By Scott Michaux
Columnist, Augusta Chronicle
As challenges go, preparing to face Catawba College for 40 minutes in an NCAA Division II men's basketball tournament game might not seem as daunting as stepping into the ring for three minutes with Muhammad Ali.
For Augusta State basketball coach Gary Tuell, it's just the latest thrill for a lifetime thrill-seeker.
``I love challenges,'' said Tuell, 51. ``I love taking jobs with programs that have been down and trying to build those up. That's what I enjoy more than anything.''
It's been 27 years since a heavier Tuell - then a sports writer - posed as ``The Great Fat Hope'' in a light-hearted sparring match with the greatest fighter of all-time. Ali was preparing to face George Foreman in Zaire when Tuell ``floored'' him. He has the pictures to prove it.
Ali was still heavyweight champion of the world in 1978, the last (and only) time Augusta College played in the NCAA tournament. Those Jags were knocked out by Central Florida and Livingston.
Now, the man who danced with Ali is dancing with the Jaguars. Riding the crest of the second 20-win season in school history, Augusta State faces Catawba in Charlotte, N.C., on Thursday. It seems like more than four years ago since Tuell's first Augusta State team finished 5-22.
``I thought this team was potentially the best one we've had, and I thought the two teams we had previous to this were good enough to win on the national level,'' Tuell said.
The Jaguars' skills have been at times difficult to harness. Drawing from his Louisville, Ky., sports-writing roots, Tuell likens his Jaguars to a Kentucky Derby thoroughbred.
``A lot of talent that's easily distracted,'' he explained. ``You need to put blinders on those horses so they're not distracted by the crowds. This team sometimes needed blinders because we would get distracted. Sometimes in the middle of a game we would run along and get ahead of people and then just stop playing like a horse that stops running.''
The awakening, Tuell figures, came two weeks ago at Armstrong Atlantic State in Savannah - the last game Augusta State lost.
``When that game was over, our kids were so down, so upset, so discouraged, because they had given everything they had and lost just because we couldn't shoot,'' Tuell said. ``But I told them sometimes you have to lose a game to win. I knew that we had done all the right things to win that game, and I knew that we would beat that team if we played them again. It hit me then that night that we were going to be special.''
The reckoning came Saturday in Greenwood, S.C., during the Peach Belt Conference Tournament championship game against Armstrong Atlantic State. Only a victory could assure the Jaguars wouldn't be passed over for an NCAA Tournament bid, and Augusta State delivered with a resounding 60-46 win.
``I'm real proud of what we've done, and I expected us to do this, to be honest with you,'' Tuell said. ``I'm sure we haven't peaked yet. If we get lucky, we might be able to continue to improve and really do something spectacular.''
The man who literally wrote the book on the history of Louisville basketball - Above the Rim - is making history for Augusta State basketball.
``If we can get by (Catawba), I have a sense about this team,'' Tuell said. ``We have talent and size - all the parts. But it's more than having the parts, it's having guys come together and play their best at the right time. I sense all those things happening for us.''
What else would you expect from the Great Fat Hope?
March 27, 2001 Hawkins and Boodnikoff Named to the NABC All-Region Team
March 11, 2001 Jaguars look to next season
March 10, 2001 Magical Season Comes to an End for Jaguars
March 10, 2001 Augusta State knocked out of tournament
March 10, 2001 Rams' stifling 'D' steamrolls Jaguars
March 9, 2001 Jaguars are a 'can do' team
March 9, 2001 Jaguars top Catawba College 96-84
March 8, 2001 Jaguars ready to take on Catawba
March 7, 2001 Augusta State coach ready for challenge
March 5, 2001 Augusta State Men’s Basketball Itinerary
March 5, 2001 Augusta State earns 6th seed
March 3, 2001 Jaguars reign in Peach Belt
March 3, 2001 Augusta State Wins Peach Belt Tournament Title
March 2, 2001 ASU Defeats USC Aiken in PBC Semifinals
March 1, 2001 Jaguars top Clayton State
February 24, 2001 ASU Wraps North Division Top-Seed With 83-65 Win Over Francis Marion
February 21, 2001 No. 22 Pirates Win 16th Straight, Defeat ASU 58-45
February 17, 2001 ASU Falls to Georgia College & State
February 15, 2001 ASU 89, Francis Marion 73
February 14, 2001 ASU Rolls Over Francis Marion 89-73
February 11, 2001 Jaguars celebrate homecoming with win
February 10, 2001 ASU Rolls Over North Florida 93-50
February 10, 2001 Jaguars face North Florida at home
February 7, 2001 ASU Moves Back Into First Place With 70-63 Win Over UNC Pembroke
February 3, 2001 Senators down Augusta State 68-60
February 1, 2001 Jaguars defeat Pacers 72-63
January 31, 2001 ASU Moves Back Into First Place With 72-63 Win Over USC Aiken
January 29, 2001 Records Fall as ASU Defeats Life University 108-87
January 24, 2001 Jaguars suffer tough setback vs. Kennesaw
January 20, 2001 TJ Ott Leads ASU to 61-47 Win over USC Spartanburg
January 18, 2001 Pacers edge Jaguars 53-51
January 17, 2001 Second Half Rally Falls Short as ASU Falls to USCA
January 17, 2001 Jaguars, Pacers renew PBC rivalry
January 16, 2001 Paine tops ASU in City Classic
January 15, 2001 Paine Defeats ASU 68-58 Behind Yari Scott’s 27 Points
January 15, 2001 Gary Boodnikoff Named Peach Belt Player of the Week
January 14, 2001 Jaguars remain at top of league
January 13, 2001 Gary Boodnikoff Scores 26 in 80-53 Win Over Lander
January 10, 2001 Braves and Jaguars Split Peach Belt Doubleheader
January 8, 2001 Festus Hawkins Lifts ASU to 64-63 Overtime Win
January 7, 2001 Jaguars give Harris win number 1
January 6, 2001 Augusta State Defeats Columbus State 74-57
January 4, 2001 ASU Men and Women Sweep Clayton State
January 3, 2001 Augusta State Defeats Clayton State 65-54
December 21, 2000 Augusta State’s Gary Tuell to Host Holiday Basketball Clinic ... Again
December 18, 2000 Augusta State Falls To Life, 72-55
December 13, 2000 Augusta State’s Gary Tuell to Host Holiday Basketball Clinic
December 13, 2000 Festus Hawkins and Sharon Taylor Ranked Nationally
December 10, 2000 Fast start lifts Jags past Savannah State
December 9, 2000 Festus Hawkins Powers ASU Over Savannah State 87-67
December 2, 2000 Augusta State Defeats Lenoir-Rhyne 71-55
December 1, 2000 ASU Falls to 10th-Ranked Wingate 103-88
November 30, 2000 ASU Defeats Rollins 70-68
November 27, 2000 ASU Defeats West Georgia 66-61 in Home Opener
November 22, 2000 Augusta State Notches First Win at Savannah State 68-45
November 17, 2000 West Georgia Defeats Augusta State 76-74 in Overtime Thriller
November 11, 2000 Augusta State Defeats ASU Alumni/CSRA Select Team 91-55
October 14, 2000 Augusta State to host Midnight Madness Saturday, October 14
October 11, 2000 ASU Seeking Third Straight Peach Belt North Division Title
October 10, 2000 Augusta State Men’s Basketball Opens 2000-01 Season at West Georgia