Reporting David Elfin
The coach of the area’s winningest men’s college basketball team has his cellphone number listed on his business card. As he’s conducting an interview, a student wanders into his office to ask directions to a class. Road trips, even to destinations as distant as Indiana, are by bus. The players live in apartments across the street from the dorm-less campus. And the training table is at Chipotle, more often than not.
Welcome to Jeff Ruland’s world, one that he’s happy to inhabit, especially with his Division II UDC Firebirds at 14-3 heading into Wednesday’s game at East Coast Conference foe Molloy after foul trouble up front cost them in this past Saturday’s 92-85 loss to league-leading C.W. Post.
The 6-foot-10 Ruland, who starred for the Washington Bullets alongside his equally burly buddy, Rick Mahorn in the early 1980s, had coached nine years at his alma mater, Iona, reaching three NCAA Tournaments before a 2-28 season got him fired. Ruland was a Philadelphia assistant when the 76ers changed staffs in 2009. At the urging of an Iona friend, he applied to coach at UDC, which had been mired in a stew of probation, poor basketball and worse academics.
UDC went 1-22 during Ruland’s debut, at times down to just five players, three of whom were walk-ons. Once, a player sprained his ankle, forcing the Firebirds to play four-on-five.
“We were in a lotta games,” the graying 1984 NBA All-Star said proudly. “We didn’t get blown out too often. Last year, we were 11-15 even though two of our big guys had bad season-ending injuries or we probably woulda won 18 or 19 games. I don’t want to pat myself, (assistants) Terrell (Stokes) and Tony (Jackson) on the back, but it’s quite remarkable what we’ve done in such a short period of time here.”
The Firebirds rely on senior guards Nigel Munson, a slick-passing DeMatha product who began his college career at Virginia Tech but left after the 2007 shootings before sitting out two seasons in the workforce, and sweet-shooting Brandon Herbert, a Baltimore native who began his college career at Division I Binghamton but wanted to be closer to home because he wanted his mother, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, to be able to see him play more often.
“I look at it like it don’t matter where you’re at, if you’re good, they’ll find you if you’re trying to get to the next level,” said Munson, who topped the 1,000-point career mark with 35 against C.W. Post and who needs two semesters to finish a studio art degree that it cone seemed he would never obtain. “There’s a lot players we play against now who came from D1 schools. It’s not really that big of a difference. I’m glad I’m here. I got a great coaching staff around me, some great players around me. I don’t regret no decision I made.”
Neither does Herbert, who’s on track to graduate in May with a sociology degree and hopes to become a teacher and coach.
“Having a previous relationship with Coach Stokes (who had recruited him for Loyola of Maryland), I felt like this would be a good place for me,” said Herbert, who came to UDC last season and added 21 points last Saturday. “Plus Nigel was here. I had seen him play in high school. I knew what type of player he was. And I had played a couple of AAU tournaments here.”
Ruland, who turned down offers from Kentucky and Indiana to play at tiny Iona for Jim Valvano, isn’t sure what he would be doing if his legs hadn’t betrayed him at 28.
“I only had 50 of the 120 credits I needed to graduate and get into coaching, but (my then-ex-wife) Maureen made me promise that I would finish my degree,” said Ruland, who proudly notes that seven of his players have B averages. “I was living in South Jersey and I’d commute to New Rochelle or stay with my mother-in-law in Yonkers. Am I glad I went into coaching? Without a doubt. I’ve made a difference in some people’s lives and I’ve given back to this great sport.”
Indeed. Just listen to the 25-year-old Munson, who joined NBA All-Star Kevin Durant and Georgetown and Maryland standouts Austin Freeman, Chris Wright, Greivis Vasquez and Eric Hayes on The Washington Post’s All-Met team six years ago.
“This is our last shot for us (four) seniors to do something special,” Munson said.” We got a good chance of competing for the national championship if we continue working hard in practice, listening to our coaches and taking care of defense because if we play defense, our offense comes easy for us.”
Not that anything ever really comes easy at UDC.
David Elfin has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1975. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the author of the new book: “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March.