are just a few in the last decade who were fired and never heard from again, at least not in coaching. Hazzard even won 75 percent of his games at UCLA.
Yet none of the aforementioned was found guilty of paying a student-athlete.
Can Todd Bozeman, the former point guard, rebound?
Wetzel believes Bozeman should try becoming an assistant again, first.
“I think he needs to serve a very secure head coach as an assistant,” he said. “I think that’s his best chance. A guy who isn’t afraid to have Todd Bozeman on his staff. You need a coach who is about to get canned and needs some players and Todd could go out right now and still be one of the best recruiters in the country.”
Dan Boggan, a former Cal administrator who now runs day-to-day operations at the NCAA, says it will be difficult.
“African-Americans have had a harder time getting head coaching jobs,” he said. “And if you get kicked out, it’s gonna be harder to get back in. I don’t think you can dispute that. He made bad decisions and he didn’t have to. But he was a man about it in the end.”
Bozeman isn’t concerned.
If Bozeman has a concrete plan for his return, he won’t reveal it.
Bozeman does some scouting for the Vancouver Grizzlies and was part of last June’s draft war room. With his brother, Mike, a retired police officer, he’s part of a bail bonds business and assists in the administrative duties. He also wants to open a restaurant, tentatively called, “Daily Bread.” He recently was an analyst for the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Game of the Week for Fox Sports.
Todd Bozeman in the media?
“Imagine that,” he said. “I guess I’ll put together a nice little tape for my resume.” Know this about Cal, before Bozeman, the Bears’ time on the national stage could be traced to three players: Phil Chenier, Mark McNamara and Kevin Johnson. Bozeman recruited and coached five current NBA players, at five different positions. Current Cal senior Sean Marks could be the sixth.
He beat Lute Olson, Bob Huggins, Clem Haskins, Jim Harrick and Mike Krzyzewski all before his 32nd birthday.
“Boze,” Abdur-Rahim said to him one day, “you did things already that were big.”
Yes, Bozeman has lived the basketball life of a 30-year guru. He never won a title, yet remains in the spotlight. And perhaps that’s his legacy. He shook up college basketball and, favorably as well as injuriously, the pieces are still falling.
“But,” Bozeman says now, “I have more peace in my life than I’ve ever had.”