NCAA BK

Theus starts over at Northridge

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Jerry Tarkanian, flanked by Reggie Theus and Rick Pitino.
FOX Sports AARON TORRES
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NORTHRIDGE, Calif.

It’s hard to argue that anyone, at any level of basketball, has had a more unique career in the sport than new Cal-State Northridge head coach Reggie Theus.

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Theus was an All-American at UNLV, and a two-time All-Star over 13 seasons in the NBA.

After his playing career he moved onto coaching, where he was an unpaid volunteer assistant coach at Division II Cal-State Los Angeles, before catching onto Rick Pitino’s staff at Louisville.

He was an NBA analyst, both for Turner and on FOX's "Best Damn Sports Show Period." He's been a Division I head coach, leading New Mexico State to the 2007 NCAA Tournament, before leaving to become the head coach of the Sacramento Kings.

After he was let go by Sacramento, he stayed in the professional ranks with the NBA Development League’s Los Angeles D-Fenders last season.

Yet despite that never-ending resume — all the basketball acumen acquired over two careers worth of coaching stops — to those of a certain age, Theus will always be remembered for one thing: For three glorious years, Theus wasn’t an actual basketball coach, but instead played one on TV, as head coach Bill Fuller on the NBC children’s show "Hang Time."

As he gets set for his coaching future at Northridge, it’s his IMDB page of the past that still elicits plenty of questions.

“The brothers and sisters of the kids I’m recruiting now, they remember,” Theus said with a laugh, from his new college basketball home in the Big West. “I still get a lot of ‘Hang Time’ questions, to be honest.”

With such a diverse coaching career, Theus gets questions from just about everyone, of all ages. Sure, the older brothers and sisters of his recruits want to talk about "Hang Time," but parents are also eager to relive his days in the NBA, while his players remember him from his time with the Kings.

It’s a unique advantage Theus has, as he takes over a Northridge program that made the NCAA Tournament as recently as 2009, but is coming off four straight losing seasons.

“It’s important for a coach to have street cred,” Theus said. “And I have plenty of that. There’s nothing I can tell (players) that I haven’t done myself. And if I didn’t do it at a high level, I played against somebody who did.”

It also doesn’t hurt that in the process of coming up through the coaching ranks, Theus has had two invaluable mentors to lean on: Hall of Famers Jerry Tarkanian and Rick Pitino. After coming out of Los Angeles as a high school star in the mid-1970s, Theus played for Tarkanian at UNLV; he also spent two years working on Pitino’s staff at Louisville.

In building his own identity as a coach, Theus took pointers from each. It started with Pitino’s attitude on recruiting players.

“Coach Pitino’s philosophy is that he wants kids with a Ph.D in basketball,” Theus said. “He wants them poor, hungry and driven. That’s what he’s looking for. That doesn’t change whether you’re at Northridge or Louisville.”

Of course, once you get players to campus, you’ve got to coach them up. And it’s there that Theus leans on what he learned in three years playing under Tarkanian.

“The thing I learned most from Tark was what hard work was all about,” Theus said. “I’ve given him one of the greatest compliments I think a player ever can give a coach: I played as hard as I possibly could for Tark. He got everything out of me that I could give.”

And with Theus acquiring a different kind of basketball Ph.D under those two, it led to immediate success at his first college head coaching stop at New Mexico State. There, he took a program that had won just six games in the season before he arrived and turned it into an NCAA Tournament club within two years. The Aggies eventually lost in the first round of the tournament that season, but only after giving a Texas club — which featured some kid named Kevin Durant — all it could handle.

Theus isn’t quick to compare his last college head coaching stop with his new one, but doesn’t deny there are some similarities as well.

For starters, the administrations at both schools fully supported the basketball program, a key for any coach at any level. More importantly, Theus also sees the seeds being planted around the community of Northridge, in the same way they were in Las Cruces, N.M. There, basketball is king, in a town that has a history of basketball success dating to a 1970 Final Four and a Sweet 16 run as recently as 1992.

Theus believes it’s only a matter of if, not when, Northridge supports his program in the same way.

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“We’re the only show in the (San Fernando) Valley,” Theus said. “We just have to put a good product on the floor.”

And that last part, building a competitive team, is something Theus hopes and expects to do immediately. The Matadors return their three top scorers from last season and are waiting to hear whether a few key transfers will receive hardship waivers.

In the short term, the goal at Northridge is to get competitive right away. In the long term, however, Theus sees something much bigger.

“You look at where Gonzaga started — they had a small gym, then they built an arena,” Theus said. “George Mason. You look at all the mid-majors who’ve come up . . . ”

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Theus paused, but it was almost as if you could read his mind processing the last line: “Why can’t Northridge be on that list?”

It isn’t infeasible, especially since it finally seems like the coach with the long resume is ready to settle down in one place. After career stops in the NBA and college, the D-League and Hollywood, the Los Angeles native has returned back to his roots, less than an hour from where it all began.

“I’m glad to be home, happy to be back in college basketball,” Theus said. “I’m as pumped as I’ve ever been. I’m excited to get this school to where I know it can be.”

Theus hopes that place is the NCAA Tournament.

Aaron Torres is a show writer for "Fox Sports Live" and a contributor to FoxSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @Aaron_Torres.

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