Steve Cleveland Deserves a Full House from BYU

Brett RichinsSenior Analyst INovember 9, 2010

OKLAHOMA CITY - MARCH 20:  Jacob Pullen #0 of the Kansas State Wildcats stands on court against the Brigham Young Cougars during the second round of the 2010 NCAA men's basketball tournament at Ford Center on March 20, 2010 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
The No. 24 BYU basketball team tips off the season Friday night against former head coach Steve Cleveland and Fresno State.

The former Cougar coach deserves to see a full house in the Marriott Center give him a long and loud standing ovation for what he has done for the BYU program and the university.

As of Tuesday morning, the BYU ticket office said that there were plenty of seats still available for the game. It would be a shame if it did not sell out in respect for Coach Cleve.

Steve Cleveland was an unknown junior college coach from Fresno City College when he was hired in 1997 by then-BYU athletic director Rondo Fehlberg.

He was brought in with the daunting task of re-energizing a once-proud program that had fallen on tough times.

The season prior to Cleveland’s arrival the Cougars had finished with an abysmal 1-25 record. Attendance in the mammoth Marriott Center had fallen dramatically, and the university had suffered public criticism and embarrassment for the way it handled the firing of previous head coach Roger Reid.

Cleveland’s hiring was met with a great deal of skepticism by both the fans and the media. How could this unknown, with no Division-1 coaching experience, possibly have what it would take to rebuild the BYU program?

Yet rebuild it he did.

In his first year the Cougars could only muster 9 wins, but the highlight of the season, and a signal of what was ahead, came when BYU shocked No. 16 New Mexico 83-62 in Albuquerque.

By the 1999-2000 season the Cougars had posted 22 wins and made it to the postseason for the first time in five years. The Cougars advanced to the quarterfinals of the NIT that year before falling at Notre Dame, one step short of reaching the Final Four in Madison Square Garden.

Cleveland would go on to lead BYU to four seasons of 20 or more wins in his eight years as head coach. He also led the Cougars to two regular season conference titles, three NCAA tournament appearances and two berths to the NIT.

Although the Cougars did slide back to nine wins in his final season in 2004-05, a solid foundation had been laid for BYU’s return to basketball prominence.

The following year BYU went 20-9 under Dave Rose with players that were recruited during Cleveland’s tenure. Since then Rose and the Cougars have risen on that foundation built by Cleveland, posting 25 or more wins every year, including last season’s school record of 30 victories and their first NCAA tournament win in 17 years.

In a rare move by a BYU head coach, Cleveland left Provo and returned to his home town to coach a Fresno State team that, much like BYU, had fallen on hard times.

Steve will tell you that he and his family were inspired to make the move to Fresno to take on a new daunting challenge. It also gave the Clevelands the chance to be back around their family.

When Cleveland arrived in Fresno, the Bulldogs had already been slapped with four years of NCAA probation for academic fraud and rules violations. Two head basketball coaches in less than three years had resigned amid the scandals, including the oft-embattled Jerry Tarkanian.

The program was also reeling from an tragic incident that saw former player Terry Pettis convicted of murder in the shooting of an 18-year old college student.

In addition, the basketball program would later be cited by the NCAA for having the worst academic progress rate in the country, and a graduation rate of just 25 percent, something that cost the Bulldogs more lost scholarships.

Cleveland was hired to right the ship, clean up the program and return it to success on the court.

Not surprisingly, the task in Fresno has turned out to be much tougher than the one Cleveland successfully tackled in Provo. Significant scholarship limitations and top players leaving the program have slowed Fresno’s return to success on the court.

Cleveland could have use All-WAC performer Paul George this year to lead his young team, but the junior-to-be opted for the NBA draft and was selected as the 10th overall pick by the Indiana Pacers.

In his five seasons as head coach Cleveland is slightly below .500 at 78-81, including last year’s 72-67 home loss to BYU. That’s actually an impressive record given everything the program has been through.

Meanwhile, off the court the Bulldog program has risen to new heights. Fresno State was tops in the country last year in its improvement in academic progress, and for the first time Cleveland has a full compliment of 13 scholarships.

Fresno State and the local community have stood behind Cleveland as he has put the pieces in place for a solid program. He has slowly been building a program that Bulldog fans can be proud of both on and off the court.

People in Provo are awfully proud of Cleve too.

They should also show up and show their appreciation Friday night to the man who once resurrected BYU basketball.