Commentary

Bonnies look forward to seasons future

Originally Published: December 16, 2009
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

The calendar said it was two weeks before Christmas, but even Bob Cratchit had more reason to be festive than St. Bonaventure coach Jim Crowley.

Jim Crowley
Frank Victores/US PresswireCoach Jim Crowley's Bonnies (10-0), fresh off a big win over Bowling Green, are off to the best start in program history.

It was Dec. 10, 2006, and Crowley stewed over an embarrassing loss at home the day before, a 71-46 setback, to put it kindly, against Bowling Green. The rout dropped the Bonnies to 4-5 on the season and epitomized a program stuck on a long-term road to nowhere.

Named head coach before the 2000-01 campaign after four seasons as an assistant at the school located 75 miles south of Buffalo, Crowley managed a 13-15 record in his second season. But by the start of the 2006-07 season, he was coming off three consecutive nine-win seasons. With a new athletic director in place and the coach's contract up at the end of the season, the scope of the loss against Bowling Green, a game which drew just 521 fans to the Reilly Center, seemed to sum up a state of affairs as bleak as any dimly lit, poorly heated, Victorian-era London office.

In short, you didn't need the ghost of seasons future to sense where the story was going.

"It was near bottom, and I was near bottom," Crowley said. "To be honest, the program was probably headed for a change."

Since this isn't a story celebrating the unreformed Scrooge in all of us, you've probably guessed that's not how things played out. Fast-forward four years, and St. Bonaventure defeated Bowling Green 70-54 this past Saturday in front of more than 1,000 fans at the Reilly Center. The win against a familiar foe moved the Bonnies to 10-0 this season, the best start in program history.

And the roots of the success that has St. Bonaventure, long an afterthought even in the Atlantic 10, receiving votes in the AP Top 25 extend back to that game four years ago. Nowhere near the top of the Scoville scale of hot-tempered coaches, Crowley nevertheless burned after that loss. For one of the rare times, he lit into his team at its next practice, told them what was happening wasn't acceptable and shouldn't -- wouldn't -- be tolerated any longer.

"I think coach knew that he had something special with the team that was there that year," said forward Dana Mitchell, a freshman on that team that endured his wrath and now its senior star. "And he just kept it in our minds that we could do better and that we deserved better if we kept working hard."

It wasn't just red-faced bluster. With a week before the team's next game, Crowley looked beyond bravado. With the edict laid down, the focus turned to committing to a style of play that demands precise execution to compensate for the recruiting deficits inherent in a school of roughly 2,400 students that sits in the relative hinterlands of western New York between Cleveland and Buffalo.

In my mind and my staff's mind, we had a certain way we wanted to play, with our offense and defense and tempo, and we hadn't fully committed to it. We were going to do our five-out on offense, and we were just going to play man defense in the half-court. And if we were going to go down, we were going to go down fighting.

-- St. Bonaventure coach Jim Crowley

"It was hope and desperation," Crowley said of the last stand. "If it didn't work, I probably was going to have to figure out a new livelihood. But it was also what I believed and what my staff believed in how we not only could play but should play. In our league … we're not going to get the athletes and, to be honest, the high-rated recruits that these other teams get. But we can get kids that fit into the way we wanted to play."

The transformation wasn't exactly a holiday miracle. There weren't any burning bushes leading the way to greater truths amidst the otherwise frozen shrubberies. This was a basketball team figuring out how it could play its brand of basketball better than opponents could play their own.

"In my mind and my staff's mind, we had a certain way we wanted to play, with our offense and defense and tempo, and we hadn't fully committed to it," Crowley said. "We were going to do our five-out on offense, and we were just going to play man defense in the half-court. And if we were going to go down, we were going to go down fighting."

Following a one-week layoff after the Bowling Green debacle, St. Bonaventure won its next game by 25 points at Canisius. A week after that, the Bonnies beat Michigan in Ann Arbor, a game which also happened to be the first time athletic director Steve Watson, introduced on Dec. 13 of that year, saw the team play in person. St. Bonaventure went on to finish 16-15 that season, a winning record that was secured with a first-round win in the Atlantic 10 tournament -- the program's fifth win in the tournament and its first under Crowley.

The next season brought an 18-12 record and a win against nationally ranked George Washington. All of which fed last season's run, in which the Bonnies set a program record with 23 victories and reached the third round of the postseason WNIT.

"That's why we're having success now; no one is trying to do things they're not good at," Crowley said. "They only make sure they do the things they're good at, and they're pretty good at those things."

The same goes for the coach, who is among both the youngest and longest-tenured coaches in the A-10 at 39 years old. Crowley was just months removed from his playing career at Keuka College when his alma mater offered him the head-coaching position for the women's basketball team two weeks before the season began in 1993. Despite learning on the job, he won more games than he lost in three seasons with the Division III school, which is in the same general western New York neighborhood as St. Bonaventure. But if accepting the Keuka College job at 23 years old, or the head job with the Bonnies at 30, required a certain degree of faith in his own acumen, learning from mistakes simultaneously demanded a measure of humility.

"Ego's never been an issue for me; if you met me, you'd know why just by my appearance," Crowley joked. "The whole thing about this game is I can learn a lot more from my players and my staff, and watching other people and what they do, than I'll ever know."

What he has learned seems to be working. St. Bonaventure was ranked No. 11 in the country in field goal percentage (47.3 percent) through games of Dec. 13 and in the top quarter of Division I in field goal defense (36.8 percent). The Bonnies have a go-to player in Mitchell, a three-time all-conference selection who leads the team this season in scoring, rebounding and field goal percentage and is even more of an all-court player than those numbers and a 6-foot-1 frame might suggest. They also have a balance in a rotation that goes nine-deep on a regular basis and features two other double-digit scorers in Jessica Jenkins and Megan Van tatenhove.

"We really take pride in possession on both ends," Crowley said. "We want to make you work on both ends. We want to make you work defensively, so we're going to share the ball, we're going to make the extra pass. We want to keep attacking to demand the defense make decisions. … Defensively, we don't want you to get in the paint and we want to contest every shot. And again, we don't want people scoring in the first five or 10 of the shot clock."

With wins against Marist and Bowling Green, St. Bonaventure already has heft to go with its record. Upcoming games at Michigan State and Virginia offer even higher-profile opportunities to make a mark on the national scene before opening conference play next month.

Win or lose, the good cheer around the program should last well beyond the holiday season.

"Our kids are recognized at the store and we're kind of stopped around campus," Crowley said. "A lot more people want to talk to you. And that's a good thing."

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.