All it really took was the ring on Cleveland State basketball coach Gary Waters' hand. Norris Cole, a senior at Dunbar High School at the time, heard the coach's words when he visited Cole and his family in East Dayton in 2006, but the ring spoke louder. It silently told the story of Waters' success at Kent State, where he'd led the Flashes to two MAC championships and two NCAA tournament berths — including the shocking 2001 upset of No. 4 seed Indiana.
Sure, the CSU Vikings were in the midst of a season in which the team went 10-21, but Gary Waters had a reputation for reshaping programs.
That ring, that flashy memento of accomplishment, promised, "I've done this before and will again."
Three years later, Cole remembers that day well. "I was wearing my [high school] state championship ring, and he was wearing his ring."
And you wanted one too.
"Well, yeah. But not just one. More."
Today Norris is a junior on a Viking squad with no seniors on the roster. He's a co-captain alongside D'Aundray Brown, a leader on a team featuring eight new players for the 2009-2010 season after five graduated, including team stalwarts J'Nathan Bullock and Cedric Jackson.
Waters' Vikings are coming off back-to-back 20-win seasons and trips to postseason tournaments. Last year they not only reached the NCAA tournament for only the second time in school history, but scored a first-round upset over a fourth-seeded Wake Forest team that had previously been ranked No. 1 in the nation. CSU is the reigning champ of the Horizon League after upending Butler University in their own house.
Not since the days before Kevin Mackey hung around crack houses has CSU's basketball program enjoyed this much success.
Building on it will hinge largely on the performance and leadership of the hypercompetitive and spectacularly gifted Cole, who was ready to toil in Division III until Coach Waters and his ring offered a chance at greatness.
In addition to playing point guard at Dunbar High School, Norris Cole also played quarterback. The 5-11, 160-pounder was a two-time all-league choice, throwing for 2,267 yards and 18 touchdowns his senior year. After that season, he was all but signed, sealed and delivered, on a scholarship, to Walsh University, a Division III school in North Canton, where he would play basketball and football.
But his basketball coaches could not accept this and pleaded with CSU to come check out their point guard, who already had one state championship under his belt. Waters listened. Holy Cross, Cornell, Maryland and Brown had talked to Cole for football, but only Walsh and Pittsburgh's Robert Morris University had made any sort of offer to Cole for basketball.
"I don't think anyone [from other colleges] took a look at him because he had lots of good players around him at a good school," says Waters. "He wasn't what I call a first option. They had big Aaron Pogue on the inside as the first option, then you had the other center and he was second option, then you had a guard as the third option. We didn't know about him as well. We didn't know how good he was until his coaches called us."
In addition to Aaron Pogue, Cole played alongside Daequan Cook, who would spend one season at Ohio State before making the jump to the NBA. Cook is now a shooting guard for the Miami Heat. Overshadowed, undervalued and a diamond in the rough, Norris Cole was ranked 159th among point guards by Scouts Inc. his senior year.
CSU assistants monitored Dunbar's season, and Cole had a stellar senior campaign, when he led Dunbar in scoring with 15.5 points per game. Their interest piqued, they suggested to Coach Waters that it was time for him to pay a visit.
"Coach [Waters] doesn't come for the little stuff,' jokes Norris. "So he showed up for the state tournament." And Waters showed up just in time to see Cole put on a show, including a team-high 18 points in the championship game against Wooster Triway.
"What I saw during the tournament," recalls Waters, "was that Norris just took over everything that was happening on the floor. He put up points, he could pass, he could play defense. And I said, 'Someone has misdiagnosed this young man.' This young man had been slated to go to a NAIA [National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics] school, and I think he's a Division I guy. You could see him coming into his own."
Cleveland State would be the only Division I school to offer Norris Cole a basketball scholarship.
