Kennesaw State (3-22) is losing, but its coach isn’t conceding

Lewis Preston on the day he was introduced as KSU coach's. (AJC photo by Jason Getz)

Lewis Preston on the day he was introduced as KSU coach's. (AJC photo by Jason Getz)

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

44 comments Add your comment

Rickster

February 8th, 2012
3:32 pm

Rickster

February 8th, 2012
3:33 pm

What a hoot!! :-)

Mark Bradley

February 8th, 2012
3:35 pm

Good one, Rickster.

Double kudos.

Aaron

February 8th, 2012
3:37 pm

Could be worse. Could be 1-7 in the SEC the year after making the tournament.

George Stein

February 8th, 2012
3:38 pm

Bet he wishes we never let Hewitt go.

Aaron

February 8th, 2012
3:39 pm

Plus everyone knows it’s all about Mercer.

Rickster

February 8th, 2012
3:43 pm

Mark Bradley

February 8th, 2012
4:13 pm

Wouldn’t have mattered, George. KSU didn’t play Tech this season.

Mark Bradley

February 8th, 2012
4:20 pm

Speaking of Mercer … KSU plays the Bears at KSU on Friday night.

sting_em

February 8th, 2012
4:28 pm

Can’t believe this team beat GT last year. Thank god Blewitt is gone.

Jpersem

February 8th, 2012
4:31 pm

Josh

February 8th, 2012
4:52 pm

I know it’s not strictly in Atlanta, and mostly in Macon, but will Mercer get a column if they take the A-Sun?

Owl fan

February 8th, 2012
4:55 pm

Mark,
Awesome job on this and thanks so much for the coverage on KSU! I attend KSU and there is definitley something special and the level of excitement is growing. I love reading all of your blogs!!

Kennesaw State

February 8th, 2012
5:04 pm

Kennesaw State are also debuting their new Fight Song on Friday Night against Mercer. Check it out here! – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T34EXdP5A6c&feature=uploademail

Jcard120

February 8th, 2012
5:04 pm

Since when was a 3-22 overall record, and a 0-13 in conference record worthy of a contract extension. I am in the wrong business. Hey Boss, I just wanted to let you know I haven’t made a single sale all year..I think it is time for a raise right??

HOOTIE McHoot

February 8th, 2012
5:35 pm

I like Coach Preston but boy is he lacking in talent to be a winner. I went and watched them play against North Florida…They simply have no one that can shoot the ball and turn it over way too much to be competitive…Markeith was simply doubled the whole game and our guards gave up on any open looks they had…As an Alum I hope the program gets turned around but from what I saw we have more than a long way to go!!!

lanier

February 8th, 2012
6:07 pm

check the Mercer Bears out Mark

Really?

February 8th, 2012
6:07 pm

sound of lots and lots pf crickets

Really?

February 8th, 2012
6:08 pm

sorry, that should be ‘of crickets’ I fell asleep while typing after reading the blog

Tom

February 8th, 2012
6:50 pm

This is also a coach who let go of an assistant coach three weeks into the season. I’m wondering if he has the talent to win and the mindset to be a head coach.

tyler

February 8th, 2012
7:16 pm

This article sucks

Buzz 2011

February 8th, 2012
7:34 pm

Perhaps Preston could take over the UGA basketball coaching slot.
They need a coach badly and the Harricks are not available.

phil

February 8th, 2012
7:40 pm

Echo the comments about Mercer, Mark.

19-7, 11-2 and playing terrific defense. Top 20 in the nation in FG percentage defense. Great coach and fine man in Hoffman. Energetic, excellent assistants.

Care enough to make the trip up this Fri. nite. Here’s to another Owls loss…

phil

February 8th, 2012
7:42 pm

Really? = doofus

cocroach1928

February 8th, 2012
7:47 pm

Enter your comments here

Boricua

February 8th, 2012
7:50 pm

Mark, I hope you stay connected to KSU athletics….the school is a diamond in the rough!

ajs1928

February 8th, 2012
7:54 pm

KSU has only been a DIV I school for a little while. It doesn’t happen overnight. what part do you not get about the APR and losing scholarships and practice days. how did the previous coach and his staff not know the status of his team. apparently it was not part of their agenda. Seems like they left a mess for whoever was coming into this job. so i guess getting a education does not matter to some of you.

ajs1928

February 8th, 2012
8:02 pm

how did the previous coach and staff not know the status of his team when it came to APR. apparently it was not on their agenda. it looks like they left a mess for whoever was coming into this job. So losing scholarships and practice hurts. do some of you not care that these players get an education.

