Big Apple Buckets continues their Best Coaching Jobs series with the Northeast Conference. With the departures of Quinnipiac and Monmouth this coming fall, ranking the ten remaining jobs was incredibly difficult to do. Two of the best arenas are heading to the MAAC; therefore attempting to decipher the NEC’s best gigs is wonderfully subjective. I did my best to garner the opinions of several people in the know before devising this list, but as you’ll soon see, it is truly a muddle of programs smack in the middle. Let’s begin.
1. Central Connecticut Blue Devils – CCSU’s Derrick Gymnasium was erected in 1965, so it feels odd to say Howie Dickenman currently holds the best job in the NEC. Truth be told, the fan support is what drives the Blue Devils to the #1 rating. They attend the home games in New Britain win or lose. Since CCSU’s last NCAA tournament appearance in 2007, the Blue Devils have averaged over 1,800 fans per game, first among this group, despite being 12 games under 0.500 during the same time span. It also doesn’t hurt that Dickenman’s contract was recently extended. Terms weren’t disclosed, but it’s assumed the long time head coach is getting paid very well compared to his counterparts.
2. Robert Morris Colonials – The winningest team of the NEC in past six seasons finds their program in the second spot, but it wasn’t always this way in Moon Township. The most humiliated coach in recent memory, Mike Rice, did turn the program around with Andy Toole maintaining its excellence. Now with Toole being courted this offseason, it appears Robert Morris will make the commitment necessary to entice their 32-year old coach to stay for the long run. The Chuck isn’t a bad venue, in fact, it’s probably one of the better gyms in the conference, and the fan base has come out to support its Colonials in recent years.
3. LIU Brooklyn Blackbirds – LIU Brooklyn’s ranking here is all due to Jim Ferry. Upon his arrival to Brooklyn in 2002, LIU was a bit of a laughing-stock of a program; so much so that NYC players wouldn’t even consider attending the university. As a result, Ferry devised the masterful plan of recruiting the untapped high school potential in Texas, selling southern kids on the experience of playing in the city. The plan clearly worked and now with a nice facility, excellent resources, and a respectable following, Jack Perri is in a more envious position when compared to the rest of the conference. His predecessor, Ferry, also proved that LIU could serve as a nice stepping stone position for a young coach looking to eventually move up in the ranks.
4. Wagner Seahawks – Speaking of moving up, we all know about the quick success Dan Hurley achieved while running the Wagner Seahawks. Wagner’s inability to keep Hurley unfortunately shows the limitations of the position, but it wasn’t terribly realistic for the sought after Hurley to stick around. Nevertheless, Bashir Mason is in a nice situation at Staten Island. Wagner is in the upper half of basketball related expenses, they have one of the nicest arenas in the Spiro Center, and the fan support is solid when you field a winner.
5. Bryant Bulldogs – What a difference a season makes. One offseason ago, Bryant was coming off a two win season, poor attendance figures, and an uncertain future in Division I basketball. Now under the leadership of Tim O’Shea, Bryant has been transformed as one of the better jobs in the conference. Bryant University boasts the best academics in the NEC, which depending on who you ask, may or may not help O’Shea in his recruiting efforts. It surely helped when Bryant landed Columbia transfer Dyami Starks and Holy Cross transfer Joe O’Shea. (OK, maybe the latter had to do with family ties.) Moreover, the fan support has exponentially grown with the Bulldog’s recent success, as attendance numbers have nearly doubled from 744 per game two seasons ago to 1,516 this past season. It also doesn’t hurt that Bryant is the closest NEC program to the metro Boston area, giving them exclusive access to high school prospects in the area. Make no mistake, this is a program on the rise.
6. Mount St. Mary’s Mountaineers – I’m a fan of the Knott Arena, which can comfortably seat over 3,100 of your closest Mountaineer friends for a game. Given its proximity, local fans don’t have much else to root for in the area, so it appears Mount St. Mary’s is the next best thing. It’s the southern most school in the NEC, which gives Jamion Christian a small advantage in scouting the mid-Atlantic region for under the radar recruits that most NEC coaches wouldn’t normally court. The resources could be better – it’s well known that the coach’s pay isn’t top notch compared to other NEC schools – but there’s still room for the most tradition based program in the conference to grow. Still, it’s unknown if the Mount administration would step up to keep Christian if he guides his team to the NCAA tournament. Remaining frugal may not be prudent, unless they want to relive the tough rebuilding years they encountered immediately after Milan Brown left for Holy Cross.
7. Sacred Heart Pioneers – Resources and location serve as pluses for the Fairfield, CT based school, so why is this job so low on the list? It mainly comes down to the fan support and the Pitt Center. Since making it to the NEC title game in back-to-back seasons in 2007 and 2008, the attendance has easily been in the bottom half of the league. Most recently, the statistics are even more dire – last year Sacred Heart’s home attendance was third to last in the conference. The budget is somewhat healthy, so if Anthony Latina can guide a Pioneer program to a level it has never previously achieved, then there’s room for this Sacred Heart job to improve. It also wouldn’t hurt if the Pioneers improved their “arena” situation. That is unless they enjoy competing in a makeshift gym that’s awkwardly situated in a fieldhouse where the air-handler can be heard if there aren’t more than 500 fans present.
8. Fairleigh Dickinson Knights – You would never believe that FDU was first (yes first!) on the list for the most spent on basketball related expenses in 2012. What exactly did they spend $2.32 million on? The Rothman Center is an eyesore and badly outdated. The coaching staff, which was headed by the now fired Greg Vetrone, couldn’t have been making all that much. Whatever the reason for the expenses, FDU hasn’t had a winning program since the days of Tom Green, and that was eight long years ago. FDU’s location is one of the reasons this coaching job doesn’t sit at the very bottom of this list, and if the right young, hungry assistant coach with tri-state area ties is brought in to rebuild the program (we’re looking at you, Jared Grasso), the FDU coaching gig could move up quickly within the next few seasons. That’s unlikely to happen overnight, however, with a roster that loses its three leading scorers.
9. St. Francis Brooklyn Terriers – Glenn Braica’s moderate success in his first three seasons masks the difficultly he’s had in recruiting the right kids to Brooklyn. The St. Francis campus location is certainly ideal, but as a niche school with mediocre facilities and an equally mediocre budget that was last in the conference for 2012, it’s difficult to justify that Braica is dealing with a level playing field, at least resources wise, compared to his rival coaches. It puts the Brooklyn born Braica in a tough predicament moving forward, perhaps forcing him to take chances on higher risk players in and around the New York City area. Landing a player of Jalen Cannon’s caliber every offseason isn’t terribly realistic, so Braica has his work cut out for him moving forward.
10. St. Francis (PA) Red Flash – Since Canisius head coach Jim Baron brought the Red Flash to the NCAA tournament way back in 1991, St. Francis has struggled mightily to match that success. The Red Flash have endured 19 losing seasons since their Big Dance appearance 23 years ago, and much of it has to do with the school’s location and limited resources. For one, Loretto is literally out in the middle of nowhere. Secondly, the chronic losing makes things even more difficult, so getting players from anywhere in the country (or Canada, like when Krimmel nabbed all-NEC rookie teamer Ben Millaud-Meunier) to play in remote Pennsylvania at a tiny Catholic university has to be one of the most difficult tasks in all of college basketball. It’s no wonder every coach since Baron has failed in the long run.