ETSU's NCAA berth caps Forbes' remarkable personal comeback

East Tennessee State coach Steve Forbes' background makes him an ideal fit for a team that features plenty of junior-college transfers.

Forbes identifies with those guys because he also has a junior-college background. He began his college coaching career in the JUCO ranks and returned to that level after receiving an NCAA show-cause penalty in 2011 for infractions that took place while he was an assistant on Bruce Pearl's Tennessee staff.

''I think I came out of it a better person and a coach,'' Forbes said. ''I wouldn't recommend anybody go through what I went through, but you can learn from it, and I believe that I did.''

Now he has recovered from that setback with the help of all those transfers to get ETSU back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010. ETSU (27-7) is the No. 13 seed in the East Regional and faces Florida (24-8) on Thursday at Orlando, Florida.

''It was very emotional and rewarding for me to be back at this pinnacle after going through what we went through,'' Forbes said. ''First and foremost, I was very accountable for my part in it. I didn't play the blame game. Then I had to get back up and start swinging for the fences. We tell our players all the time when you get knocked down, you've got to get back up. That's what I did.''

His long road back started by returning to his junior-college roots.

Forbes had attended Muscatine (Iowa) Community College before graduating from Southern Arkansas, where he played baseball. Early in his career, Forbes coached at Southwestern Community College in Creston, Iowa, and Barton Community College in Great Bend, Kansas. When he got his show-cause penalty, Forbes headed to Northwest Florida State College in Niceville, Florida.

He considered the chance to coach plenty of future major-college players by the beach ''better than a lot of Division I jobs.'' Sure enough, Forbes went 61-6 in two seasons at Northwest Florida State.

Then he got what he considered ''the chance of a lifetime'' to become an assistant on Gregg Marshall's Wichita State staff. Forbes was an assistant at Wichita State for two seasons before finally getting a Division I head coaching opportunity at ETSU, located in Johnson City, Tennessee.

His ETSU roster features players from all kinds of backgrounds.

ETSU has five players who came directly from junior colleges, including leading scorer T.J. Cromer. The Buccaneers have three Division I transfers: Hanner Mosquera-Perea and Peter Jurkin came from Indiana while Tevin Glass arrived from Wichita State after playing for Forbes at Northwest Florida State.

Forbes has turned this mix into a winning combination. ETSU has gone 51-19 in Forbes' two seasons. An upset of Florida would enable ETSU to match the school single-season record for victories.

''I think we're built for the NCAA Tournament,'' Forbes said. ''We have legitimate size at the four and the five. We have long, athletic wings. We have a big point guard. We can score and we can defend and we can rebound. I think in the tournament, defense and rebounding are really important. All those things, we can do.''

ETSU also has a coach who's familiar with the NCAA Tournament atmosphere from his years at Tennessee and Wichita State. His players trust him and realize what he's helped them accomplish.

''He's always about helping each other whether it's on the court or off the court,'' senior guard A.J. Merriweather said. ''He wants you to be a better basketball player and a better man. Off the court, he tries to make all these jokes like he's a comedian, but he's cool. He makes us laugh. I love him.''

When he's not joking with them, Forbes also can help his players bounce back from any adversity that comes their way. His own climb up the ladder offers all the lessons they need.

Six years ago, Forbes spent his birthday cleaning out his office at Tennessee after getting fired amid the NCAA investigation. Now he's at the height of his career.

''Anything can happen,'' Forbes said. ''You've got to keep working. You've got to look in the mirror. You can't play the blame game and you've just got to keep grinding. Fortunately, I'm back to where I wanted to be when this all started.''


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