Commentary

Surveying the NY/NJ coaching wreckage

Originally Published: May 5, 2010
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

In the movie "I Am Legend," Will Smith's character is the last man alive after a deadly plague wipes out New York City.

Barry Rohrssen knows how Smith feels. The Manhattan coach is the basketball equivalent of a cockroach following a nuclear disaster, skittering around and wondering where exactly everyone went.

Stretching back to Dereck Whittenburg's dismissal at Fordham in December, 11 Division I schools in New York and New Jersey have changed coaches, a wildly spinning carousel that has extended from the shores of Cayuga Lake, down to the boroughs and across the Hudson.

[+] EnlargeTim Welsh
AP Photo/Stew MilneTim Welsh had barely moved into his coaching office before an arrest and resignation created even more New York coaching chaos.

And once Hofstra hires a replacement for Tim Welsh -- who resigned Monday without ever coaching a game for the Pride after being charged with DWI -- the extended metropolitan area will have the ignominious distinction of hiring 12 coaches for 11 vacancies.

"In that movie, it was Will Smith and his dog. He was the only one left standing," Rohrssen said. "That's how I feel. I can't remember a time when there has been so much change in the climate of metropolitan-area basketball."

Hired on April 26, 2006, Rohrssen now stands behind only Long Island University's Jim Ferry as the longest-tenured coach at a Division I school in the area. Ferry has been at LIU eight years.

John Dunne of St. Peter's (Jersey City, N.J.) comes in third. He was hired a month after Rohrssen.

"I said six months ago there was going to be a storm here in the metropolitan area," said Gary Charles, the longtime director of the New York Panthers AAU team. "But I never expected anything like this. I've never seen anything like this in my life. For two weeks I didn't sleep because my phone didn't stop ringing between the media, coaches calling, assistant coaches, new guys trying to get in. I'm not sure I was able to move five steps at the Final Four."

To get a handle on the across-the-board carnage, tick off the list: Columbia, Cornell, Fordham, Hofstra, Iona, Rutgers, St. Francis, St. John's, Seton Hall, Siena and Wagner.

Meantime, at Fairleigh Dickinson, Greg Vetrone only recently was installed as full-time coach after serving as the interim following the firing of Tom Green in June. And Binghamton just gave new meaning to the word "interim," tagging Mark Macon as its interim coach for the next two seasons.

Some moves (St. John's and Seton Hall) weren't surprises; others were merely the nature of the trickle-down effect (Iona hired Tim Cluess after Kevin Willard left for Seton Hall). But regardless of how it happened, the landscape of New York metropolitan basketball has significantly changed.

Now the big question: Will it be for the better?

"How much worse can it get?" Charles said. "Go back to Mike Jarvis [at St. John's] and players getting busted [for NCAA violations]. Then all the way to Seton Hall this year, where you've got a guy [Keon Lawrence] driving the wrong way on the Parkway. It can't get any worse than it's been. If it can, let's shut it down and go play soccer."

Off-the-court issues, however, haven't been the area's only issues. The play on the court has been equally embarrassing. If an NCAA tournament berth is a way to measure success or failure for a basketball team, then the drought around the city is a full-fledged exhibit (from A through Z) for the need to change.

It can't get any worse than it's been. If it can, let's shut it down and go play soccer

-- Gary Charles, AAU's New York Panthers

Throw out Cornell (which is 225 miles from the city) and Siena (a three-hour drive) and New York/New Jersey has been represented in the Big Dance just twice in the past seven years.

Columbia hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since 1968; Fordham, 1992; Hofstra, 2001; Iona, 2006; Rutgers, 1991; St. John's, 2002; Seton Hall, 2006; and Wagner, 2003. St. Francis has never been.

"When you start claiming Cornell and Siena as your New York City teams, it's bad," said Dick "Hoops" Weiss, the longtime basketball writer for the New York Daily News. "For a while we even adopted Connecticut. I think people finally realized that fans aren't going to be satisfied with mediocrity. Whether it's 65 or 68 teams, it becomes a pass/fail deal. New York was failing."

Fans, deep-pocketed alums and administrators also grew weary of the mass player exodus from the area. New York and New Jersey still regularly produce some of the top players in the nation, yet rare is the player who chooses to play within the region's confines. National rosters are dotted with players calling the five boroughs or New Jersey home.

In the past five years, 14 players from the N.Y./N.J. area have earned McDonald's All-American status. Only one stayed close to home -- Mike Rosario chose Rutgers. Now he, too, has flown the coop, announcing his transfer to Florida amid the Fred Hill firing/resignation fiasco.

The fleeing talent -- Tobias Harris (Tennessee), Kyrie Irving (Duke), Jayvaughn Pinkston (Villanova), Doron Lamb (Kentucky), Dominic Cheek (Villanova), Lance Stephenson (Cincinnati), Dexter Strickland (North Carolina), Sylven Landesberg (Virginia), Kemba Walker (Connecticut), Corey Stokes (Villanova), Earl Clark (Louisville) and Lance Thomas (Duke) -- only adds to the what-could-have-been irate nostalgia in the region.

Steve Lavin
AP Photo/Craig RuttleSteve Lavin hopes to rekindle the Lou Carnesecca glory days at St. John's.

"You ask kids what they are looking for," Charles said. "Do they want to win a national championship? Do they want to be on national television? Do they want to be a pro or a better pro? You put them in order of importance and make a checklist. What colleges offer what?"

Suffice it to say that no one on either side of the Hudson earned a lot of checks.

What's most interesting is that most of the schools in the area have turned to new faces, asking coaches to make significant jumps up the professional ladder and pull their programs out of the muck.

Of the 11 coaches hired, only one -- Steve Lavin at St. John's -- has experience as a head coach in a BCS league. And the most recent coaching item on his résumé is seven years old. The rest come from a line of successful mid-major programs, or in the case of Dan Hurley at Wagner, ridiculously successful high school programs (St. Benedict's Prep).

But new blood isn't necessarily bad, even in an area where the basketball roots run deep.

"You've got a lot of aggressive, young guys in New York, and I think that's good," Weiss said. "I think they'll get more support to do the job. Every new coach gets more money, more resources and now the athletic directors and the presidents are on the hook, so they'll give these guys everything they need. I give the administrators credit to realize being mediocre in this city doesn't work. People expect a level of excellence in everything they do in this city and basketball wasn't up to par."

Still, as much as a mass change was needed, no one necessarily saw it coming quite like this.

Especially the guy who stood still while the world around him crumbled.

"There hasn't been a letup in months, it feels like," Rohrssen said. "I'm just surprised at the number of changes in such a small window of time, but as we watch the nature of this business evolve, you almost have to prepare for the unexpected."

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

Dana O'Neil | email

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