FORT COLLINS — Puff, puff. Larry Eustachy inhales from the vapor pen he proudly claims is his biggest purchase of the past six months. He exhales. An odorless cloud blows forward, with it a stream of consciousness. In a team meeting room inside Moby Arena, the Colorado State men's basketball coach turns his attention from the whiteboard, scribbled with X's and O's, to the Colorado stogie gripped in his right hand.
"I love this thing. I got it at the smoke shop," Eustachy says. "It's legal. It's non-nicotine oil. This is my last vice."
It's New Year's Day. Last night, the ultimate night for champagne popping and revelry, Eustachy celebrated by kissing his wife at midnight and watching another episode of "Modern Family." "Back in the day we'd still be out," he says. It's 2 in the afternoon, and Eustachy is only slightly joking.
Eustachy makes roughly $1 million per year and has a hole in his right tube sock. At the time CSU is ranked No. 24 in the country. The Rams haven't lost yet, not in 14 games, so Eustachy hasn't washed his game-day wardrobe in 14 games. "They smell like (crap)," he says.
What's the deal with that wardrobe, anyway? As the coach at Iowa State, Eustachy got $100,000 from Adidas to wear its logo on a black turtleneck on the sideline. He gets nothing to wear his new trademark: black shirt on black pants, cleaned only with an extra dryer sheet in the dryer at home. There must be a cultural statement on the black get-up, some deeper meaning we don't know about yet. Why all the black?
"Yeah," he says, "It makes you look skinnier. That's the statement."
The coach of a Top 25 college basketball team takes another puff from his vapor pen. He begins to talk about second chances.
Eustachy got the vapor pen from the smoke shop and the hustle chart from Pat Riley. He turns 60 this year and got a tip on coaching into your 60s from Jim Boeheim. He got advice on developing tough players from Coach K. He got his bottom line from Rick Majerus.
"I had a really weird relationship with Rick Majerus. I worked for him about three months. Then I took the Utah State job, so we became archrivals," says Eustachy, whose Rams play at Air Force on Saturday. "I just remember him saying: 'Ninety-eight percent of coaching is getting your guys to play hard.' And it's the truth."
But all of this — the roster built on transfers, the team that snuck into the Top 25 before falling out Monday, the players taught to value floor burns over dunks, the hole in his sock — is utterly Eustachy.
In Eustachy's third season, CSU basketball is a direct reflection of its coach. Mostly, it's a showcase for second chances. For Eustachy and the transfers he recruited, it's not about what was, but what is.
What was wasn't always pretty.
What is is working.
Then a functioning alcoholic, Eustachy drank himself out of a Big 12 job at Iowa State in 2003. His career was in jeopardy until Southern Mississippi hired him after a year out of coaching.
"Southern Miss, I owe them my life," he says. "People gave me a second chance."
One glance over the court at Moby Arena reveals a basketball roster that largely mirrors its coach. Seven of his top nine players are transfers. Like the coach, they are on their second chance — even if they've done nothing wrong and their second chance is on a far less-publicized scale.
On the other side of practice, Daniel Bejarano swishes a free throw. Bejarano, a Mountain West player of the year candidate, left the University of Arizona after clashing with the coaching staff. Stanton Kidd has transferred twice. Dantiel Daniels, a hard-working forward, left Southern Illinois when one coaching staff was fired and the next staff undervalued his ability. J.J. Avila, the leading scorer at 13.8 points per game, left the U.S. Naval Academy.
"I had a 1.8 (GPA at Navy)," says Avila, who is on pace to graduate in May. "The academy stuff wasn't for me."
The details of transfers usually leave behind some gray area with murky details explaining the move. The above is merely a gross summary.
But Eustachy wanted "Sweet 16 players," as he puts it. He couldn't draw that caliber of athlete to CSU through traditional means of recruiting.
"You can be as tough as you want. But you better have talent," he says. "How do you get that talent? You've got to be creative."
Then Eustachy used his own experience with second chances as a sales pitch.
"J.J. was kicked out of Navy or whatever. But I told him: 'Look at my (stuff). Go down my pattern,'" Eustachy says. "Who am I to judge him? I had my issues. He knows that.
"And it helps with recruiting. I can tell them: 'I get it. I've been there.'"
The drill begins innocently enough. Eustachy fires a ball at the basket in a 3-on-3 blockout drill. Then, bedlam: he allows only one ball on the court, and there is no out-of-bounds.
"If that ball goes out the door, the whole team better be out the door with it," Eustachy says. With no limits to the court, practice evolves into a tornado of bodies.
"We have a video of that drill. The ball went way over there," Avila says, nodding across the gym. "Joe threw Fred down. I threw Joe down. I got the ball and someone hit me in the legs and I fell down. It was chaos."
This is how CSU must win, gritty and not pretty, like the hole in Eustachy's right sock. Their school-record 14-0 start included a 5-0 mark in one-possession games, results that could've been reversed if not for a play here or there.
That's where Pat Riley's chart comes in. Student managers document uncontested shots, failed block-outs and one-handed rebounds ("Those are lazy," Eustachy says). Hats and earrings are banned from team meetings. Eustachy leaves the team captains in charge of policing the players' accessories.
"It's hard here. I've had a lot of guys say, 'If I had another option, I wouldn't have stayed,'" Eustachy says. "But kids want to be coached. Kids are begging to be parented. Besides, (if they already transferred once) where the hell are they going to go?"
Avila adds, "This is our last chance, really, to show we can play."
Fifteen games into the season, CSU suffered its first loss, 66-53 at New Mexico. Even then, a silver lining: Eustachy finally could wash his black shirt and black pants.
It all seems wholly unconventional, from the free-agent roster to the vapor pen protruding from a pocket in the head coach's sweatpants. But has Eustachy ever been conventional?
"I know Southern Miss did a huge background check on me, to see if I was really doing what I said I was doing: Not drinking. I was, and I am," he says. "We do background checks on all of them. So we get the right guys. I love these guys. It's working."
The past never disappears, though. College sports don't allow for short memories.
"Some of these (crowds), they're still going back to (his time at) Iowa State. But that's part of it," Eustachy says. "My players back me. I say, 'Are you going to let these guys say this (crap) to me?' And they've got my back."
On Dec. 27, during an overtime win at New Mexico State, the opposing crowd blistered Eustachy about his past sins. Avila, the transfer from Navy, yanked at his coach's arm.
"I told Coach to stay in here and break the huddle with us," he says.
Second chances don't work alone.