Adversity behind him, Cole leads from experience


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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Linda and Cornelius Cole cannot stop laughing.

An hour before Iowa’s showdown with Wichita State on Nov. 24, 2009, in the sparkling Sprint Center, the parents of Hawkeye forward Jarryd Cole are practically falling out of their courtside seats while talking about their son.

The two discuss the time when Jarryd, then 3 years old, reacted to the thought of going to church by saying, “I have a problem with that.” Linda Cole brings up her son’s knack for dancing and his unapologetic, unwavering status as a mama’s boy.

Cornelius Cole fondly remembers the day his dreams of having a baseball star for a son faded.

“I took him out one day, and I hit him a fly ball, and it came down and hit him in the face,” he says as his laughter causes him to pause. “So then, we just concentrated on basketball.”

As “Move Along” by the All-American Rejects blares throughout the arena, Linda and Cornelius’ voices are barely audible. But their laughter, their happiness is infectious.

No wonder.

Their youngest son, Jarryd Cole, is just a few feet away on the court, warming up. Just 15 miles away from the arena is Winnetonka High, where young Jarryd starred as a double-double machine for the Griffins.

Two-and-a-half years after leading Winnetonka to its first conference crown in 31 years, the Hawkeye junior serves as head coach Todd Lickliter’s unquestioned leader. A second-year captain, Cole is fully healthy for the first time in nearly two years, giving Lickliter one of his only legitimate post presences since he took over for Steve Alford in 2007.

But his on-the-court contributions aren’t the heart of his Iowa basketball story.

His high school didn’t raise more than $2,500 to buy tickets for his homecoming game in Kansas City to see a star. They got them to watch, in his high-school coach’s words, “an absolutely wonderful kid,” who some say could be the perfect leader to drag Iowa out of its three-year losing slump.

Handling adversity

Getting Cole to this point, though, wasn’t easy.

In his first three years at Winnetonka, the Griffins won a mere 14 games, and his coach resigned after his junior season. Cole and new head coach Derek Howard had one year to turn the team around before the all-state forward — who snagged more rebounds (381) and blocked more shots (140) than anyone in school history — graduated.

The summer before his senior season, Cole came to Iowa City for the Elite Camp and committed to Alford on his drive back home. Scholarship in hand, he went home and began preparing for the 2006 Tournament of Champions in Peoria, Ill.

But he and his family soon faced a new challenge.

A month before the tournament, doctors diagnosed Cole’s mother with breast cancer.

“I wasn’t going to tell him until he came back [from Illinois],” Linda Cole said. “I don’t like to tell him anything because he has to perform.”

She kept the news from her son and promised to be in Illinois to watch, even though she knew her recovery from surgery would prevent the trip.

But inadvertently, Jarryd Cole discovered the truth about his mother’s health. While getting his physical before the season, his family’s doctor asked how Linda was doing.

“It hurt me, and I didn’t really know how to take it,” Cole said. “She just wanted me to do well. She always told me not to worry about her. … I really thank her for that. If she can survive going through something like that, I can survive anything.”

Cole made the trip with his team, and Winnetonka lost all three of its games.

Three months later, however, the Griffins finished the year with a 17-10 record and won the district title, completing one of their best seasons in school history. Cole led Winnetonka with 19.1 points, 13.6 rebounds, and five blocks per game.

“He was the block; he was the foundation,” Howard said. “What he did was very, very special in leading a group of kids who were of average talent. And he made them much better players.”

By April 2007, after successful surgery and chemotherapy, Linda Cole became a cancer survivor. When talking about his mother during those times, Cole’s voice slows, his wide-gapped smile disappears, and a worried look flashes across his face.

He says, “It was just a sad sight, but she made it.”

But while Cole’s mother regained her health, turmoil brewed in Iowa City. Alford had resigned, and the Hawkeyes hired Lickliter.

Five days after being named Iowa’s 21st head basketball coach, Lickliter traveled to Kansas City on Easter Sunday to try to persuade Cole to stick with his commitment. Cole remained with the Hawkeyes, even though Lickliter’s offense lacked much of an inside component.

The young Hawkeye began his freshman season by starting six of the first 13 games. But in that 13th game, he suffered the worst injury of his career. At the 11:55 mark in the second half against Southeastern Louisiana, the forward set a screen and rolled to the basket.

After effortlessly dunking the ball, Cole landed awkwardly on his left leg and fell to the floor, clutching his knee.

Torn ACL.

Out for the season.

