Courtney vows to keep Cornell rolling
It was 1996 and Jim Larranaga was looking for a new assistant coach for his Bowling Green staff. He'd already interviewed 27 candidates, and though all of them clearly had strong basketball backgrounds, they lacked the one special thing Larranaga was looking for.
Finally a colleague recommended Larranaga sit down with Bill Courtney.
Larranaga did. He liked what he heard but he wanted to make sure. To seal the deal, Larranaga invited Courtney over to his house for an interview.
It was more like a first date.
They played basketball, a fierce game of two-on-two with Larranaga's teenage sons. They went to the movies and then shared a cookout with the Bowling Green team.[+] EnlargeJohn Aronson/George Mason AthleticsBill Courtney's sunny disposition made a lasting impression on George Mason coach Jim Larranaga
Finally, when the evening was over, Courtney retired to his room.
That would be the spare room in Larranaga's house.
"It was probably the strangest interview Bill has ever been on or will ever be on in his life,'' Larranaga said. "But I knew what I was looking for. I was looking for someone who was upbeat and was as enthusiastic about life as he was about basketball. Through those 24 hours together, I knew Bill was the guy.''
What Larranaga discovered is the same thing Seth Greenberg realized when he hired Courtney at Virginia Tech. In a comically eerie coincidence, the two head coaches -- reached independently of one another by telephone -- described Courtney exactly the same way. As in word for word:
"He's never had a bad day in his life,'' the head coaches echoed.
The 39-year-old Courtney will have to work extra hard to keep that sunny outlook intact now that he's slid over to the head-coaching chair at one of the red-hottest mid-major jobs in the country, Cornell.
Under normal circumstances it would be a tough gig. No scholarships to offer, a big tuition price tag and tough admissions conspire to make Ivy League jobs the ultimate windmill-tilting affair.
But Courtney comes to Ithaca, N.Y., in the wake of the Big Red's Cinderella run to the Sweet 16 and in the middle of a three-year Ivy League championship swing.
Good thing he likes windmills.
"Every job has its challenges, but I don't look at what Cornell has done as a challenge,'' he said. "To me that says, 'It's possible. It can be done at an Ivy League school and more, at Cornell in particular.' I'm sure some people's perceptions have changed but not mine. I've always been a dreamer.''
He is living his dream now, which is why every day is sunny with no chance of showers in his forecast. Courtney knew he wanted to be a basketball coach in high school and as soon as he graduated from Bucknell and finished up an overseas playing career, he set out to make it happen.
After a year as a high school coach, he took a job with Fran O'Hanlon at Lafayette, a full-time gopher gig that paid him little and required a lot.
A month later, O'Hanlon all but pushed Courtney out the door to American, where he could actually earn a little bit of money.
After one season, he was interviewing at the movie theater with Larranaga.
"I wanted someone who was totally committed to being upbeat and positive, not just when things were going well but all the time. That was Bill,'' Larranaga said. "We'd lose a game and I'd be in a staff meeting ripping the players. This one can't hit free throws when it counts. This guy can't defend. He'd come back and say, 'Well you know we could have so-and-so,' and he'd name a kid from another school he knew I didn't like. He always got me back to looking at things in a positive way.''
Courtney spent eight years at George Mason, leaving for Providence the season before the Patriots made their epic run to the Final Four.
Courtney recruited most of those players and as he watched the Patriots slay giants, recalled what he told them during their recruitment.[+] EnlargePatrick Shanahan/Cornell AthleticsCourtney takes over a program that lost its three best players from a Sweet 16 squad.
"I told the guys when I recruited them to George Mason, 'Why can't we play in a Final Four? Dream big,''' he said. "When you're in the coaching world for a while, you learn to temper your expectations a little bit. But I do still dream big. I do still think it can be done.''
Courtney, who spent three years at Virginia with Dave Leitao before joining Greenberg at Virginia Tech, believes the secret to success is finding guys who are more than just skilled players on the basketball court.
He looks for players who have a healthy chip on their shoulder combined with an air of confidence, kids who are both competitive and unselfish.
The talent pool changes at Cornell, away from the name cachet of an ACC school and the promise of scholarships. But those who know Courtney believe he can still fish out the quality kids.
"He cuts through all of the static,'' Greenberg said. "He has a very good feel for evaluating players up. He doesn't get caught up in where a kid is ranked. He looks at who the player is and what he does well. A lot of people get caught up in what other people think. He goes to watch players. Some can play, some can't.''
The bar for success is not set by only the basketball team at Cornell. The men's lacrosse team recently made its second consecutive appearance in the final four and the men's and women's hockey teams each have a Frozen Four to their credit.
Before Donahue came to town, Cornell had one Ivy League title in its basketball history. Now the Big Red are on the verge of matching a streak not seen since Princeton's run in the early 1990s (and only one Ancient Eight team -- Penn -- has won more than five league titles in succession).
So the pressure of expectation, even with a roster that graduates its three leading scorers and three top rebounders, will still be in play.
"The biggest challenge for him will be the fact that he's on the hot seat now,'' Larranaga said. "As optimistic as he is, he needs to have someone who will remind him, when things aren't going well, 'Hey you're a head coach. Would you rather be an assistant?' He needs a Bill Courtney.''
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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