CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — College of Charleston coach Earl Grant has brought the Cougars back to prominence after embarrassing abuse allegations put on stain on what had been a well-respected men’s basketball program.
The Cougars are back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 19 years, and for the first time since Doug Wojcik was fired amid allegations of verbal abuse of players, their families and staffers. Three of Charleston’s nine underclassmen on that 2014 team left the program.
The school was in an athletic crisis on College of Charleston President Glenn McConnell’s first day on the job in 2014 as he inherited a men’s basketball team at the center of unwanted national headlines.
“I got baptized real quick,” said McConnell, the former South Carolina lieutenant governor and longtime state senator.
He realized he needed more than a coach versed in Xs and Os and sought a man of character and integrity who would restore faith among supporters, players and recruits.
McConnell’s search led him to Grant, then a 37-year-old assistant who had grown up in nearby North Charleston yet had never been a college head coach.
“For me, it was what the players were expecting,” said McConnell, who is retiring this summer. “They wanted to have a good experience at the College of Charleston. How were they going to get that and what type of person would give it to them.”
Four years later, McConnell is celebrating as the Cougars return to the NCAA tourney, due in large part to coach Grant’s hiring and efforts to rebuild and restore the program.
Charleston, seeded 13th, will play Southeastern Conference regular-season champion Auburn (25-7) on Friday in San Diego as a first-round game in the Midwest Regional.
The Cougars won the Colonial Athletic Association championship on Tuesday night , erasing a 17-point deficit in the second half to defeat Northeastern in overtime, 83-76. It’s Charleston’s first trip the NCAAs since John Kresse led the Cougars to four appearances from 1994-99.
While Charleston had come close since then — the Cougars played for a conference tournament title six times between 2000 and 2017, losing each time — its reputation as a mid-major power was tarnished by the Wojcik affair.
The school eventually settled a contract dispute with Wojcik , who denied an allegation in the school’s investigation of using a homophobic slur. Wojcik apologized to those he hurt.
Grant understood he needed to form quick bonds with players stung by Wojcik.
The new coach spent almost a half hour on the phone with players and their families after accepting the job.
“I didn’t want to use the word healing with them,” Grant says. “When I told them it was a bond, I wanted it to be a unique bond.”
Fifth-year senior Joe Chealey, who scored 32 points in the title game, played his freshman season for Wojcik and, like several players, considered going elsewhere no matter who Charleston hired.
“Didn’t have a coach. Didn’t know what was going on,” he said.
Meeting Grant went a long way toward changing his mind.
Still, Grant had his work cut out for him. The ace recruiter who fueled winning teams for Gregg Marshall at Winthrop and Wichita State, and for Brad Brownell at Clemson, had never run a program of his own.
The Cougars only won nine games his first season, which Grant and the players say was as much about restoring trust as winning games. Two years later in 2017, Charleston was 25-10 and played in the NIT after losing the CAA finals to UNC Wilmington.
The team took the next step in the journey with their conference tournament win, said Kresse, the one-time right-hand man to St. John’s coach Lou Carnesecca who became Charleston’s all-time leader in victories.
Kresse led the cheers at the tournament finals and watched with pride as the Cougars cut down the nets.
“I’m the number one fan of Earl Grant,” said Kresse, who won 560 games in 23 seasons at Charleston. “He’s rebuilt the program brick by brick.”
Charleston athletic director Matt Roberts took over the department in the fall of 2016. He said one of his main reasons for accepting was knowing his signature sport (Charleston has no football team) was in strong hands with Grant.
“His mantra is speak the truth,” Roberts said. “There’s transparency and there’s mutual respect. Student athletes reciprocate that.”
Chealey, whose career will end in the NCAA spotlight instead of where it began five years ago, agrees.
“I’ve said this to a lot of people,” Chealey said. “The best thing that happened to the College of Charleston was hiring Earl Grant.”
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