When Jim Engles took over the totally moribund men's basketball program at the New Jersey Institute of Technology seven years ago, the Staten Island native had an inkling of what he was getting into. After all, NJIT had just become an NCAA Division I program, much to the dismay of the former coach, who liked things the way they were as a Division II organization.
So in perhaps one of the most spiteful moves in athletic sports anywhere, the former coach (who will remain nameless here) went out and gave scholarships to kids who simply could not play and had no rhyme or reason being a Division I athlete. The Highlanders had perhaps two kids who could play on the Division I level _ and the rest could have a tough time playing Division III. That's how bad it was.
The results were just as bad. The Highlanders were 5-24 in their first year as a Division I program, playing with the Division II roster, then with that band of misfits, they went a robust 0-29 in 2007-08, forcing the school to fire the old coach and bring in the new and energetic coach from Staten Island.
Engles, a former assistant at places like Wagner and Columbia, knew that NJIT wasn't exactly the plum coaching position. But, hey, it was a chance to be a head coach at the Division I level. It was his opportunity, even if the program didn't win a single solitary game in the year prior to his arrival, even if he was inheriting an entire team that was already on scholarship _ but in essence, couldn't really play.
So Engles had to be patient and take his lumps. The losing continued, with a losing streak of epic proportions. NJIT lost an incredible 51 straight games over the span of two years, setting a new NCAA record for consecutive futility. Of course, there had to have been times when Engles had to wonder what in the world did he get himself into.
The streak finally ended on a cold night in January of 2009, when the Highlanders defeated Bryant. But the losses returned and the Highlanders ended the season with another 12-game losing streak and a 1-30 record in Engles' first campaign.
Imagine that. Engles gets his chance to be a head coach and the team he coaches wins one of 31 games.
Undaunted, Engles worked diligently to rebuild the tattered program he inherited. A year later, the Highlanders won 10 games, including a win in the opening round of the Great West Conference tournament.
Yes, that season, NJIT joined a conference called the Great West. The league didn't have an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, but it did offer home and away games with programs like North Dakota and South Dakota (yes, both of them), Utah Valley State, Chicago State and Houston Baptist. Those were some road trips.
In 2010-11, more improvement. The Highlanders went 15-15, including nine wins in the Great West Conference. They won 15 games again in 2011-12 and advanced to the Great West Conference tournament title game. A year later, the Highlanders won 16 games and won the Great West Conference regular season title.
But that year signified the end of the Great West Conference. The other teams in the league found permanent homes in established Division I leagues that owned automatic bids. The Highlanders became the nation's lone Division I independent, having to search far and wide for games, especially in February, when most conferences are in the throes of league play.
The Highlanders went 13-16 as an independent last year in what was a trying season, but the program welcomed in two recruits from New Jersey who were legitimate Division I studs who could play anywhere.
Guard Damon Lynn somehow flew under the radar from Union Catholic H.S. and had very few Division I schools interested in him. Forward Tim Coleman came from perennial national power St. Anthony, but wasn't really one of the top Friar players.
The two came in and electrified the program. Lynn was one of the top freshman scorers in the nation, averaging 17.2 points per game, the highest scoring average of any Highlander since the program went Division I. Coleman averaged 7.9 points and 4.9 rebounds as one of the more versatile performers.
The two this season have lifted the Highlanders to unthinkable heights. In December, they went to Ann Arbor, Michigan and managed to knock off the mighty Wolverines of Michigan, ranked No. 17 in the country at the time. The win helped to put the Highlanders on the national radar. Sales of NJIT merchandise skyrocketed in the school bookstore by an estimated 290 percent after the upset win.
The wins kept coming. There was a solid win over St. Francis of Brooklyn, which eventually came within a basket of going to the NCAA Tournament. There were great wins at the University of Maine and the University of South Alabama and a dominant home win over Hampton, which defeated Manhattan in the NCAA Tournament play-in game in Dayton two weeks ago.
But without a conference tournament and without a conference, the Highlanders literally had nothing to play for. Or so it seemed.
The College Insider.com Tournament, known as the CIT, has been giving mid-major Division I programs a chance to extend their seasons. Recognizing the fine work by Engles and the Highlanders, the CIT extended an invitation to the Highlanders to participate in the CIT _ an invitation that NJIT gladly accepted, even if it meant defraying some of the cost to host games in the tourney.
The Highlanders hosted New Hampshire in the first round and with a packed sold-out crowd at Fleisher Athletic Center, they won and advanced. They then took on Cleveland State in the second round, also at NJIT, and won that game to move on.
Saturday night, the Highlanders took on Canisius in the quarterfinals and came away with a 78-73 win to advance to the CIT semifinals at the University of Northern Arizona Tuesday night at 9 p.m. The game will be televised on the CBS Sports Network beginning at 9 p.m.
