Saturday, May 3, 2003

Eustachy saga becoming PR chess match

The Des Moines Register

In case you weren't aware, the war in Iraq is over. George Bush said so the other night.

Better check it out for yourself, though. I got it secondhand. I didn't actually hear him.

It's hard paying attention to the president when you're really more interested in what's happening with the Iowa State men's basketball program.

Larry Live doesn't mean King anymore. It means ... you know who it means.

The hard part is figuring out what it means. Maybe it means everything didn't change on Sept. 11 when we were still obsessed with celebrities run amok, when we were still fascinated with people like Gary Condit and Monica Lewinsky and O.J. Simpson and any other walking humiliation of the hour.

We figured life would never be the same. Boy, were we wrong. Faced with life-or-death issues on a scale we'd never before seen, we finally remembered what was important.

But here we are again - welcome home - watching closely as another one bites the dust. And again it's impossible to turn away.

As if the details aren't eye-popping enough, we now have a public-relations chess match to watch. What started as a debate about forgiveness, redemption and what's best for a great state university has morphed into a full-court PR scrimmage.

Larry Eustachy comes out of hiding, upstaging the university, launching a press tour to rival that of any best-selling author.

A few hours later, it's the school's turn to announce the suspension of Larry's top assistant. Before long your neck is starting to ache from the back and forth.

To be perfectly honest, as Larry has been saying this week, I don't care what it means. What does any good soap opera mean?

You don't look for meaning. You just get caught up in the story line and ride along with everybody else. It isn't every day a well-known, high-paid coach is captured on film drinking beer and kissing co-eds until just before dawn.

Should Larry be fired?

Yes, he embarrassed the school with his inappropriate behavior and is not fit to mold young characters.

No, everybody deserves a second chance. While that would be my position, everybody has an opinion.

Every sports commentator or call-in-show host in the country has offered up a take on the rise and possible fall of the Iowa State basketball coach.

Meanwhile, everywhere you turn, there's Larry. There he is on ESPN Radio. There he is on "Good Morning America," live with his wife, Stacy, from their home in Ames.

The nation's runaway fascination with this story is almost as intriguing as the story itself, and the story itself has some zany elements. Stacy Eustachy, meet Tahira Hira - the Iowa State administrator who will hear Larry's appeal. Who could make that up?

I heard a local TV station describe an interview with Eustachy as an "exclusive." Are they kidding? Anyone talking to Larry this week is getting an "inclusive."

The guy has made himself more accessible than an underdog presidential candidate tromping through Iowa before the caucuses.

Before the photos came out, Eustachy was the hermit coach. He wasn't big on returning phone calls. He had a reputation for blowing off booster club meetings and sending assistants in his place.

He spent much of his time off by himself on Larry Island, and that's come back to haunt him.

When Larry isn't marooned, he is witty and engaging. When Larry wants to turn on the charm, nobody does it better.

Having a beer with Larry was a treat. Having 12 beers with him, apparently, was a trial.

Likeable Larry showed up this week saying all the right things. This Larry seems sincere and truly contrite.

Though he might have found religion too late, he seems intent on battling to the final buzzer. He and Stacy and the public relations firm they hired want you to want him to keep his job, too. He and Stacy open their home to media types, students and other visitors.

Stacy gives tours and takes cinnamon rolls to students camping on the lawn. Larry, the recovering alcoholic, is seen drinking a bottle of non-alcoholic beer. Another good visual.

But wait, a mini-controversy rises from the mega-crisis. Doesn't O'Doul's have a trace of alcohol?

Whatever. Just when it looks as if Larry is widening his lead in the PR derby, out comes the news that Iowa State's top basketball assistant has been suspended for allegedly instructing a team member and his family not only to help Larry fight for his job, but also to exact revenge on the enemy.

The momentum continues to spin against the coach Friday when the school, always trying to help, tells us that Larry broke NCAA rules. Not in a big way, but that's beside the point. With Larry Live, no news is small news.

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