Steve Cleveland coached his last game in the Marriott Center on March 5, 2005.
A few weeks later, he left his head coaching job at BYU for the same post at Fresno State, and he didn't think he would ever be back on the Cougars' home hardwoods — certainly not on the opposing bench.
"Never," he said when asked if he had previously envisioned the game that will take place Friday, when Cleveland's Fresno State Bulldogs visit BYU, the program he took from a 1-25 shipwreck to a team that would win multiple conference championships and earn three NCAA Tournament berths during his eight seasons on the sidelines.
"Initially, I was a little bit reluctant," Cleveland said regarding the prospect of a home-and-home series that began last season with a BYU win in Fresno. "I didn't know if I wanted to put myself through that."
Dave Rose, who went from assisting Cleveland to replacing him at the BYU helm, said he "was a little surprised that Steve actually suggested it. That was my first reaction, 'You really want to do that?' "
Cleveland acknowledges that coming back to BYU as an opposing coach "wasn't something on my top-10 list, but it's a good thing for Fresno State."
Making the trip easier for Cleveland is the fact that there are so many happy recollections of his years in Provo.
"It's hard not to have really, really fond memories of what we did because it was a special time," said Cleveland.
The former Cougars' coach, who left BYU ranked fourth in all-time victories and second in Marriott Center wins, is sure that those memories will come to life the moment he steps foot in his old workplace.
"There aren't many arenas I'm going to go into where I'll have emotions so close to the surface," said Cleveland. "The BYU experience changed my life: physically, spiritually, temporally and every other way.
"The opportunity to come to BYU and be a part of those special eight years was something that I never imagined would happen in my life. I grew from the experience; I became a better coach, and I became a better person."
At Fresno State, Cleveland has been faced with a second consecutive rebuilding effort, inheriting a Bulldog program recovering from NCAA sanctions and scholarship restrictions. It is a relatively inexperienced team that Cleveland leads into one of the country's toughest home arenas on Friday night.
"The difficult part is you take a very young team into an environment like this, and you've got to be really careful; you don't know how they'll react to it," said Cleveland.
In the meantime, Cleveland has been pondering his own potential reaction.
"I purposely kind of ignored (the game) and have not thought about it, because it is very difficult emotionally. It would be any time you leave someplace where you had such a great experience," Cleveland said. "But I'm going to be amongst a lot of friends, which is a very unique situation."
One of those supporters will be the coach on the other bench.
"Dave and I are good friends, but we'll compete. I know how competitive Dave is," said Cleveland. "I'm not a guy that always shows my emotions externally, but internally, I'm a lot more competitive than people realize."
Rose concurs, "Steve will talk about a lot of other things, but he wants to come in here and win."
A Fresno State win would be a significant upset. Rose's teams have a home record of 76-4 over the last five seasons. Cleveland, who hired Rose as his top assistant back in 1997, said "I take no credit for anything Dave has done."
"I am so proud of him and how he has managed that program," said Cleveland. "Like I told him before I left, 'You are going to be the most successful coach ever to coach here, because you are prepared for this.' "
Rose says that when Cleveland was considering leaving BYU for Fresno State, "He told me, 'I'm supposed to take this job, and you're supposed to get the job at BYU, and I'm going to work really hard to make sure that happens.' "
"I'll always be grateful to Steve," said Rose. "He really kind of launched me into a position in coaching that has been great for me and my family."
BYU basketball fans can be equally grateful to Steve Cleveland, who returns to the Marriott Center as the most welcome of visitors this weekend.
Greg Wrubell is the radio play-by-play "Voice of the Cougars," and hosts "BYU Football with Head Coach Bronco Mendenhall" on KSL Newsradio and KSL 5 Television. Wrubell's blog "Cougar Tracks" can be found at byu.ksl.com. "Behind the Mic" is published every Tuesday during the BYU Football and Basketball seasons. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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