Passed over by other programs, like fellow Horizon League school Wright State, just outside of Cole's hometown of Dayton, Cole had plenty of motivation once he reached Cleveland. He was born into a competitive family — his uncles are longtime coaches, his dad played football at Dunbar and his cousin, Trent Cole, is a starting defensive end for the Philadelphia Eagles — so you can imagine what sort of caustic brew bubbles inside him every time he steps on the court in Vikings green, knowing that Cleveland State, and only Cleveland State, believed in him.
Coach Waters is all about leadership and teamwork. Just look at the books that have served as texts for his weekly Success Class:The Pyramid of Success by John Wooden; Talent Is Never Enough by John Maxwell; Quiet Strength by Tony Dungy. For this year's group, it's The 17 Essential Qualities of a Team Player by John Maxwell.
While Waters is a dynamic leader, he knows that every team needs a few players to take charge and set the tone and pace for their peers. For the last three years, Waters had two great ones in Cedric Jackson and J'Nathan Bullock. They didn't just buy what coach was selling, they turned around and sold it to the rest of the squad, like a pyramid scheme promising not wealth, but honor, pride and success.
Waters identified Cole early on as a prospective lieutenant, to take over after Jackson and Bullock had graduated.
"You would hope, because of his background — he was a quarterback, he was captain of his high-school teams, he was salutatorian — that he has all the characteristics of a leader," says Waters. "What we did with Norris and D'Aundray [Brown] is teach them leadership traits. But when you're teaching them this, you're finding that some of these things are in them already. His character background is really built around integrity. He's been taught and groomed to do the right thing — it's all through his family. His dad's a pillar in the community, his mother's wonderful. The boy's just built for it."
Cole landed Bullock as his freshman roommate and watched him take about 1,000 practice shots a day. He saw how hard he worked in the weight room. He saw how much Bullock believed in coach Waters.
And then there was Jackson, the dominating guard that Norris had to line up against in practice. Defensive Player of the Year. All second team Horizon League. A captivating scorer and a suffocating presence on defense.
As a freshman, Cole witnessed the duo lead the Vikings to the school's first 20-win season in 15 years and an NIT (National Invitational Tournament) berth.
"I think we minimize what the NIT means," says Waters. "I thought that was the foundation for what happened this year [2008-2009]. If we didn't make that tourney, we're sitting on the outside. They tasted postseason play [that year]. Other people really minimize that. For a program that's on a growth pattern, you have to take steps. If you miss steps, it'll hurt you down the line."
In his own growth pattern, Cole hasn't missed any. As a freshman, he played in all 34 games but started none. As a sophomore, however, he started in all 37.
In fact, after seniors Jackson and Bullock, there was no more important piece to CSU's scamper into March Madness. Norris was arguably the MVP of the second half of the season — appropriate, given one of the nicknames bestowed upon him by the team, Second Half Norris, for his propensity to turn it on late in games.
Waters explains: "He would go out in the first half and just be out there. We were playing some tough teams and he wouldn't take shots. And, to be honest, when he did, he didn't make any. I told him we had to get him a nickname. I told him, 'We're gonna call you Second Half Norris.' So he went out to prove me wrong."
From mid-December on, you could see the difference. Norris put down 16 points in CSU's surprise win against Syracuse at the Carrier Dome, the one that ended in spectacular fashion with Jackson's Sportscenter special, a buzzer-beating prayer of a heave from far past mid-court. He poured in 18 in a loss at Wright State, 21 against Milwaukee-Wisconsin, 21 against Detroit, 20 against Wright State at home and 21 against Green Bay. Second Half Norris? Sure, he'd claim that name. But there was no joke this time. He'd simply dominated January and February.
"We noticed it in the late part of the season," says Jackson. "We knew he had the ability, but later he started being more vocal. He started taking charge. He made some big shots, and around that time, he matured."
