Jeff Ruland coaching UDC (Photo by UDC.edu)
WASHINGTON (WUSA/Elfin's Endzone) -- School never mattered much to Jeff Ruland when he was starring at Iona in the late 1970s. So when Ruland's legs basically ended his NBA career in 1987, three years after he made the All-Star Game for the Washington Bullets, the 28-year-old big man didn't know what to do.
But Maureen, his college sweetheart and by then his ex-wife, knew.
"I only had 50 of the 120 credits I needed to graduate and get into coaching, but (my then-ex-wife) Maureen made me promise that I would finish my degree," Ruland recalled the other day in his office in the spartan athletic building at UDC where he has turned the Firebirds from a 1-22 laughingstock during his 2009-10 debut into a 15-3 Division II powerhouse while also helping seven of his 13 players compile at least a B average. "I was living in South Jersey and I'd commute to New Rochelle or stay with my mother-in-law in Yonkers. Am I glad I went into coaching? Without a doubt. I've made a difference in some people's lives and I've given back to this great sport."
While the players at Kentucky and Indiana, two of the premier programs he turned down to play close to home for Jim Valvano, fly to games, stay in luxurious dorms and eat prime chow, Ruland's guys ride buses live to games even as far as 11 hours away, live in humble apartments across the street from the dorm-less campus and eat most of their meals at Chipotle.
But senior guards Nigel Munson, an All-Met player at DeMatha who left Virginia Tech after the April 2007 shootings that shook the campus at the end of his freshman year, and Baltimorean Brandon Herbert, who played at Division I Binghamton but transferred to be closer to his mother who suffers from multiple sclerosis, couldn't be happier.
"I look at it like it don't matter where you're at, if you're good, they'll find you if you're trying to get to the next level," said Munson, who needs two semesters to finish a studio art degree that he seemed so unlikely to obtain when he was spending two years between schools. "There's a lot players we play against now who came from D1 schools. It's not really that big of a difference. I'm glad I'm here. I got a great coaching staff around me, some great players around me. I don't regret no decision I made."
Neither does Herbert, who made the dean's list last semester and should graduate with a sociology degree in May that he hopes to use as a teacher and coach.
"Having a previous relationship with Coach Stokes (who had recruited him for Loyola of Maryland), I felt like this would be a good place for me," said Herbert, who arrived at UDC last season. "Plus Nigel was here. I had seen him play in high school. I knew what type of player he was. And I had played a couple of AAU tournaments here."
The tournament the Firebirds are aiming for now is the 64-team NCAA Division II version, one to which they'll gain an automatic bid if they win the East Coast Conference tournament in early March.
"This is our last shot for us (four) seniors to do something special," Munson said." We got a good chance of competing for the national championship if we continue working hard in practice, listening to our coaches and taking care of defense because if we play defense, our offense comes easy for us."
Life's not as easy for Ruland now as it was when he and power forward pal Rick Mahorn owned the paint and were dubbed "McFilthy" and "McNasty." Maureen died of leukemia not long after kicking the alcoholism that ended their marriage. UDC has few of the trappings to which he became accustomed during more than two decades in Division I and the NBA, but that's OK with Ruland.
"I had some great memories in Washington," he said. "It's the nation's capital and it's 45 minutes from one of my daughters and 2-1/2 from the other two. I don't want to pat myself, (assistants) Terrell (Stokes, the former Maryland guard) and Tony (Iati) on the back, but it's quite remarkable what we've done in such a short period of time here."
And if the Firebirds can repeat the national title that they won 30 years ago, Ruland will have created even more indelible memories.
WUSA-9's Sports Insider, David Elfin, has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1975. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the author of seven books on local sports including the new "Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History."