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?