Yes, this program that just eight years ago didn't win a single solitary game now has 21 wins this year and is headed to the Final Four of the CIT.
Sure, it's not the Final Four like the one in Indianapolis where Kentucky and Wisconsin are already headed. But it is a Final Four. There's only one college basketball program left playing in New Jersey and it's remarkably NJIT.
Some people may downplay the fact that it's not a big-time tournament. Try selling that to the 1,500 avid fans that were in the Fleisher Athletic Center Saturday night. They were electric and alive and loud. For the third straight game, there was a marching band and the band was certainly loud _ and not to mention brilliant.
In a stroke of genius, NJIT athletic director Lenny Kaplan found Cicely Tyson School for Performing and Fine Arts in West Orange to come and play for each of the three CIT games. No question, the band made a difference and helped the electricity in the gym.
Legendary Marquette head coach Al McGuire used to believe that a band was critical to a team's success and once hired a high school band in Atlanta to play at the 1977 NCAA Final Four. Well, thanks to the Cicely Tyson School for Performing and Fine Arts, the Highlanders are jetting off to Arizona today.
But the fans were really into the game last night _ and in fact, all three CIT games. Don't tell those people in attendance that the game didn't matter. The students, the fans, the faculty and alumni, they were all out in full force. So was Gov. Richard Codey, who attended all three CIT games. As did Mayor Raz Baraka. They were supportive of the Highlanders.
If this little postseason run doesn't help the Highlanders get into some league, any league, then nothing will. It has to give the Highlanders some credence, as does the news that the school plans on building a new $100 million athletic facility within the next two years.
Who knows if Engles will still be around to see the ribbon cut on the new building? His stock has skyrocketed this year. Yes, the guy who once had one win for an entire year is now on the list for three possible national Coach of the Year honors and is getting talked about for possible openings throughout the Northeast _ and beyond.
One thing is for sure: NJIT, whom I've had the pleasure to do the public address announcing for their men's and women's basketball games for the last nine years, as well as an assortment of baseball games, is no longer a laughingstock. You don't win 21 games and go to the Final Four of a Division I tournament by fluke. You're not the last Jersey team still standing in college basketball by accident.
Last June, the NJIT athletic family suffered a tremendous loss, when the affable Joe Caiola, the assistant athletic director and a former NJIT basketball standout in the 80s, died after suffering a heart attack in Florida. Caiola was only 57 years old. He was NJIT through and through and worked his tail off all year, coordinating events and the facilities for the athletic program.
Late Saturday night, as I walked out of the Fleisher Athletic Center and headed home quickly to see the end of the Notre Dame-Kentucky NCAA Tournament game, I got in my car, sat in front of the steering wheel and wondered just how truly proud my friend Joe would have been of his Highlanders.
Joe would have been gearing up for the trip to Arizona, getting out his best NJIT gear to wear with pride. He would have danced around the gym on a cloud Saturday night, wondering if what was happening was actually happening. It's almost criminal to think he's not here to enjoy all of this excitement. I have to hope that he's smiling down on all of us. I know he's still with me. I can picture him coming up to me during the game and saying with his big smile, "Isn't this great?"
Yeah, Joe, it's great. The only thing that isn't great is that you're not here to enjoy it with the rest of us.
There's an old saying that says, "Good things happen to good people." Heck, there's even a book, written in 2007 written by Dr. Stephen Post and Jill Neimark, that has the same title.
Well, Jim Engles is truly one of the good people in the sport of college basketball. He's been nothing but style, class and grace since the first day I met him more than seven years ago, when he was announced as the new head coach. Legendary sportswriter Cormac Gordon of the Staten Island Advance, who has known Engles since his high school days, told me that day, "You're going to love this guy. He's one of the best."
Well, no one should ever doubt Cormac. He was right. Engles has been nothing but the best since he came to NJIT. He's good people. And if good things happen to good people, then Engles should be entitled to all the good wishes the world has to offer. Right now, he's enjoying life with the NJIT Highlanders, the program he constructed from the utter depths of despair to an airline trip to Flagstaff later today. No one deserves this ride more than Engles. No one.
If it means he gets another job elsewhere, then it's our loss, but he's leaving knowing that the program is light years better off than where it was when he arrived, that he turned this thing around in miraculous fashion. If Engles somehow stays and NJIT somehow finds a league to call home, then everything is good in the world _ and the good things that happen to good people are the ones who work in the Garden State's biggest city.
This has clearly been the worst winter of my existence. I don't care about snow inch totals, because obviously, we've had more snow. But in terms of just brutal cold from the end of November straight through to today, there's just been nothing but hideous conditions.
The high school baseball and softball seasons are supposed to begin Wednesday. That idea is ridiculous, considering none of these teams have had enough time outdoors to properly prepare.
