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Originally published March 1, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 7, 2007 at 10:09 AM

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Bud Withers

Ritchie McKay's fall into the Pit

At 41, the veteran coach has already been through four jobs at four schools, and is about to be fired from his current position.

Seattle Times colleges reporter

Once, back in the 1990s, Ritchie McKay was the golden boy, the guy a lot of people wanted to be the head basketball coach someday at the University of Washington.

Today, about a decade later, he has met the fate of a lot of coaches — soon to be out of work.

How he got to this state is a remarkable tale.

"It's a new phase for me," he conceded earlier this week. "I've never been let go. I'm not sure what God has in store for us."

His ceiling once seemed unlimited. A guard at Seattle Pacific in the late '80s, McKay was hired to Bob Bender's UW staff back in 1993. He was there only two years, recognized as an effective recruiter and rising star, when he left to take over a Portland State program that was being revived after a long hiatus.

After a solid two years there, McKay was snapped up by Colorado State, and he went 37-23 in two seasons. Then it was off to Oregon State in 2000, and if there's a point when McKay's career began to go off the tracks , it was in Corvallis.

There's hardly a mention in the New Mexico press guide of McKay's time at OSU, and no wonder. It wasn't just that he went 22-37, it was how he did it. A tyrannical figure in practice, McKay drove some players to the edge.

Near the end of his last season, Brian Jackson and Franklin High School product Jimmie Haywood quit the team. One close observer of his tenure at OSU called it "chaos."

For some reason, McKay chose to fly to game sites separate from the team. With OSU seemingly going nowhere, it was easy for McKay, in the spring of 2002, to jump at a surprise chance to coach New Mexico, where his late father, Joe, had starred back in the early '60s.

New Mexico is one of the stranger outposts in college basketball. It's a place with passionate interest at the 18,000-seat underground "Pit." If the state doesn't have high-school talent, at least it's strategically located between Texas and California.

For all the fervor around the program, it has won a grand total of six NCAA tournament games in its history, never two in the same year.

"It may be the most unique place in the country to coach," said Fran Fraschilla, the ESPN analyst who preceded McKay. "Their expectations are as high as Kentucky's, but their resources are that of a mid-major.

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"You think of 16,000 people and the great tradition of the Pit, and then you fly your team to Utah on Southwest Airlines, through Las Vegas, and your 6-9 guy is sitting in the middle seat because you're in the third group."

Many fans in Albuquerque never warmed to McKay, but that may not be an indictment of him. Some believe the place has never moved on from the glory days of three decades ago, when Norm Ellenberger rode herd — and then brought the program crashing down in a sea of NCAA violations.

"If the fans could hire Norm Ellenberger again, they'd do it in a heartbeat," says Fraschilla. "The job requires somebody larger than life, a [Rick] Majerus or a [Bob] Huggins. They've got a governor [Bill Richardson] running for president, and he's the second-most important person in the state."

In his third year, riding Bradley transfer Danny Granger, McKay and the Lobos went 26-7 but were eliminated in the first round of the NCAA tournament by Villanova, in a game in which it trailed 34-11 at halftime.

Maybe McKay was rendered loopy by that first half. He proceeded to bring to Albuquerque one of the most flammable recruiting classes in the history of college basketball.

Start with J.R. Giddens, a one-time McDonald's All-American who left Kansas after getting into a bar fight and being stabbed. Throw in Aaron Johnson, the Big Ten's leading rebounder at Penn State, who was investigated by police after an apartment fight with ex-teammates there.

Anybody remember the name Justin Holt? He was a former all-stater from Lincoln of Tacoma whom McKay signed for Oregon State. By the time McKay had another crack at him, Holt had either signed with, or attended, five schools.

Not that there's a formula for how to go about coaching, but you can usually say with some assurance that when a kid has been associated with five schools, he might be more trouble than he's worth.

Holt never played for New Mexico. McKay offed him for what he called "unrealized academic expectations."

Then there were the junior-college transfers from that class. One faced a sexual-assault allegation, eventually dropped. One quit the team early in the 2005-06 season over a lack of playing time. Another quit, twice. Still another left the team late last season after a dustup with police over drinking and obstruction.

Which brought the volatile Lobos to this season. As expected, Giddens led them in scoring — and spats with McKay. Finally, McKay suspended him.

But by this time, the athletic director who hired McKay, Rudy Davalos, was retired, and replacement Paul Krebs decided he'd had enough of declining attendance and McKay's 8-42 road record. Last week, he suspended — uh, fired — McKay effective at season's end. His five-year record is 82-67.

Asked about his plans, McKay said he wants to coach again. If it's as a head coach, he said that he'd like to find a place of "a little smaller variety that has a great emphasis on academics and student-athlete processes. But this is a great job, I'm not trying to deter anyone."

Regarding the persistent chemistry problems, McKay said, "Chemistry is elusive for a lot of teams."

So Ritchie McKay now takes a new direction. He has been through a lot of players, and at 41, already been through a lot of jobs.

This year's Mason?

Who will be this year's George Mason, making a historical run to the Final Four? The answer, very likely, is nobody. It happens maybe once a quarter-century.

This season, the Patriots , after losing three starters, are 15-14 overall and 9-9 in the Colonial Athletic Association. They don't shoot the ball particularly well — 33 percent on threes.

Some possible bracket-crumplers:

Southern Illinois (25-5). At No. 11, the Salukis won't be a shock to anybody. Offenses won't look forward to taking on their fourth-ranked scoring defense (56.2 points a game).

Says Missouri State coach Barry Hinson, "How do you prepare for Southern Illinois? We run down to the police station, bring in German shepherds and rub meat juice on ourselves. As Jerry Tarkanian used to say, 'If five guys are fouling at once, they can only call it on one.' "

Winthrop (25-4). It has appeared in six NCAAs since 1999 but hasn't broken through for a victory. A veteran-dominated team that shoots well and takes care of the ball will be a load against a high seed.

Butler (26-5). Ask Notre Dame, Indiana, Tennessee and Gonzaga — Bulldogs' pelts in the NIT Tipoff in November — about Butler. Its DNA — from a sixth-ranked scoring defense (56.8), to nine threes per game, to a 76 percent free-throw percentage, to its national-best 9.3 turnovers a game — says you don't want to see this team anywhere near yours in the bracket.

Xavier (21-7). With ex-Temple coach John Chaney out barking at fellow retirees, the Atlantic-10 has created no national buzz. Xavier might yet do it. It's a good-shooting, balanced team with most parts back from the unit that took Gonzaga to the wire in a first-round game last year.

And What's More ...

• Arizona, at 13.3 per game, fouls less than anybody in the country. For the Wildcats, that's not necessarily a good thing.

• Illinois, 21-9 and soldiering through a turmoil-plagued season, is pulling out all stops. Last week, on the occasion of the last dance of its NCAA-banned mascot Chief Illiniwek, coach Bruce Weber talked to his team about reflecting the mission of the chief — courage, strength and bravery.

• Southern Illinois is clearly the class of the Missouri Valley Conference, but it goes into the league tournament knowing no No. 1 seed has won it since 1998.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

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About Bud Withers

Bud Withers gives his take on college sports, with the latest from the Huskies, Cougs, and the rest of the Pac-10.
bwithers@seattletimes.com | 206-464-8281

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