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Before he was a star, he was a star: Andy Enfield at Johns Hopkins

By Matt Norlander | College Basketball Writer

Enfield (second from left) and Johns Hopkins seniors in 1991 after winning the MAC. (JHU Athletics)

Andy Enfield's path to college coaching stardom, which is uplifting and overtaking him in full during this changeover between first and second weekends of the NCAA tournament, all began 27 years ago.

That's when Johns Hopkins decided to hire a man named Bill Nelson, looking past the likes of suggestions from others, like one man who got a call of recommendation on behalf of John Thompson Jr. at Georgetown. Nelson's first season with the Blue Jays ended 6-18. He was desperate to find any player to help. And as that downcast year played out, he came upon Enfield, who along with four other recruits in the high school class of 1987 forever altered the state of the program.

Nelson loved Enfield's game when he saw him in the fall of '86. The second-year Florida Gulf Coast coach is still considered by many the best player in program history and undoubtedly the best shooter Nelson has ever coached, the 69-year-old said by phone Tuesday afternoon. Enfield wanted to be a guy who got minutes. It's why he chose Division III over the Ivy League schools who were giving him looks, in addition to the academic opportunity.

Bill Nelson says Enfield was the best shooter
in school history. (via JHU)

"They built the program," Nelson said of that five-man recruiting class -- his first at JHU -- that was spearheaded by Enfield. By the end of Enfield's career in 1991, the team had 39 wins in his final two years (and remember, this is lighter D-III scheduling in the late '80s/early '90s) and two straight NCAA tournaments. Those two appearances trampolined the Blue Jays to three more consecutive NCAA D-III tourney bids.

Nelson, who coached at RIT when Tom Coughlin was there, then went to Nazareth College and shared stomping grounds with Jeff Van Gundy for two years, said his program is what it is today because that group set the standard and changed the culture. Johns Hopkins is a known name in D-III hoops because of the Sweet 16 run '90 and second-round appearance '91. It is what it is in large part because of Andy Enfield.

Nelson describe Enfield as a clutch player. Yeah -- kinda. In 12 postseason games, he went 55 for 56 from the foul line. His 92.5 free-throw percentage remains an NCAA record across all divisions, men's and women's. Enfield was inducted into the school's athletic Hall of Fame in 2001. He is a two-time First Team CoSIDA Academic All-American (1990 and 1991) who graduated with a 3.52 GPA.

Still-standing Hopkins records at the school:

-- Single-season points (610)
-- Career points (2,025)
-- Career scoring average (18.8)
-- Career field goal attempts (1,302)
-- Career field goals (680)
-- Career 3-pointers (234)
-- Career 3-point percentage (.470)
-- Career free throws (431)
-- Single-season free-throw percentage (95.3)
-- Career minutes (3,542)
-- Career minutes per game (32.8)

There are more records still, but you get the point. Nelson is just one of many connected to Enfield who's been roped into the craziness of FGCU and Dunk City hysteria. He said he -- a man more than two decades removed from coaching Enfield -- was tracked down by more than a dozen media outlets in the 40 hours following FGCU's Sweet 16 confirmation. He's doing all this amid recruiting, by the way, talking to fathers on the other side of the country who'd rather gab with Nelson about Enfield than discuss their own sons.

Nelson also attended both FGCU tournament games in Philadelphia last weekend, making the four-hour roundtrip drive Friday and Sunday, taking one of his daughters to both games. Enfield remains extremely connected to his roots and close with his family. His sister, Katie, showed up, and his brother, Mark, flew in from California. Nelson estimated about 100 JHU alumni, friends, old classmates and/or family showed up, including Chip Kelly, who was the defensive coordinator at the school in the early '90s and has strong ties and common bonds with a lot of Enfield's basketball/football fraternity (Alpha Delta Phi) friends.

After the San Diego State win got his team to the second weekend, making history for the embryonic basketball program and the NCAA tournament (no 15 seed had ever making the Sweet 16), Enfield found his old coach and parents, Barbara and Bill, and hugged them hard, his suit drenched in water from the boisterous and insta-viral locker room celebration scene that took place just minutes before.

It had to be something of a flashback for Nelson, who was cheering over wins with Enfield back when Nelson had darker hair and a stronger grip. Personality-wise, what was Enfield like in those college days? Very mature, very focused, according to his coach.

Enfield in the early '90s. (via JHU)

"He's got a plan," Nelson said. "There's an art to practicing. Jeff Van Gundy had it. Pat O'Connell (an assistant at Towson who graduated from Hopkins in 2010) has it. When he (Enfield) walked through the door he was all business. Those are the three who never took time off during games and during practice. And when he walked out the door, it was academics."

Back then, Nelson would go into his office after practice, make a few calls and head home. Enfield would remain on campus into the late hours, studying. It's this work ethic, according to Nelson, that's allowed Enfield to climb up in coaching and in life.

"A lot of people score a thousand points," said Nelson, "Andy scored 2,000. A lotta are good free-throw shooters; he was the greatest. A lot are great students; he was an academic All-American. There are a lot of models; he married a supermodel.

"I knew he'd be a good coach, but he hasn't even held the job for two years! When he took the job, three of the starters quit, and for that team, getting Brett Comer was like us getting him."

As coincidence would have it, current Blue Jays forward George Bugarinovic played with Comer for two years at Blue Valley Northwest High School School in Overland Park, Kan. Then Comer went off to Florida and wound up playing with Austin Rivers, who's now of course earning an NBA paycheck.

Enfield and Nelson exchanged emails after "the draw" on Selection Sunday. They'd been lucky enough to land Philly. Nelson would be going, no expectations for two trips. By Sunday night, everything had changed. The story was spreading and Enfield was now college basketball's burgeoning coaching celebrity.

"You can't get near him now," Nelson said. The two men have kept in contact in the more than 20 years since Enfield left Johns Hopkins. It was this past fall when Nelson took a recruiting trip to Florida -- Boca Raton. He purposely set up it up to drive across Alligator Alley and watch the team's game against FIU.

"He hasn't changed," Nelson said.

Nelson said one of his enduring memories of Enfield, the player, was during the MAC title game in '91. A second straight tourney bid was on the line. Enfield was knocking on the door of 2,000 points, but he wasn't going to get it. The team was down seven points with "a minute and three to go," according to Nelson. They came back.

Swarthmore led 70-68 with six seconds to go. Enfield received a pass -- and all five Swarthmore players magnetized to his spot. Enfield, known for his shooting (but is still top-10 all-time in assists at JHU), dished the ball via a bounce pass for the game-tying basket. It went into overtime, and JHU got the win. Nelson said that's still his most talented team ever.

Here's the box score from that game.

The box score from the game that sent JHU to its second NCAA tourney with Enfield. (Swarthmore Athletics)

Per usual, Enfield led the team in shots, points and minutes. This run by FGCU has been a thrill for Nelson -- who said he's not close to retirement -- to watch from up close. And he'll be in Atlanta for the Final Four, an event he's attended 42 of the past 45 years. He's met up with his protege in years past.

This time, if the most unthinkable of storylines is able to play out, Nelson will have to settle for a few more quick chats and wet hugs inside the locker room.

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