When Lewis Preston delivered the first halftime speech of his life, his team trailed 41-8. And what, Preston is asked, did he say to the Kennesaw State Owls that November day?
“I said, ‘We’re going to go out here [meaning against Wisconsin in Madison] and continue to play, and we’re going to get better as a group no matter what the score is.’ ”
Three months later, Preston offers that oration, or a variation thereof, on a daily basis. His Owls are 3-22. They last won two days before Christmas. They’re 0-13 in the Atlantic Sun, and they’ve already been eliminated from inclusion in the conference tournament. Adding to the fun and frolic is this: The rookie head coach is working on a one-year contract.
But that last part is about to change, and not in the way you might think. Said Vaughn Williams, KSU’s athletic director: “We’re working on a multi-year contract. In a lot of ways, we’re improving and changing our culture. Lewis Preston can flat-out coach. There’s no doubt in my mind he’s the right guy.”
Kennesaw State made national noise in November 2010 by beating Georgia Tech. The Owls have gone 9-45 since. Tony Ingle was fired as coach last winter, in part for losing but also because his program was deficient regarding the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate. KSU was docked two scholarships and lost one day of practice a week, and when you’re 3-22 you need all the practice you can get.
The good news: The academic side of KSU basketball has improved. Said Preston: “I’m very proud of how well we’ve done. We had just under a 2.8 [GPA] the first semester, and our goal is to get a 3.0 this spring. And that’s very possible. … On campus, our players have been seen more as student-athletes than just athletes.”
In an ideal world, getting better grades might be enough. Alas, Division I basketball isn’t Walden Pond. Winning and losing matters, and KSU has lost 13 in a row and 21 of the past 22. It led East Tennessee State inside the final three minutes Saturday, but yielded three offensive rebounds off free throws.
Preston: “I told the players, ‘I can’t step over the line and play for you. You can’t wait for somebody to give it to you. You’ve got to take it.’ ”
How, a visitor wondered Wednesday, can the rookie head coach take so much losing? “I don’t look at it like this is the end of the world,” Preston said. “This is a process. Has the process been difficult this year? Yes, it has. But if you spend a lot of time beating yourself up, you’ll never move forward.”
Across from Preston’s desk hangs a photo of Lincoln bearing a one-word message: perseverance. He hears much the same when he speaks with Mike Brey, under whom Preston worked at Notre Dame, and from his AD, with whom he huddles after every game. Said Williams: “I understand his pain. It’s our pain. But I want to make sure he understands we’re committed to what he’s trying to do.”
Preston: “This has been a life lesson. You’re going to get knocked down, and it’s a question of how you get back up. Are you just going to get knocked down again, or are you going to fight?’
This rookie head coach has been around long enough to know that perseverance can yield a powerful return. He was an assistant on Florida’s NCAA 2007 title team and also on Penn State’s 2009 NIT winners. He was an undergrad at VMI, and military schools are skilled at building resolve. That said, there was a recent moment when Preston lay awake and wondered if he was up to this monumental task.
“Saturday night into Sunday morning,” he said, recalling the aftermath of the East Tennessee loss. “It wasn’t so much thinking I was the worst coach in the world but asking, ‘What could I have done better?’ ”
Getting better players is always the place to start. KSU signed four in November, including Berkmar High’s Yonel Brown, who could be the point guard these Owls lack. And getting lucky wouldn’t hurt. The calendar year began with KSU suffering narrow home losses against Stetson and Florida Gulf Coast at a time when Preston believed his team was starting to play well.
“That’s the fragility of the game,” he said. “I’ve lived it.”
He lives it every day, but to his credit he seems not one bit embittered. “Would I wish this season on any other coach? No. But I’m going to work hard and right the ship.”
Here he imparts another life lesson. “If I lose my head and my wits,” Preston said, “it would have an effect on all those around me.”
He’s the head Owl. He’s also a wise owl. He just might ride this out.
By Mark Bradley