By Sridhar Pappu

In the last week of September, before the season began–that is, before the losing began–Phil Gary, then the head men’s basketball coach at Chicago State University, stood on the black rubber track above the CSU stands and looked down onto the empty court. Seeing victories in his mind, he broke into a wide, toothy smile.

“I’m telling you, man,” he said, peering down as a child might, with his arms folded on the railing and his chin resting on a forearm, “with our trap and nine new players? There’s no way we can’t be successful.”

Gary, whom I profiled in the January 23 Reader, had reason to be optimistic then. He was beginning his first full season as a college head coach after taking over for his best friend, the man who had brought him into the CSU program, former Chicago Bulls sharpshooter Craig Hodges, who was fired in the middle of the 1996-’97 season. Yes, Chicago State had lost 20 or more games for seven consecutive years, but over the summer Gary had found an entirely new team with his $2,000 recruiting budget–the lowest of any NCAA Division I school–and he was feeling upbeat as the 1997-’98 season approached.

He was the latest in a line of perfect fits for Chicago State, the last in a series of saviors who would finally lure some of the area’s basketball talent to the school, and with it some of the exposure and resources that a successful athletic program can bring. He was a local high school star who’d played professionally in Europe, then had come back to the south suburbs and spent the better part of a decade coaching and winning with elementary schools, junior highs, and high schools.

“I had every confidence that he could do the job,” said Dr. Charles Smith, the man who hired him, before the season began. Smith, now CSU’s associate vice president and dean of student governance, served as its athletic director from 1995 until 1997. “Phil had a different level of hunger. At practice he always seemed to be the guy there on time. The guys seemed to respect Phil. And we had gone to other schools and a lot of the guys that were playing for other teams knew Phil. I was like, ‘How do you know these guys?’ He’d say, ‘Oh, I used to coach him in junior high’ or ‘I used to coach him in camp.’…We needed someone who had a good rapport within the city in terms of other coaches and some good rapport with players who had grown up playing basketball here. We were at a crisis point. We don’t have the dollars to put a coach on an airplane and send him to Croatia. I thought Phil could help.”

But Gary lost two starters before he could really begin–one to a knee injury before the season, and another who quit following the team’s opening loss to Iowa, saying simply that he didn’t want to play basketball anymore. CSU lost the first 14 games of the season, and had won only two by the time our article ran in January. They finished 2-25. On February 25, Gary was fired by CSU’s new athletic director, Al Avant.

“I like Phil,” says Avant, who also served as athletic director before Smith, from 1987 to 1995. “Phil’s a first-class guy. But you just don’t take a guy that hasn’t had any coaching experience and make him a Division I coach. They threw him in too fast. It wasn’t his fault. You know, they made him a head coach with a year under Craig Hodges. It was unfair to Phil to do this. But they did it.

“We have a very short time here at this university to turn our program around,” Avant goes on to say. “Because even a lot of people at our university are concerned about whether we should stay Division I or not. And our conference [the Mid-Continent] was very concerned about being competitive in this league too. They weren’t saying make a change, but they said that if we were going to stay in the conference, we’d better start showing, you know, some immediate progress.”

What Avant doesn’t say is that the Mid-Continent’s latest success story is a testament to patience. Homer Drew, whose Valparaiso Crusaders have won the past four conference titles and became media darlings this year with upsets of Mississippi and Florida State in the NCAA tournament, went 10-18, 4-24, 5-22, and 5-22 during his first four years as head coach.

Instead, Avant will tell you about CSU’s new perfect fit: Bo Ellis, a onetime public league star who led Marquette University to a national championship in 1977, spent three seasons in the NBA, and has spent the last ten years at his alma mater as an assistant for three different head coaches.

“Who knows who Phil Gary is in the community?” Avant asks. “Very few people know Phil. I don’t want to knock Phil, because he’s a nice person, but I’m just being realistic about when I go out and ask people for money and they say, ‘Who is your coach?’ When I walk out now, all the people in the community say, ‘Hey you got a great coach, you got Bo Ellis.'”

Even Gary, who grew up with Ellis and once wanted to follow in his footsteps to Marquette, can’t say anything bad about the new coach. “You know, he talked to me, he spent time with me to teach me things when I was younger–a good guy. So I can’t do nothing but wish him all the luck in the world, man. But it’s gonna be a challenge for whoever’s there.

“In one year you can’t make a miracle happen,” Gary says, looking back. “But you know, life goes on. Chicago State was just a stepping stone, you know. I’m not going to roll over and play dead, because I’m not dead….I went in there with my chest stuck out and proud and I’ll leave there with my chest stuck out and proud. But I’ve got to make up my mind, whether to leave and get a job as an assistant or a head coach at a junior college or give up coaching.”

Weighing heavily on that decision, Gary says, is whether or not he wants to move away from Chicago and from his eight-year-old son Phillip, who lives with his mother.

“That’s the main thing there,” Gary says, “the bond that I have with my son. His team just lost in this tournament, they took second place, and that’s the first time he ever lost in a tournament, man. You know, he took it real bad, but being able to sit down and talk to him, that meant a lot. Me, myself, being in the same situation when I was younger, I didn’t have anyone to talk to–your mom, your grandmother and them. But to be a dad, and sit down and talk to him, to help him through things, to say, Hey man, you lost one game. If God had wanted you to win that game, the game would have been won. But God meant for you to learn something. You learn something from those games.

“So you know, it was a learning experience for him. Just like at Chicago State, being a head coach was a learning experience for me.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Phil Gary photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.