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Litzenberger is heard loud and clear.

Byline: JOHN CONRAD Register-Guard Sports Editor

When Ernie Kent decided to add former women's assistant coach Fred Litzenberger to his staff, the Oregon men's basketball players weren't sure what to expect.

They'd heard of Litzenberger. Put that another way: They'd heard Litzenberger.

"You'd come in for practice and you'd hear his voice screaming at the girls all the time," UO center Chris Christoffersen recalled. "Yeah, we definitely wondered what it was going to be like."

Kent talks about chemistry so much you'd think he majored in it. Yet here he was making room in his program for a guy who had just been swept out the door along with head coach Jody Runge following a revolt by the UO women last season.

Yes, Litzenberger is recognized as an authority on defense, and for sure the Ducks were awful at that last year. Yes, Kent and Litzenberger coached together on Boyd Grant's staff at Colorado State years ago and were fond of each other. But this is still a team that seemed to struggle last year with Kent yapping at them as they lost 13 of their final 17 games.

How was this going to work?

"Because of the way we run our program," Kent said confidently long before the season began. "The personal touches we try to have and the relationships we try to have with our players beyond coaching. You can challenge people and hold them accountable, you can be vocal and get after them all you want, but they have to see the other side. That comes back to our individual meetings, our retreats, our making sure the players see us as something besides intense coaches. There are times you are a parent. There are times you are a friend. Those are the things I think we do a good job of within this program."

It's obviously helped that Oregon has been winning this year, and maybe Kent has compromised by doing more sitting and less yelling during games. The 23rd-ranked Ducks are 13-4 on the year and 5-1 in the Pac-10 Conference, within one victory of their total last season and already with as many conference wins as a year ago.

"Fred is a guy who works extremely hard, is extremely knowledgable and has dedicated his life to the game of basketball," Kent said. "He has not changed, and I did not want him to change, and his contribution has allowed us to take this program to another level."

Litzenberger, 55, didn't know where his career was headed last spring. Now he couldn't be happier.

"I couldn't be more excited the way things worked out," he said. "I love this athletic department, I love the University of Oregon, things have worked out great for me. I'm working with a group of kids who are excited about improving, will listen, work hard, do everything you ask them to do. It's hard in this business to find a place you want to spend a lot of time or end your career, but Oregon is that place for me."

The players?

It's not that hard to tell when players say what they've been told to say or think they should say. But Christoffersen isn't the only UO player who seems sincere when he says Litzenberger has been a positive addition to the men's program.

"We certainly heard him when he coached the girls," Frederick Jones said. "But we understood why he was brought in here. He brings a winning attitude to our team. When someone has his knowledge, people who want to get better and reach their goals are going to listen. He might be the sole reason for our turnaround."

"We'd heard he was an excellent defensive coach, and that's what we needed," Luke Ridnour said. "We knew he was intense. But he's a good guy. He's fun off the court and easy to talk to. I think he relates well."

Litzenberger remains the loyal soldier when asked about the women's program.

"It was a tough situation and I was caught in the middle," he said. "But I didn't see it coming. The one thing I'll say for all the women is they worked hard for me just as the guys do now. And I've been fortunate in that my job is to evaluate defense and coach fundamentals, and all the coaches who have hired me have let me do that, including Jody.

"I cheer for the women, and I think that's the bottom line. You have to look forward."

Forgive us for dwelling on the past a moment longer. This is still a guy who caught a lot of the criticism leveled during the ugly demise of Runge's program. Now he's receiving much of the credit for the improvement of the men.

Two factors seem to be at work here. Runge didn't strive for the checks and balances, as Kent does, that help keep everyone on the same page when intensity boils over on the court. And men still deal with verbal abuse from coaches better than women.

We have that on the authority of the UO women.

"It was not Fred's job to coddle people," Shaquala Williams said. "On the court, it was not his job to be a people person, it was his job to be an enforcer. Guys may not like being yelled and screamed at, but they don't take it personally. Females are a lot more sensitive."

"Women take everything to heart," Alyssa Fredrick said, "and we looked at him as an on-court figure. It seemed like he was a nice person, but I really didn't get to know him that way."

That seems to have changed with the men, for whatever reason.

"He can be hilarious off the court," Christoffersen said. "He doesn't sugar coat anything on the court, but we don't take it personal. Then we look at tape all the time and he shows us why he's yelling at us."

Following his hiring, Litzenberger watched all of Oregon's game films from a year ago and gave Kent a 4 1/2 -page list of things that needed to be improved.

He focused on three things: defending the ball, cutting down on fouls and improving blockouts. Everything boiled down to improved fundamentals.

"Doing the little things make big things happen," Litzenberger said. "I say that all the time."

Example: Oregon's goal is to hit more free throws than opponents shoot. The Ducks are 364-of-468 and opponents 225-of-341 this year, compared to 509-of-709 for the Ducks and 540-of-800 for opponents last season.

Under Litzenberger, the UO women's defense was always at the top of the Pac-10. The Ducks led the league in scoring defense three of his six years and were first in field-goal percentage defense two of the six. They were never worse than second in scoring, only once lower than fourth in shooting percentage. This year, the UO men are fifth in both scoring and field-goal percentage defense, compared to ninth and eight, respectively, last year.

"The most important stat is field-goal percentage defense," Litzenberger said. "We've been a little inconsistent there. The second is point differential between what you score and what you allow. If you keep that stat above plus-10, you're playing well enough to win. I love the running game, and you can still be a good defensive team and run if you maintain that differential."

Oregon, which is giving up 67.6 points compared to 76.6 at this time last year, leads the league in point differential at plus-18.7.

"We were always one of the better defensive teams in the league until last year," Kent said. "Bringing in Fred, we've allowed ourselves to put an emphasis on attention to detail and held people accountable every day. I think he's been fantastic."

Compared to last year, the same can be said for Oregon's chemistry.


THOMAS BOYD / The Register-Guard Assistant coach Fred Litzenberger gives feedback to his players - Chris Christoffersen (left) and Matt Short - during a defensive drill at a recent practice.
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Title Annotation:Defense first: Assistant coach who was a pillar for UO women's program now helps men's team strive for same success.; Sports
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jan 18, 2002
Previous Article:Former Lion responding to new challenge.
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