Out of the ashes of tragedy emerged a kinder, gentler Larry Eustachy

Larry Eustachy and Emmanuel Omogbo celebrate the victory in which Eustachy called Omogbo his "fifth son" afterwards. Credit: Isaiah J. Downing, USA TODAY Sports.

“Through destruction, beauty grows.
Through division, alliance forged.
Tragedy presents the lowest of lows,
But bonds are formed for the strongest of those.
A family lost, an innocence stolen,
A new family formed, connections growin’.
How they feel deep down, nobody knows.
Through destruction, beauty grows.” – Rich Kurtzman

What if I told you Larry Eustachy is getting soft in his old age?

Yeah, that Eustachy – the man who lives and breathes every second of basketball action by jumping up and down, screaming at his players and the referees, an impassioned coach who’s ever-involved – has actually changed as of late to a kinder, gentler version of himself.

It’s hard to say exactly when this transformation happened, from fiery to a more mellow Larry, but it was some point between the beginning of last season and the beginning of this current one, as Gian Clavell told me in our preseason, sit-down interview.

“He’s an old-school coach, but you gotta know he wins everywhere he goes,” Clavell said in an interview for Mile High Sports Magazine. “He’s a winner. He wins. You gotta respect that. So, you gotta adjust to the way he’s doing things.

“He’s changed a lot, from what I used to hear,” Clavell continued. “He’s changed a lot. He’s teaching more. He’s getting more involved with us, watching more film. Like I said, he’s a great coach. And he’s just getting better and better.”

Maybe the point in which things changed for Eustachy – who just surpassed his 500th win at the age of 61 – was when Emmanuel Omogbo’s family tragically perished in a fire last January.

Omogbo’s father, mother and two-year old twin niece and nephew died in a house fire in a suburb just outside Washington D.C. little more than one year ago. One day after the tragedy, the then 21-year old played basketball, emotionally leading his Rams to a victory over the Air Force Falcons in Colorado Springs.

In the previously mentioned interview, Clavell told me after that game, Eustachy cried in front of his players. In fact, the entire locker room broke down together after that win.

A week later, following a win over San Jose State, Larry Eustachy called Omogbo his “fifth son” in a touching post-game press conference:

And, so the two have been since, like father and son.

Between then and now, Omogbo has blossomed into a brilliant basketball player, and Eustachy will vouch for his growth as a young man, too.

“In one phone call, Emmanuel’s innocence was taken away,” Eustachy said of the tragedy following his 500th win as a head coach, two weeks ago over Air Force. “From that time to this time the amount that man has grown is incredible.”

That 500th victory was a milestone achievement for the 26-year head coach, and after the game the team gave Larry a gameball honoring the win. What did Eustachy do? He gave it to his son, Emmanuel Omogbo.

Last night, in need of a bounce-back win in a big way, Omogbo scored 20 points with 16 rebounds – each game-highs – to lead his team to a tough road win at Utah State.

“I just want to thank Larry Eustachy and his wife Lana for always taking care of me,” Omogbo told the reporter after the win.

That includes having his back during the post-game argument with assistant coach Terrence Rencher of the New Mexico Lobos last Saturday, as Larry and Lana tried to diffuse the situation while Omogbo lost his cool. So did Rencher, who didn’t diffuse the situation by simply going onto the New Mexico team bus, as neither side was right in the exchange following a fiercely fought, physical contest.

Before last night’s game, Utah State fans taunted Omogbo about the argument per Kelly Lyell of the Coloradoan, who was in Logan, Utah. There were more chants about three Rams players being ineligible, too. But, Omogbo and his teammates played through the adversity with class, as one Utah State fan acknowledged.

“My biggest pride is my player-coach relationship…it’s my whole life,” Eustachy said after his 500th win.

It’s showing with Omogbo, probably the closest player-coach relationship we’ve seen since Eustachy took over as head coach in Fort Collins, in 2012. His relationship has grown recently with Antwan Scott, too, who said Eustachy came to visit him in Las Vegas during NBA Summer League. Pierce Horning, part of that 2012-13 team that made it to and won a game in the NCAA Tournament, is now on the team’s coaching staff. And, in my interview with him recently, Greg Smith said he’ll always have Larry’s back because of the way the coach helped Smith through the loss of his father in 2012.

Eustachy actually lost his father at that same time, but decided to stay with his team and fly them out to Greg and Dwight Smith’s father’s funeral in Nebraska.

The head coach known for his volatile nature on the sidelines is still as involved in games as he’s ever been. But, when it comes to behind-the-scenes, he’s turning that toughness into tough love while connecting with his young players.

Through destruction, beauty grows.

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