ATLANTA — Hanging on a lobby wall at Georgia Tech’s new Zelnak practice facility, the photograph of a smiling 2004 version of Paul Hewitt, hugging a former player, has welcomed entrants for the better part of seven months.
One poignant glimpse into Georgia Tech’s not-so-distant past, it has served as a picturesque reminder of a joyous day gone by — a snapshot of a moment Yellow Jackets fans have been desperate to relive.
On Thursday night, a markedly similar, wide-grinning, present-day, real-life version of Hewitt spoke with relief as he concluded one of the busiest “normal” weeks of his head-coaching career.
“It was a business-as-usual week, but with everything that’s been talked about, I felt like it was important that I make a statement,” Hewitt said during a late-night news conference.
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The subject of a three-day-old public inquiry, Hewitt confirmed he was coming back to Georgia Tech to work the final year of his contract, which last week was rolled over for another season. Earlier in the day, while off visiting a Yellow Jackets recruit, he was said to be close to leaving Georgia Tech for his native New York.
Labeled by New York tabloids as the top choice to replace recently fired St. John’s head coach Norm Roberts, Hewitt — as late as Thursday morning — was believed to be reaching a deal that would send him to Manhattan as early as today.
All that stood in the way of him signing a contract with St. John’s, the New York Post said via an anonymous source, was that “he just needs to get his wife completely on board.”
Apparently, that was far from the truth.
“There was no offer made, just one conversation,” Hewitt said. “I guess I was naïve to think it would be just an initial conversation, and it would be kept private, but obviously in today’s age, nothing’s private.”
As far as his wife Dawnette is concerned, however, Hewitt made a point to say that he and her both fell in love with the Atlanta area and agreed 10 years ago when he left upstate New York and Siena to take over at Georgia Tech that Atlanta was where their family was to be raised.
“One of the things when I left Siena, we talked about the possibility of working here was a destination type job,” Hewitt said. “When I had the opportunity to come here 10 years ago, we jumped at it. It’s still the same place for us.”
It also is still very much the same place for his daughters. Hewitt said that Tuesday night after his meeting near Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport with St. John’s athletics director Chris Monasch, his eldest daughter shot him a vicious look when he returned home.
“I said, ‘Oh, this is serious,’ ” Hewitt said, laughing.
It also was no secret that his parents and brother had moved to Atlanta in recent years from New York and were very comfortable with their surroundings.
On the court, Hewitt said he believes strongly that the woes that have hit his team in recent seasons can and will be corrected when play resumes in November.
“We’ve lost our continuity over the last couple of years,” Hewitt said. “To me, I’m not going to say miraculous, but it’s difficult to do what we did and make the (NCAA) tournament two of the last five years given all the shifts in the roster. Now I think we’re back to the point where we’ve got some continuity.”
After going 12-19 in 2008-09, the Yellow Jackets were 23-13 this season and compiled a 7-9 ACC record before breezing to three straight wins in the ACC tournament two weeks ago, as well as an appearance in the NCAA tournament last weekend.
Following a 75-66 loss Sunday to Ohio State, Georgia Tech’s late-season surge ended, opening the door for speculation about Hewitt’s future.
Immediately after the loss at Milwaukee’s Bradley Center, he was asked by members of the New York media if a coach could resurrect the now struggling St. John’s program and return it to its dominance of the late 1960s through early 1990s. During that stretch, Red Storm head coach Lou Carnesecca went 526-200 and took St. John’s to the 1985 Final Four.
“Do you remember what it was like in New York when the Yankees finally won the World Series again in 1996, the way it electrified the city? St. John’s could definitely do the same thing,” Hewitt said, according to the New York Daily News. “I remember going to the building they call Carnesecca (Arena) and seeing huge crowds embrace the team. I remember going to (Madison Square) Garden and seeing it full. And I remember the winning.
“The right coach could do all that again, and it would be a sight.”
Hewitt, who grew up in New York, never said he was that coach. But St. John’s officials apparently picked up on the statement and requested permission to meet with him Tuesday, which they did.
The news of Hewitt’s decision to remain at Georgia Tech seemed to ruffle some in the Yellow Jackets’ fan base.
Angered by the losses generated by a team that has two potential lottery picks in forwards Gani Lawal and Derrick Favors, as well as some of Hewitt’s in-game, strategic calls, there were some that hoped he would take St. John’s offer and leave.
Responding to a Twitter query from The Telegraph’s @macontechtalk account, one Yellow Jackets fan this week wrote, “Nervous that the deal won’t go through. There will be a lot of disappointed GT fans if that happens.”
Another said, “Let him go. It would be best for GT. I can’t wait!!!!!”
And then, there were others, who vowed their support for both Hewitt and players, saying, “I stand with this team.”
According to Hewitt, it has been the latter response that follows him on the road.
“Unfortunately what happens is that the negative, whoever the negative are, no matter how few or how many, they’re the ones who get the most of the attention,” Hewitt said. “But if I showed you the 20 or 30 Blackberry messages I got from people in Atlanta, as far away as Los Angeles, one guy from Hawaii. Four or five students, ‘Coach, forget all that negative stuff, just concentrate on the people who are here to support you.’
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a major issue with the fans. Again, it’s we want to win more, we have to win more, we want to be more consistent. And I hope the continuity I see in our program moving forward in the next year will make that happen.”
Because of the criticisms, however, Georgia Tech athletics director Dan Radakovich late Thursday issued a plea of support for Hewitt directly to those he serves. In his blog titled “The Good Word,” Radakovich asked fans and supporters indoctrinated in this current sports culture of “instant gratification” to be reasonable.
“When a program or team goes through trials and tribulations the first solution has become ‘fire the coach,’ ” Radakovich wrote. “Certainly we work in a results-oriented business. However, in some cases, the best course of action is to stay the course.
“In the case of Coach Hewitt and Georgia Tech basketball, we remain together because we are Georgia Tech. Coach Hewitt remains the same bright, desirable and coveted college basketball coach he was in 2004. If you have any doubt, just read the New York City newspapers from the past week. His credentials as a human being, a family man, a leader and builder of character are impeccable.”
Radakovich went on to add that “the mission here is clear. We need to win more basketball games.” He said he would be committed to helping Hewitt fulfill it to the best of his abilities.
Hewitt had not read Radakovich’s statement before the news conference but was encouraged to hear the support. He also credited Radakovich’s efforts in helping raise funds for the practice facility in leading to the future success of the program.
“We had a year, I think it was 2007-08, where we practiced six in the morning, three in the afternoon, nine at night,” Hewitt said, speaking of having to share the Alexander Memorial Coliseum floor with the women’s basketball team before the Zelnak facility was built. “Those type of things throw you off academically and a bunch of different things. This practice facility has helped us get back into some kind of continuity.”
Maybe with Hewitt’s situation now finalized, he can add a new picture to the Zelnak facility lobby wall.