It'd only get better once the Horizon League tournament started. Cleveland State ended up as the No. 3 seed. Butler, the class of the conference, was ranked No. 17 in the nation and the heavy favorite to win the tournament on their own floor in Indiana. With no chance for an at-large bid for the NCAA tournament, despite winning 21 games in the regular season, CSU had to win out to earn its NCAA tournament ticket. But that was the goal coach Waters had set, so that's what they did, winning against Detroit at home, then winning three on the road, culminating with their dramatic vanquishing of Butler in the championship game.
And there was Norris, driving the Vikes improbably toward the field of 64 with Jackson and Bullock: 26 against Illinois-Chicago, including the game-winning three-pointer, in the quarterfinals; 23 against Green Bay in the semis. Named to the Horizon League All-Tournament Team after averaging 16.5 points in four tournament games. And once the bright spotlight of the NCAA was on the team, squaring off against fourth-seeded Wake Forest in the first round, all Norris did was pile in a team-leading 22 points en route to CSU's 84-69 miracle in Miami.
CSU's locker room was overrun by reporters wanting a piece of the NCAA's latest Cinderella. Later, the Vikings sat around hotel rooms in Miami all night, watching and rewatching the highlights of their shocking upset.
For four straight seasons, Norris Cole has enjoyed success — 51-4 his last two years of high school, including two championships, and 47-24 at CSU with two improbable postseason trips. But he's also been the third or fourth option on those teams. He's been the U-boat. With Jackson and Bullock gone, he's the battleship. No one's going to miss him this time.
It's a lot of pressure, and how Norris deals with it might very well determine how CSU fares the next two years.
"It's going to be tough on him," says Waters. "He's never fell backward. He's always fell forward. That's why I started teaching him this summer, so that he knows how to deal with these types of issues, because there's going to be some struggle. It's how you handle it."
CSU's basketball program made some strides in the late '70s, but fell back to Earth again until the era of Kevin Mackey and Ken "Mouse" McFadden and the famous 1986 team. Then Mackey was arrested outside a crack house and the program spiraled downward, notching only four winning seasons, and enduring the empty promises and ultimate failures of Rollie Massimino and the forgettable tenure of Mike Garland.
So suffice it to say, no one would be too harsh on Gary Waters if his team struggled this season, his fourth. It's hard enough to build a winning program. It's something else entirely to completely rebuild, rehabilitate and reshape one that, with one exception, at its height, could be considered merely mediocre.
To be fair, however, Cleveland State's basketball program faces more challenges than most in Division 1.
"It's interesting how CSU has to compete in a pro sports town," says associate athletic director Chris Sedlock. "There are only 15 cities in America that have the three [major] professional sports, and Cleveland's one. We're the only mid-major [college] that is competing without the benefit of local rivalries in one of those 15 markets.
"Out of those 15 pro sports cities, 12 of them have more than one NCAA college athletics program," he points out. "There's only three that have one — Phoenix, Minneapolis and Cleveland. What's different about the other two is they are positioned in Big Ten and Pac-10 markets."
Then there's CSU's age — 45, which is, maybe, adolescence in university years. "We don't have legacies who have gone here for generations," says Sedlock. "So we not only don't have the university tradition, we don't have a long athletic tradition because of our age."
Then there's the commuter issue. Only five percent of Cleveland State's students live in university-owned housing. (That's why CSU is in the midst of a $350-million-dollar expansion, which includes new dorms that should push on-campus residences to 1,400 students.) Many students have jobs or families, leaving little time for things like attending basketball games. Typically, only about 2,000 people show up at the Wolstein Center for games.
And that affects budgets. According to Yahoo! story two years ago, CSU basketball operations spent $225,744 — 218th among Division I schools. Compare that to their first-round opponent in the NCAA tournament last year, Wake Forest, which spent $1.6 million.