“When I first saw him after the injury occurred, I’m saying to myself, ‘No way is he going to recover from this and play basketball ever again,’” Cornelius Cole said. Jarryd Cole, however, thought otherwise, telling his father he would come back stronger than before.

But Cole didn’t know how difficult his recovery would be.

In basketball, a healthy anterior cruciate ligament enables a player to jump — and more importantly, leap quickly. And for Cole, an undersized big man at 6-7, his agility in the post had caused major matchup problems for slower interior defenders.

He played his sophomore season but struggled, averaging just 3.7 points and three rebounds per game. The junior now admits he wasn’t himself. “I could function, I could move, I could jump, I could run,” he said, “but it just wasn’t the same.”

This season, he has regained his explosiveness. On Nov. 28, 2009, against North Carolina Central, the forward netted a career-high 24 points and snagged 10 rebounds. Through 18 games, his numbers — 8.3 points and 5.1 rebounds in 25.3 minutes — are the highest they’ve been since he arrived on campus.

“I think it’s been huge because the more we get him involved inside, it will probably open up more things for the guards on the outside,” sophomore Matt Gatens said. “Plus, if we get it inside to him, he’s capable of getting to the hole, and getting fouled, and scoring points for us.”

But in Lickliter’s offense, Cole rarely gets the chance to take over a game. The forward has attempted more than 10 shots only twice this season, and in those two games, he’s averaging 21.5 points and 7.5 rebounds.

When he’s not getting the ball inside, Cole is relegated to a screen-setter, basketball’s form of an offensive lineman, opening up perimeter options for the 3-point-heavy Hawkeyes. Cole will go possessions at a time on the floor when his only hope of touching the ball is through garbage rebounds, loose ball pickups, and steals.

And so it is: Cole’s statistical contributions to this Iowa team are in constant flux. In the three games after his 19-point outburst against South Carolina State on Dec. 21, 2009, Cole scored only 17 combined points on 13 attempts.

But his intangible contributions — the behind-the-scenes leadership, the ever-present authority in the huddle, the effervescent smile that can make Lickliter and Co. forget about even the worst of nights — never waver.

“He’s a really good player and even a better person,” the third-year Iowa head coach said. “Jarryd is one of the leaders we need as we plant this foundation. You need to have the right good people, and Jarryd epitomizes that.”

Yet, even with Cole’s leadership, the Hawkeyes have struggled as a team. Lickliter’s squad sits at 7-11, with a road game today against No. 6 Michigan State at 5:30 p.m.

In Cole’s two-and-a-half years in Iowa City, the Hawkeyes are 35-47. But Howard says Iowa’s losing ways will change if his former player has anything to do with it.

“I’ve coached kids from high school, college, and pro, and I’ve never met a kid with as much focus and desire,” said Howard, who worked in such professional leagues as the USBL, XBA, and NABL before going to Winnetonka. “When you’re talking about elite athletes, he may not have the greatest potential, but he’s going to will himself to become the very best player he can be. And that’s very rare.”

Enduring the losses and looking ahead

After Iowa’s 85-60 loss to then-No. 3 Texas in the Sprint Center on Nov. 23, 2009, Cole sat in the media room, staring blankly at the back wall. His voice was tired and flat; his affable personality was all but gone.

“He hates losing. He really hates that,” Linda Cole said. “He gets quiet. You can’t talk to him right after a loss.”

This wasn’t the homecoming he had envisioned.

A day earlier, Cole had sat in the lobby of a downtown hotel and said, “You’re back to where your heart is, back in the place where you’re most comfortable. It’s just a great feeling.”

This season hasn’t had many great feelings for the Hawkeyes. As the losses have mounted and fan support has dwindled, Iowa has looked little like a team poised to contend for Big Ten championships in the near future.

Neither Howard nor Cole knows if a turnaround could be in store for Lickliter’s team.

They don’t know if the Hawkeyes will get above the .500 mark for the first time in the Lickliter era. They don’t know if the team will get out of the Big Ten’s basement anytime soon. They don’t know if Iowa’s newfound inside game will be enough to consistently compete against the conference’s best.

But what’s certain, at least to Howard, is that Cole has done this before. He has rejuvenated a program that the head coach called “a perennial loser” in high school. A few players transferring and a couple of losing seasons won’t derail Cole, Howard said.

“He’s going to make Iowa the very best program it can be,” he said. “If the best Iowa can do is eighth in the Big Ten, then he’s going to get them to eighth in the Big Ten. If the best they can do is first in the Big Ten, he’s going to will that to happen.

“He’s not going to let Iowa be unsuccessful.”

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