Jaspers coach says he's happy to stay
RIVERDALE, N.Y. -- All that has changed here since Manhattan beat Florida (and opened up enough wounds against Wake Forest that the Deacons couldn't get past Saint Joseph's in the Sweet 16) are a few photos of the NCAA Tournament run and a banner from last March.
The offices are still a cubby hole compared to a high-profile Division I school. Draddy Gym still has a time warp look to it, making it a cozy, 2,500-seat home where the green track circles the high school-like fold-up stands.
A few faces are gone, notably seniors Luis Flores, Dave Holmes and Jason Benton.
But the most dominant personality remains: head coach Bobby Gonzalez.
It's not like he didn't try to get out. He did interview for Miami. He probably would have gone if the job were offered to him instead of then Texas assistant Frank Haith. He would have talked to St. John's if they had called, but they didn't. They interviewed former North Carolina coach Matt Doherty and Kansas assistant Norm Roberts, hiring Roberts who had once coached at nearby Queens College.
So Gonzalez stayed. He had no choice.
And the reality is he's more at home here than he ever would have been at Miami -- and maybe than he would be if another high-profile school came calling out of his New York-area base.
"I don't have to leave," Gonzalez said. "I'm happy here. I've got good kids in the program and I'm in New York working on my craft. I wasn't looking to leave. If the right school comes along, I'll listen and look. I definitely agreed to meet with Miami and met with them. I was interested but I was never sure it was the right place for me.
"I would have looked at St. John's because it was in New York and I wouldn't have to leave New York. It was the Big East and more money than I was making, but for whatever reason I wasn't the guy. It wasn't going to happen."
And, once again, that might have been for the best. Gonzalez might have a better shot, at least in the short term, of getting to the NCAA Tournament out of the MAAC than at St. John's trying to climb out of the bottom of the Big East, especially when it moves to 16 teams in 2005-06.
Manhattan won the MAAC regular-season and tournament titles in 2003 and '04 after an NIT appearance in 2002. The Jaspers were the first MAAC team to win a first-round game since the '95 Jaspers beat Oklahoma. The program has gone from an RPI of 317 when Gonzalez arrived six years ago to 38 heading into the NCAAs last March.
But the question facing Gonzalez is whether Manhattan is a destination job. The players and the staff talk a big game about Manhattan being the East Coast version of Gonzaga. To do that, the Jaspers have to get on national television -- and playing at N.C. State on Dec. 5 on Fox's Sunday Night package is a start. But winning multiple NCAA Tournament games is really the only way to do that. Manhattan lost to Syracuse in the first round in 2003.
But to really have a chance of copying the Zags, Gonzalez also must stay in Riverdale. Like Mark Few has done, he must turn down the lure of other so-called big-time offers.
"For me, this is somewhat of a destination job," Gonzalez said. "I'm in New York, near my family, friends and roots in recruiting. I'm making more money. Do I think about being in a bigger league and having more opportunities to get into the tournament? Yeah. It's an incredibly stressful 40 minutes knowing that you have to win (the conference tournament title game to get into the NCAAs). If we don't win that one game, we're sitting at home. That's pressure. We won it two years in a row and that's hard to sustain."
Gonzalez handled the coaching search about as openly as someone can in his position. He called his players together and informed them that there were lots of rumors about him going elsewhere. The Jaspers were on a "tour," as he called it, after the second-round loss to Wake Forest, getting offers to make appearances around the city. At the same time, the talk about St. John's and Miami was picking up.
"I was confused because I was hearing so many different rumors but he brought me in and made everything clear," junior Jason Wingate said. "He said he would tell us before he let the media know. He said the administration wanted him to stay and he didn't want to walk out on the program."
Gonzalez was concurrently negotiating with Manhattan, ultimately signing an extension in August that could keep him here through 2009-10. Gonzalez, 41, was in the last year of his contract before the extension. Of course, he can get out of the deal for the right price, but it is a sign of commitment on both parties.
"He instills loyalty in us," Wingate said. "Even if he does plan to leave later on down the line, he has taught the loyalty to us and the recruits."
But Wingate said the process of a coach looking for other jobs is tough since the players are on the inside, but "still aren't getting any information."
