For BYU men’s basketball coach Steve Cleveland, taking the same position at Fresno State meant so much — moving home, living near Mom and swapping tales with boyhood friends.
But while Cleveland mulled his dream job — at President Merrill J. Bateman’s encouragement, no less — a funny thing happened.
He fell in love with BYU all over again.
The more he looked at the vacancy, the more he remembered Provo, and the recruits and respectability he’s brought here.
“I’ve spent five years of my life here,” he said. “I just don’t want to walk away from that. I’ve made a commitment to the president and the young men.”
With that resolve, Cleveland withdrew his name Monday from consideration for the Fresno State position.
A Fresno native and former coach of Fresno City College, Cleveland became an obvious candidate for the job when Jerry Tarkanian retired earlier this month.
Cleveland made no efforts to mask his interest in returning home, and President Bateman encouraged him to consider it, for Cleveland’s sake.
“I owed it to my family,” Cleveland said.
The Cleveland-goes-to-Fresno speculation swirled long before Tarkanian retired, and the rumors became a running subtext to the Cougars’ week-long run through the NIT.
At a team meeting Monday afternoon, Cleveland reassured his players — most of whom he recruited after arriving at BYU in 1997.
“You need to know where my heart is, and my heart is with you,” he told them. “I recruited you and I want to coach you.”
And with good reason: The 2002-03 Cougars should be far better than this year’s version. Leading scorers Travis Hansen and Mark Bigelow will return, and a collection of transfers and recruits — including Austin Ainge, son of former BYU great Danny Ainge — will bolster a team that finished 18-12 and lost in the NIT’s second round.
Cleveland came to BYU with a five-year plan: It would take that long, he said, to fix a floundering program that finished 1-25 in 1996-97.
But Cleveland engineered the about-face sooner than expected, capped by the Cougars’ NCAA tournament appearance last season. BYU responded with a three-year contract extension last fall.
“We knew it would take time to rebuild our men’s basketball program, and Steve has done a remarkable job over the last five years,” President Bateman said in a statement. “We look forward to a long relationship.”