Georgia Tech will play the final non-conference game on its schedule Saturday against Division II Kentucky State. As coach Paul Hewitt explains: “Non-Division I opponents don’t impact RPI, good or bad.”
So call it a safe sweat, but know that this game goes way beyond RPI. It's more like an IOU.
Clarence Moore, the emotional leader of Tech’s 2004 national runner-up team, is Kentucky State’s interim head coach, and Hewitt is trying to help Moore get rid of the “interim” label.
“At the end of last season I asked coach Hewitt if I was still head coach would he give me an exhibition game,” said Moore, who was a fifth-year senior in 2004. “He said let [the Kentucky State administration] know if you’re still interim coach, we’ll play.”
The exhibition became a regular-season game and Kentucky State’s biggest payday of the season -- “by far,” Moore said without detail -- only in part for the aforementioned reasons.
Words can only partially outline Moore’s leadership role on the 2003-04 team, an undertaking made more impressive by the fact he had fled the program in 2002-03.
“He had a remarkable ability of holding guys accountable,” Hewitt said, “especially for a guy who walked away. In 01-02, we had come back from the dead at 0-7 [in the ACC] and now we’re all hopeful because we’ve got Chris Bosh and Jarrett Jack coming in 02-03. [Moore] was a huge loss.
“To come back and hold the respect of those guys was one of the most amazing things I’ve seen in my career.”
Good luck finding Moore’s career arc in a pattern book.
The Norco, La., native averaged 4.8 points and 3.9 rebounds as a freshman in coach Bobby Cremins’ swan-song season (1999-2000) but suffered a foot injury early the next season, required two surgeries and was a medical redshirt.
In 2001-02, he averaged 9.4 points and 5.4 rebounds while starting 29 of 31 games.
He had no perfect position to play. With a fairly sweet shot and a 6-feet-5, 215-pound frame, he was blessed with instincts the Jackets needed inside. A knack for rebounding, making steals and blocking shots left him flexing between forward spots.
The knowledge that Bosh was in Tech’s next recruiting class and the fact that defending ACC rookie of the year Ed Nelson (a forward) was returning hinted at trouble for Moore. He was homesick, struggling with his mother’s death and teetering academically. So he stepped away from the program. Almost all the way.
“It all came to a boil. I decided to take a year off and re-evaluate. There were a lot of questions I had to ask myself,” he said. “Being so far away from home, not having the type of college career I had envisioned, I was thinking about transferring. It was going to be a Division II school first, then LSU.
“But things happen for a reason. I had a 1.95 GPA and needed a 2.0 to transfer. I was stuck at Tech. It worked out, and I’m glad it did. I came back and found the love and passion for the game I had all along.”
Nelson transferred; Bosh left for the NBA, and Moore wedged his way back in with teammates with a work ethic and attitude befitting a young man who recognized that his circumstance as a Division I scholarship player was a privilege, not an entitlement.
“There are certain people who can be buddy-buddy, but at the same time demand everybody’s respect,” said former teammate Marvin Lewis, associate athletics director for finance and administration at Georgia State. “When Mo said you have to work on X, Y and Z, you knew you had to. The other part of it is Mo is a very passionate person.
“He might not be the best 3-point shooter or the biggest guy, but we knew he was going to give 120 percent. And everybody knew Mo’s story, and you’re exactly right in saying that he earned respect. Everybody knew Mo ... went through a tremendous journey in school and life.”
The journey took another turn when Moore returned to Louisiana after graduating in the fall of 2004, even though Hewitt had offered him a spot as a graduate assistant.
It didn’t take long in the shipping business and other fields to plot another reverse. The advice of Hewitt and Moore’s future father-in-law, former Tennessee coach Wade Houston, helped convince him that his heart was in coaching.
He became an assistant at the Paideia School in Atlanta. His fiancee, former Jackets high-jump star Lynn Houston, was working in the Tech academics advisory department.
Moore left Paideia to go to Waggener High in Louisville, then became an assistant at Kentucky State before last season. By midseason, his boss was fired, and he was in charge.
“I had to do everything myself,” Moore said. “I was strength coach, head coach, assistant coach, and I didn’t really have a chance to recruit. I had a few guys returning and picked the rest off the yard.”
Five of 11 KSU players did not play basketball last season. The top players at the historically black college in Frankfort -- roughly halfway between Louisville and Lexington -- are junior Tony Johnson of Louisville and senior Parysh Munroe, a Wright State transfer from Freeport, Bahamas.
“We are young and very inexperienced, but my guys play hard,” said Moore of his 4-12 team. “We’ve lost a lot close games, and they say close games build character. We’ve got a lot of character. You just never know; we could be playing one of our best games, and [Tech] could play one of their worst. I’m expecting my guys to play hard.”
Lewis believes that if given enough time and a chance to recruit, his former teammate will produce as he did in 2004, when he was named to the NCAA All-Regional team after scoring 14 points with six rebounds and five steals in the victory against Kansas that sent Tech to the Final Four.
Moore has worked uphill before.
“I remember [freshman] Theodis Tarver got injured seriously in one of our practices a week before the [2003-04] season, and Coach cancelled practice,” Lewis said. “Coach was talking about persevering, and Mo said, ‘We need to say a prayer for Theodis,’ and he said, ‘We’re a family.' And from that day on we said, ‘Family!’ in every huddle that season. He commands attention.”