All of this affects recruiting, and the story of Norris Cole, by and large, is the rule, not the exception. He's the kind of guy CSU depends on — guys no one else wanted or knew how to use. Guys like transfer Aaron Pogue, once considered by some a Top 50 recruit — as a junior, third in Ohio behind O.J. Mayo and Bill Walker — but who ended up at Vincennes College because of academic concerns and a random shooting that injured the big man late in the recruiting period. And guys like junior-college transfer Kevin Anderson, who only recently played his first year of organized basketball. Might sound like the Island of Misfit Basketball Players to someone familiar only with BCS schools, but as evidenced by last year's NCAA tournament win, these kids can play under the right coach and conditions.
Call these challenges extenuating circumstances. Coach Waters doesn't like excuses.
Cleveland State recently traveled down to Cancun for a preseason tournament. They played Kentucky (ranked No. 5 in the nation in the latest AP poll) on Tuesday and Virginia on Wednesday. After the game, Virginia's players showered and hopped on a chartered flight home, free to spend the night before Thanksgiving in their own beds dreaming of sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie. Cleveland State stayed in Cancun Wednesday night, then spent most of Thanksgiving hopping through airports on commercial flights, finally arriving back in Cleveland after most of us had finished our second helpings of turkey.
Two days later, with road-weary legs, the Vikings had to face a well-rested and talented Wichita State team that had knocked off Iowa earlier in the week.
Unsurprisingly, Cleveland State threw up an abomination of a game against Wichita State that Saturday afternoon, losing 69-54 while shooting a lowly 25.8 percent. For over 11 minutes to start the second half, CSU managed zero field goals. Norris was particularly bad, going 2-11 from the field for only 7 points, and adding 4 turnovers to his ghastly performance.
You can blame it on tired legs, which no one did. You can call it an aberration, which it was — Norris has already had 38- and 24-point games this season. You can call it the exact kind of early struggles that Gary Waters predicted with his new squad; the Vikes are 3-5 after losing to Wright State to open the Horizon League schedule.
You can call it a rebuilding year. Look at the Vikings' ambitious and punishing schedule — No. 8 West Virginia and No. 15 Ohio State in December; No. 22 Butler later in the season; a Kansas State team that received votes in the AP poll — and it's fair wonder how in the hell Coach Waters can talk about a 20-win season.
You can wonder, but you have to believe, right? Perhaps that's why, with all the turnover and uncertainty, the Vikings were still picked to finish third in the Horizon League preseason poll. Elton Alexander, who covers the team for The Plain Dealer, picked them to finish second to Butler.
"We'll be a different team, in my thinking, when it comes time for tournament play," says Waters. "We'll be the toughest because of our growth, and part of that growth comes from the leadership that we have. Our success last year came from our leadership. I had to keep instilling it, but I'm talking about leadership within the team. Cedric [Jackson] and J'Nathan [Bulock] told the team we'd be fine. We were working as hard in January and February as we were in November. They kept the team at that pace. They didn't let them fall in a shell. Now, when everyone else takes a break down the stretch, we say bring it on. We're going to be better in January."
Before the game, CSU had raised two new banners to the rafters of the Wolstein Center — one for the league championship and one for making it to the second round of the NCAA tournament. Players got their rings for winning the Horizon League trophy. Then they proceeded to get their asses handed to them in embarrassing fashion. The contrast between where they were and where they are was stark and unmistakable.
Afterwards, coach Waters spoke of struggle, of improving later in the year, of not being where they need to be, of promising to be better.
He brought banners to the rafters and baubles for his kids already, just like he said he would.
"It's big-time," says Norris of his Horizon League bounty. "I have it on right now. It's nicer than my high-school ones. It's a little bigger. It's gold. And it definitely has some nice jewels on it."
But there was no sense of satisfaction. Accomplishment and pride? Sure. Satisfaction? Not even close.
Waters recalls a preseason practice that involved running mile intervals, and how focused Cole was. How competitive.
"He would bring that little extra out. He doesn't have to bring it every single time when you're running these. One of these times you take a break. But he won every single one. And you could see the others out there trying to beat him. And he said, 'I'm not going to let anyone beat me.' And I don't think Norris is the fastest kid, but he just works so hard."
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