That's why Gonzalez had to be open with his players if he did stay -- so there would still be a level of trust between him and his players. If he was going to make this work, he had to prove it to them that Manhattan was a worthy place to remain. If he wasn't willing to stay, then why should a player be committed, too?
"I was happy he was getting the recognition but I was scared from a personal point of view," said senior Peter Mulligan, who transferred to Manhattan from UMBC after his freshman season. "He's such a great coach and has done so much for the program and we wanted him back to lead us to going to the tournament three straight times.
"He just told us that he loved it here and that the school worked out an extension for him," Mulligan said. "He deserved it. He has brought in good players so we can be like Gonzaga out of the West."
Gonzalez is New York. He talks a mile a minute. He's always on the go. His background epitomizes the ethnic diversity of New York with a combination of Spanish and Italian, even though he said everyone thinks he looks Irish. He coaches in a heavily Jewish neighborhood. As such, he's able to fit in in any of the five New York City boroughs or nearby New Jersey or Connecticut.
"I'm a New Yorker and I feel comfortable here," Gonzalez said. "I'm trying to make this the Gonzaga of the East and it would have to take an unbelievable situation for me to go. I'm not saying I'll never go. Everyone thinks I'm dying to get out. That's not true.
"I could have left for a couple of A-10 jobs a year or two ago," Gonzalez said. "There were other schools that wanted me to interview. I'm not saying I would have gotten the job but they wanted me to interview. I haven't jumped at every chance to leave."
The reality, like Gonzaga, is that it's very tough to get teams to come to Manhattan. The Jaspers did get Rhode Island to come to Draddy Gym this season and have a return game through the Bracket Buster with Wisconsin-Milwaukee, a comparable team in the Horizon League. Like Manhattan, the Panthers just signed Bruce Pearl in the hope he wouldn't leave for a higher paying job.
Manhattan is playing at N.C. State and Arizona. Gonzalez' hope is to have those teams return the game to Madison Square Garden. Gonzaga tries to do the same thing, hoping to get teams to return a game to Seattle or at the very least the Spokane Arena (as they got last season after playing Georgia in Atlanta two seasons ago) since high-profile teams don't like to go to their on-campus arena. Gonzaga is opening up a new facility this season but it still will be tough to get teams to play there.
"We can't get Big East teams to play us anymore," Gonzalez said. "We're now going to the Pac-10 and the ACC. We can't get in the Holiday Festival at the Garden because we've won it. Look, if we had done this in the Midwest, then I'm not ringing the bell at the New York Stock Exchange. We're in New York and we've got a niche here. We can make this work."
Everyone in the MAAC will be zeroing in on Manhattan this season. The Jaspers aren't the favorites. That target belongs to Fairfield, Niagara, Iona and even Rider before the Jaspers, at least in the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. The Jaspers do return Mulligan's 10 points a game, Wingate's 5 a game and role players Mike Konovelchick's six and Kenny Minor's five a game. That puts even more pressure on heralded newcomer C.J. Anderson to help offset the loss of Flores' 24 points a game.
"It's very rare for a team to win three straight regular-season and conference titles," Gonzalez said. "Everyone predicts it will be a step back for us. I do worry we won't be as good with a tougher schedule. But if teams don't get us this year (in the MAAC), they won't get us next year because we'll have our best team ever. Our juniors are really good, our solid freshmen will be sophomores and we've got a great transfer in Tyler Smith (from DePaul)."
Talk like that indicates that he's here to weather out a possible dip after a glorious two-year run. Dana Altman has made Creighton a destination job, just like Few did at Gonzaga. It can be done, even at a school like Manhattan, nestled in the Bronx, not too far from the shadow of Yankee Stadium, at a program that is never going to be the main attraction even within its own zip code.
Gonzalez has been a high-profile recruiter at Virginia and Providence. But he's had more of a challenge trying to land a Flores or develop a Mulligan into a major contributor.
"I don't buy the myth that you have to move by a certain age," Gonzalez said of missing his window to leave after the two-year NCAA run. "What's the hurry if you're successful and stay successful? The only reason you couldn't (move if you wanted to) is if we fell off the map. Hopefully we're not going to do that."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com. His Weekly Word on college basketball is updated Fridays throughout the year.
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