Coach D

February 8th, 2012
8:21 pm

KSU is a baseball/softball school. Hopefully soon it will be a basketball school, too.

JSS

February 9th, 2012
7:29 am

@ Phil…
Co-sign…
No fan of D-1 college basketball, but it is to everyone’s benefit when the least publicized programs in this State get better and provide more options for local and regional talents who need to be developed. Some may be diamonds in the rough. Everyone cannot and shouldn’t go to Tech or UGA.

The AJC has shown us over and over again, that outside of UGA and the Masters, they are going to give very little run to programs in this State. Shoot, VSC, Augusta State, and even Clayton State have won multiple “real” national championships and you’d never know it from the AJC!

Owls!

February 9th, 2012
8:17 am

good article mark–the new coach has a plan in place–seems to know what he is doing. Recruiting at ksu–difficult, but with the talent in this area, no reason they can’t get the players to compete in their division.

DC

February 9th, 2012
9:00 am

All of a sudden Najeh Davenpoop became a troll…interesting

the real OLD GOLD

February 9th, 2012
9:06 am

Thanks for covering my Owls.

DC

February 9th, 2012
9:10 am

MB..wheres the Uni of West GA coverage…

dennis montecalvo

February 9th, 2012
9:13 am

no one gives a damn about KSU football or basketball,are you listening georgia state

wife's alma mater

February 9th, 2012
9:17 am

Seen Kennesaw St at Mercer earlier this year, no size. Mercer on the other hand has two guys 6′ 10 ” plus. How about an article on the state’s best team. Go Bears

david

February 9th, 2012
9:49 am

Kennesaw State should have stayed in a lower division. Now they are going to spend millions of tax payers dollars and student fees to start a football program. In 10 years the football program will be a major drain on university funds.

MercerAlum

February 9th, 2012
9:53 am

After Friday night, the Owls will be 3-23. Mercer on the other hand will win their 20th of the season. Mercer wasn’t and isn’t afraid to travel and play the bigger guys either. Beating Ga. Tech, Navy UTC,. Losing to Seton Hall in OT, powerhouse Missiouri and Georgia ( no less without their best player) They even traveled to Tulsa.
The two best teams in the Atlantic Sun is Mercer and Belmont(NCAA tourney last year).
I hope Kennesaw State rebounds, but right now the story should be on Mercer and their soon to be 20-7 record.

MercerAlum

February 9th, 2012
9:54 am

David, A question. Where is Kennesaw State spending tax payers dollars for football?

MercerAlum

February 9th, 2012
9:58 am

The real story is a team 75 miles south of Atlanta. Mercer University is 19-7 and after Friday night they will be 20-7 once they beat KSU. Mercer isn’t afraid to go on the road and play wiht the big boys either considering they have played UTC (won), Georgia, Ga. Tech (won), Tulsa, Missouri, Navy(won), Seton Hall (lost by 3 in OT). This team can play and play well. The only problem in the Atlantic Sun is they must end the season against last years champ and NCAA tourney rep Belmont out of Nashville.
I pull for KSU, my daughter will attend there this fall, but they need another coach. Just don’t try to get Hoffman to come up from Mercer. Oh and BTW, Mercer Football begins in the Fall of 2013. They have a nice plan and building their stadium right now.

zgoldatl

February 9th, 2012
10:26 am

would like to see a Mercer vs GSU match up at the Sports Arena in the next couple years.
Go Panthers. Bleed Blue

North Avenue Ned

February 9th, 2012
3:00 pm

Maybe they ought to scrap that football idea…..

I've said all along...

February 9th, 2012
5:58 pm

there is so much talent in Georgia. This program just needs time to get better. Take your lumps now. I saw them against ETSU and they actually had a seemingly comfortable lead but because they have no depth they got tired and ran out of steam. Mid major programs like KSU are what’s up now in college hoops. He just has to get some horses in the stable, then they can run. Good luck to the program.

MercerAlum

February 9th, 2012
9:20 pm

Go Mercer. Make it 20-7 for the year on Friday in Kennesaw.