In a few weeks, the college basketball community will be focused on Roy Williams, Tom Izzo, Bill Self, John Calipari, and the other leaders of big-name programs.
This week — this fortnight, really — belongs more to the coaches we don’t pay that much attention to during the season. They’re the coaches who — if they do manage to make the NCAA tournament — don’t stick around very long. We see them for one game, maybe two if they score a first-round upset. Getting past the first weekend, though, is a rarity.
The brief amount of time in which these coaches occupy the media spotlight makes it harder for the public to care about them. The masses have a comfortable (not necessarily agreeable) relationship with various big-name coaches. Familiar faces and even more familiar narratives, however correct or absurd they might be (Izzo is God; Bill Self is a choker), remind the nation that it’s March.
The coaches who toil in the middle and lower tiers of Division I? They haven’t established the same relationship with American sports fans… mostly because a pageview-driven business model is built on the backs of Kentucky and Carolina and Duke, not the Stony Brook Seawolves.
Yet, the business of sports blogging shouldn’t mean that we OUGHT to look past these other coaches, the men who enter our lives when the smaller conference tournaments greet our television screens and computer streams. It’s true that this March will mean a ton to Roy Williams, whose North Carolina program could soon get whacked by the NCAA, to the extent that the Tar Heels might be ruled ineligible for the 2017 NCAA Tournament. However, Williams has two national titles in Chapel Hill. He has, by any measurement, produced a fulfilling career, one with a lot of painful losses, but enough mountaintop moments to offset the agonies from the past.
Another coach can’t fall back on past glories. At the age of 48, he’s still looking for the one breakthrough that will enable him to sleep peacefully.
Great athletes don’t win championships solely by being great. Just ask John Stockton and Karl Malone, Charles Barkley and Reggie Miller. Even the great ones need a little help. They need circumstances to cooperate just a little bit in an all-important tipping-point moment.
It’s the same for great coaches. They can be the smartest men in the room, but if a ball bounces the wrong way or a player loses his nerve in a split second, all the best-laid plans of shrewd tacticians can — and will — go awry.
Gene Mauch won over 1,900 baseball games in a managerial career which spanned nearly three decades. No manager knew the baseball rulebook better. Few men paid closer attention or devoted more detail to baseball for more than a quarter of a century.
Yet, Mauch never made a World Series. In 1964 with the Philadelphia Phillies and 1986 with the California Angels, two teams on the doorstep of the Fall Classic somehow never crossed the threshold. “The Phillie Flop” of 1964 and Dave Henderson’s two-out home run off Donnie Moore in 1986 — moments etched into the fabric of baseball lore — denied Mauch his place in the sun.
The coach, in any sport, can’t play the game himself. Players have to finish the job. Circumstances don’t necessarily have to line up perfectly; they just need to stop being wickedly impish.
Such is the case with Stony Brook head coach Steve Pikiell.
Back in 2005, Pikiell became the Seawolves’ head coach at the age of 37. Eleven years later, Pikiell is still on the scene in Stony Brook. He’s given a large part of his life to the school. Over the past half-decade, the Seawolves have been pretty darn good. They’ve made the championship game of the America East Conference Tournament four times in the past five years. Surely, with that many trips to the main event, Pikiell has tasted the sweet nectar of at least one title, one trip to the NCAA tournament.
In 2011, Boston University denied Stony Brook.
In 2012, Vermont stoned the Seawolves.
In 2014 and 2015, Albany stood in the way of Pikiell’s pupils, with 2015 offering a particularly cruel ending to another Stony Brook season:
The Groundhog Day nature of a Stony Brook basketball season is painful enough when reduced to the simple fact of not winning, not claiming the first NCAA tournament berth for a 48-year-old coach and the school itself. The reality faced by Stony Brook is exponentially more agonizing, however, in light of the fact that Stony Brook has so constantly stood just one game away from wiping away its frustrations. When championship-game losses mount as they have for the Seawolves over the past five America East Tournaments, the voices of doubt and resignation can so easily creep into the mind.
As the 2016 America East Tournament begins Wednesday night, Stony Brook comes face to face with its moment of truth. Steve Pikiell, into his second decade with the same program — bereft of One Shining Moment — will try to lead his team into the light.
It’s true that winning a title doesn’t make you a better or more virtuous person. Similarly, failing to win a title doesn’t make you a lesser man. Virtue and achievement are two very different things.
That said, lives often do change when certain thresholds are crossed. Steve Pikiell has given so many years to college basketball and, with his 50th birthday a year and a half away, would like to finally put on his Dancing shoes, thank you very much. It’s not too much to ask for him and other coaches who are trying to climb to a higher place in a demanding profession.
We’ll see if circumstances finally cooperate with the Stony Brook Seawolves.