Right after he’d gotten the job he never expected to land, a job he landed at a rather inconvenient time, Maurice Joseph went online and booked a plane ticket to Detroit.
The newly named interim coach for the George Washington men’s basketball had one free day on his schedule in September, before team practices officially began — and he knew he wanted to spend it with one of his mentors, Hall of Fame coach Tom Izzo.
Joseph drove directly from the Detroit airport to Izzo’s office in East Lansing, where he immediately jumped in on Izzo’s film session with his coaching staff. Together, they brainstormed and discussed what Joseph should expect in the future as a first-time head coach, and why and how Izzo had handled certain situations in the past.
Izzo and Joseph sat together before and after practice that day, talking more. Izzo’s advice was simple and straightforward.
“He said, ‘Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care,’ ” Joseph told USA TODAY Sports. “He’s a guy who gets on guys, but they truly, fully understand where his heart is and that he cares for them, and that’s why he can get on them the way he does. And I really believe that myself.
“I think players have really good — excuse my language — bull- – – – radars, and they really understand. They can tell when you’re not genuine and when you’re being fake with them. I think that if you are a genuine person, you do have their best interests at heart, you do want them to achieve academically and achieve on the court, and be the best you can be, they play harder for you, they care more about what we’re trying to accomplish, they buy in a little easier. I think that’s what has happened here.”
Joseph’s predecessor, Mike Lonergan, was fired Sept. 16 in the wake of an investigation into explosive allegations by players of verbal abuse. Though Lonergan and his staff were aware of the investigation, the firing itself came abruptly; a recruit was on campus visiting the night the news broke. Lonergan has denied the allegations.
“We were kind of all taken aback by it,” Joseph said. “We all knew (an investigation) was going on, but we never expected that to happen.”
Joseph, 31, was named GW’s interim head coach by Provost Forrest Maltzman on Sept. 27, fewer than five weeks before the Colonials’ first exhibition game. His fellow assistant coaches also had interviewed for the position; after Joseph got the nod, they remained on staff.
“I told him to make sure he did his best to get everybody on the same page with the elephant in the room — some staff members maybe upset they didn’t get the job, some players bummed out because maybe they wanted another guy,” Izzo said. “You had a lot of different things going on there. I thought he handled it very well. I thought he did as good a job as you can do under some bizarre circumstances, and that they had lost some good key players. …
“My God, I’m not sure the Krzyzewskis of the world could handle that. It’s a tough place to put a guy.”
But Joseph had no time to dwell on the unique circumstance, or the challenges that came with it.
“It’s like poker; it’s not always ideal, but you have to play the hand you’re dealt,” Joseph said. “I feel like I my career has been fast-forwarded maybe eight to 12 years, maybe even more. It’s a crazy type of situation, but I felt I was ready to step into it.”
Joseph felt that way because he was as ready as he possibly could be. He’d been preparing to become a head coach ever since he was a college player, first for Izzo at Michigan State and then for Lonergan at Vermont. For years, he’d been adding to a document on his laptop all the pieces of advice and strategies he wanted to use and implement when he became a head coach. There were plays to call, Xs and Os, academic details, recruiting tips and anything else he’d picked up from any coach over the years that he really liked and wanted to emulate — or really didn’t like and wanted to avoid.
After he was officially offered the interim job, Joseph opened up that document and started to piece together six years’ worth of notes that he felt, in sum, explained his values, beliefs and approach to coaching. A slight practice tweak that hints at something larger, for example: GW now begins its practices with rap music blaring over the speakers in the gym — something the team never did before.
“I always believe you have a better start to practice when guys are loose, when guys listen to music that they like,” Joseph said. “They come in, they’re bouncing around, as opposed to hearing just balls bouncing. You enter practice with a different vibe. I learned very early in my college career how important energy is. You couldn’t walk in Coach Izzo’s office or practice looking half-asleep or else you would hear about it.
“That’s something that I learned really quickly, that body language and energy are vital. If you have that as your foundation, then everything else can just follow suit, but if you have that as your foundation that solves a lot of things. That solves playing hard, attention to detail, having a sense of urgency. If you’re going to make mistakes, they can’t be effort-related.”
Despite the preseason turbulence, the actual season hasn’t been too chaotic for the Colonials. GW is 13-12 despite losing 60% of the scoring from last year’s NIT championship team because of graduation and transfers. Three freshmen have started, and four figure prominently in the nine-player rotation.
Youth, inexperience and a December injury to graduate transfer Patrick Steeves has forced Joseph to get creative this. That included installing a 2-3 zone defense, which required some assistance from Joseph’s younger brother, Kris, who played four years for Jim Boeheim at Syracuse and currently plays in Italy. It’s a six-hour time difference, but that doesn’t stop the brothers from texting or talking every day — about life, or the vaunted Syracuse zone.
“I would FaceTime with him showing my computer screen so we could talk our way through the Syracuse 2-3 zone because one of our best defenders went down with an injury, so we had to play more zone,” Joseph said. “I wanted to play it the way Syracuse played it, extended on the wings, with the pinching and the fanning and all that kind of stuff. So he was kind of like a consultant, an assistant coach for me via FaceTime.”
Joseph doesn’t know what the future holds, either at GW or elsewhere. He’s prioritized the well-being of his players — just as the administration wanted him to. It hasn’t felt like an audition for the permanent job, because that’s not what it is to Joseph. He knows the ultimate decision about the program moving forward is not his to make.
“My goal is to make sure that we get better on a day-to-day basis, and that we’re competing in games at a level that we can hold our heads high and hang our hats on,” Joseph said. “I think we’ve done that.”