The NJSIAA should do the right thing and delay the start of the seasons for another week. I know that means a lot playing games in late May and early June, when things like proms and graduations are also taking place, but there are far worse things to happen than pushing back the entire calendar.
Will that happen? Of course not. So the seasons will begin Wednesday and the level of play will be diminished because of the lack of preparation. It's really sad how the spring sports always get the short end of the stick. Football has months to prepare. Baseball gets four weeks and five of those four weeks are in insane weather conditions. It makes only sense to do something to compensate for the poor spring weather locally, like starting the seasons on April 15 instead of April 1. Just a thought.
Finally, I took a ton of heat from people in the sports media business and then others who are just fans about the blog I wrote last month about Seton Hall.
There were some sportswriters who claimed I made up what I wrote, which is totally absurd. I'm not in the business of writing fiction and since I don't get paid for writing this blog, I certainly want to make sure it's as accurate as possible. There was one sportswriter, who has not been in the business that long, who went as far as to say that I didn't know at all what I was writing about.
Well, I've been doing this now for 32 years, which is longer than the unnamed critic has been on the planet. I must be doing something right if I keep getting work after three decades. If I was making up crap, I think I'd be working in the pet care department in Walmart or washing dishes at a local diner by now.
I wholeheartedly stick by that blog. I wasn't making anything up. I got the story from TWO very reliable sources, two people who don't even know each other, but had the same exact details. Now, wouldn't that be enough to go on? I stake my entire reputation on that blog.
I also put up Mergin and Jaren Sina's request that they refuted what I wrote, saying that the reason for Sina leaving the Seton Hall program was not racially based, which is what I wrote. So I obliged to what they wanted to have said and reported that the same day here.
Do I believe it? Actually, no, because something had to have happened to force a kid who was starting and playing 32 minutes a game suddenly leave in the middle of a season. Disgruntled kids quit over a lack of playing time, not when they're starting and second on the team in minutes played.
The elder Sina wouldn't confirm or deny that the racial taunts took place, rather he just didn't want it out there that Jaren left because of racial tension because the kid still wants to play college basketball somewhere for the final two years of eligibility. And there aren't a lot of schools who would take a kid who claimed racial problems was the reason for him leaving the previous school. I understood that.
I pressed both about the racial taunts that I heard and neither chose to answer it. So they might have refuted what I wrote, but they didn't address the reason why either.
Also, something had to have happened to have a team that was once nationally ranked totally collapse like no other college basketball team in history, losing 13 of their last 15 games and winning only once after February 1. Something triggered the rapid demise of that team and the obvious discord that the team had, despite what head coach Kevin Willard claims.
Willard tried to paint a picture that everything was just peachy keen with his program and nothing was wrong. Some writers even bought that claim from Willard, citing that he deserves another chance to win with this team.
Well, that's just garbage. A team doesn't get that bad overnight, regardless of whether the players are freshmen or even in diapers for that matter. Imagine using the excuse that the team was filled with freshmen? Well, "The Fab Five" were all freshmen. Did it hurt Michigan? Talent is talent is talent is talent. It overrides age and experience every day, especially when the talent is considered to be the one of the best recruiting classes in the country and definitely the best in the Big East.
Again, the purpose of the whole blog last month was to hopefully have the head coach stop blaming everything else under the sun for the team's problems and take a long look at himself, which obviously has not happened. Willard was using the young and inexperienced excuse for his team at season's end.
And since Willard has three years left on his contract _ and since he's the one that helped get AD Pat Lyons hired at Seton Hall, and then Lyons in turn gave Willard a ridiculous and unearned two-year contract extension _ Willard is going nowhere soon. Seton Hall is not going to buy out Willard and pay him for three years after they did the same thing with the bastion of basketball brilliance Bobby Gonzalez, when that shyster was shown the door five years ago.
Here's the one thing that cannot be ignored. Since Willard has taken over the Seton Hall program five years ago, the Pirates have a collective record of 82-81.
That's right _ just one game over .500 in five full years. But this is a coach who deserved a contract extension? Heck, the school fired Louis Orr and he only took them to the NCAA Tournament twice. At this rate, in comparison, Orr would be deserving a parade down Springfield Avenue.
To the detractors and critics, I say, "Bring it on." I've been at this for too long to stop now. To the people who say I fabricate things, that's just so untrue and wrong. At least the people who truly know me know exactly what I am. I might be full of bluster and hot air, but I'm not full of you know what.
And to those who wrote nasty e-mails saying that I didn't write the blog because I was avoiding the truth, the only reason why there was a blog delay is because I've been so busy with work (yes, paid work, thank God) I haven't had enough time to catch up on my needlepoint and butterfly collection lately. Like Cyndi Lauper once sang, "Money changes everything."
You can read more of my work (yes, paid work) at www.hudsonreporter.com, www.dailyrecord.com, www.theobserver.com and www.sportsxchange.com. Or Google my name and have a field day.