Buonaguro finally gets another shot
Nearly 20 years after his only head-coaching gig ended, assistant takes over Siena
He is 56 years old, but to Rollie Massimino, Mitch Buonaguro is still a "kid."
As in, "That's the kind of kid he is" or "He's a good, family kid."
That's the thing about Massimino. Once you're in his family, you're always one of his kids. He'll always take care of you.
So when Fran McCaffery punched his successful mid-major ticket into high-major work at Iowa, Massimino got on the phone.
He called Siena athletic director John D'Argenio and told him to make his job search simple -- look no further than the university basketball offices and Buonaguro, McCaffery's longtime assistant.
"I didn't just call the AD; I called three or four people up there," Massimino said. "Of all the assistants in the country, there aren't many that can do what he can do. He's smart, he's loyal and he's genuine. He's the kind of guy who asks, 'What do you think about this?' and he already knows the answer, but he asks out of respect. Mitch deserved this."
Massimino wasn't the only one who thought so.
Villanova coach Jay Wright called D'Argenio with the same opinion, and before he left for Iowa, McCaffery told his former boss that there was only one person to consider as his replacement.
That so many people thought so highly of Buonaguro says something about the quality of the man.
That administrators at Siena, a mid-major that has arrived on the national scene, thought so highly of Buonaguro says something about the quality of the coach.
"Everybody was rooting for Mitch on this one. Everybody," said Wright, who, as part of that Massimino family tree, has been friends with Buonaguro for years. "He's a very selfless guy, which is unusual in this profession, but he's also very well-respected. He's a great motivator, a great recruiter, an outstanding X-and-O guy but also just a really good person."
Buonaguro has one of the unique résumés in basketball. In 1985, he sat next to Massimino when Villanova won its epic national championship. The Wildcats' top assistant and recruiter, he parlayed that into a head-coaching gig at Fairfield. In his first season, he won national rookie coach of the year honors for leading the Stags to a 24-7 record and their first NCAA tournament appearance.
At the end of the 1985-86 season, he was the finalist for a job down the road.
Instead, Connecticut hired Jim Calhoun.
Buonaguro went back to Fairfield, bringing his injury-riddled team to a stunning second NCAA tournament spot.
Four disappointing seasons followed, however, and in 1991, Buonaguro was fired.
It would be 19 years before another university named him a head coach.
"It was just euphoria," Buonaguro said about his reaction when D'Argenio offered him the Siena job. "We play at an extremely high level and the fact that our president and AD thought enough of me to make me their choice felt so good."
Buonaguro admitted that during parts of the last six presidential terms he's wondered if his time in the boss' chair was over.
In a lot of ways, college basketball is a backward business. In most careers, Buonaguro's extensive résumé -- a career dating back to the 1970s with assistant stops at Boston College, Texas A&M, Cleveland State (alongside Massimino again), UNC Greensboro (where he first teamed up with McCaffery) and then Siena -- would have administrators salivating.
Not in college basketball. In college basketball, hot, young assistants are valued more than loyal foot soldiers.
"Sure you worry," Buonaguro said. "I wanted to coach again, but I also was happy where I was."
Since Buonaguro got his shot at Fairfield, many of Massimino's other assistants moved up and on. Wright went from Hofstra to Villanova, Steve Lappas climbed from Manhattan to Villanova and UMass and Pete Gillen jumped from Massimino's bench to Xavier and onward to Providence and Virginia.
Buonaguro had chances. Since joining McCaffery in Greensboro in 2003, Buonaguro would sit down at the end of each season and look at the available jobs. Sometimes he threw his hat in the ring; other times, he didn't.
He never, however, was disappointed with staying put.
"We would open that window every spring," McCaffery said. "If something was out there that he liked, he'd take a shot at it. But he wasn't obsessed by it."
Buonaguro could have forced his hand if he wanted to. He could have moved up as an assistant at a high-major Division I school and put himself on the fast track back to a head-coaching gig.
He chose not to.
"That's what makes him so unique," Wright said. "He won a national championship and he was the guy, the hot assistant. He already made that run. He didn't care if he was the hot assistant at Duke or Villanova. He was at the point where he didn't just need to get a job. He wanted the right job and he got it."
Siena is, in fact, a very good job right now. The Saints have won the last three MAAC titles, growing from decent mid-major to scary NCAA tournament opponent. Siena ousted Vanderbilt in 2008 and Ohio State the next season. This past March, the Saints nearly claimed Purdue as their latest victim.
Buonaguro is hardly daunted by the challenge.
He has been alongside McCaffery for Siena's resurgence, helping to pluck the overlooked talent that has made the Saints into a national player.
"Nobody was recruiting Ryan Rossiter and [Buonaguro] was the one that said, 'I like Rossiter,"' said McCaffery of the soon-to-be senior who will be the Saints' leading returning scorer and an early pick for MAAC Player of the Year. "He finds guys that other people aren't recruiting. That's a gift."
A few things have changed in the last 19 years -- media commitments, Buonaguro said, are considerably more now than they were with Fairfield -- but the job is, Buonaguro has learned, like riding a bike.
"We've certainly raised the bar here," he said. "But the thing I remember is ultimately it comes down coaching young kids. You can put everything else aside. That's what my job is. I don't have to change a lot here. These kids expect to win."
And this kid -- the 56-year-old kid -- is ready to lead them.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.