SAN DIEGO — He handled the press conference smoothly. Piece of cake. For his first NCAA playoff interview session, BYU coach Steve Cleveland was calm and collected, Wednesday evening.
That took care of the water torture portion. Next up: the bone rack — or in layman's terms, the game.
Does the torture never end?
Cleveland has been a head college basketball coach for 11 years, counting seven at Fresno City College. But this is his first time under the interrogation lamp. The California junior college playoffs were a picnic compared to this. That NIT stuff last year? Cotton candy. This time it's with national TV coverage, waves of newspapers, entire armies of radio reporters.
Cleveland is one of the handful of coaches in the 64-team field with no NCAA tournament experience. But three of his assistants have plenty. Jeff Judkins has been there enough times to do this in his sleep — if only he could sleep. Assistant Dave Rose went to two tournaments as a player at the University of Houston, Nathan Call attended four as a player at BYU.
But Cleveland, zero.
Nun at a bikers' convention.
"There is a certain energy that's very different than any environment I've been in before," he allowed.
But he added, "We've had our backs to the wall the last six games. I can't imagine there being more pressure than that. There's no way there will be more pressure than the last few weeks."
The first trip to the tournament can be an overwhelming experience for players, but especially for the coach. It's a crash course in doing 35 things at once. BYU coaches have watched eight different Cincinnati game films in the past three days.
But preparing for an opponent is only part of the problem. The other part is preparing for the onslaught of requests. Coaches get calls from media members at odd hours of the day and night. "He's getting killed by the media," said Judkins. "He's not used to that."
There are boosters to address, official functions to attend. And don't forget the calls from "old friends," looking for tickets. Judkins says even he has received nearly 50 calls about tickets.
ESPN wants Cleveland for last-minute cramming. So does CBS. If the Cougars advance, he might even get a call from the cleanup hitter of sports talk, Jim Rome, reminding him to "have a take."
Right now, Cleveland's take is this: "In some ways, I'm a little more relaxed than I was going into the Mountain West tournament."
In other ways, not.
Cleveland, a mild-mannered and modest man, is about to get hit with the biggest tsunami of his life. The crowd in Provo is loud. But now he's playing to millions. He'll be better known than he's ever been. If the Cougars advance, he'll be the subject of endless pieces on his background, the rise of his program, etc. Maybe he'll even become a restaurant critic like Utah's Rick Majerus.
When he came to BYU, Cleveland received limited attention, mostly surrounding the task of resurrecting the program. His visibility increased when the Cougars came within a win of the NIT Final Four a year ago.
But that was then. Now he's performing in the Woodstock of college basketball.
As a player at the University of Utah, Judkins attended the tournament in 1977 and 1978. As an assistant coach at the same school, he went to seven NCAA Tournaments, including the 1998 season, when the Utes advanced to the championship game.
"The coaches never get to enjoy the tournament. That year we went to the Final Four, I never enjoyed it," said Judkins. "But when you look back on it, you can say it was fun, and this is what you're there for."
Consequently, Cleveland's assistants are there to lend perspective. Like, for instance, Judkins' suggestion that the team practice Wednesday at nearby Grossmont College, prior to the official practice at Cox Arena. The first time he attended as a Ute coach, the team showed up for the Wednesday night practice session, expecting a full workout. Instead, it was a high-profile shoot-around, staged mainly for media and fans.
All the turmoil and confusion will be over quickly if BYU loses. But if it wins, things will only get worse. The coaches will be up all night on Thursday, preparing for the next game.
No sleep, long hours, churning stomach, numerous distractions, sporadic meals . . .
Misery never felt so good.