A Cinderella run has sent many trainers to shiny new jobs


In March 2010, amid the everyday, socially accepted insanity of a crazy, nutty culture, a Cornell men’s basketball coach took a call from a populous Midwestern school while boarding a plane in Jacksonville, Florida.

“And they said, ‘We’re going to fly you out on Tuesday,'” said Steve Donahue.

Donahue: “‘Tuesday?'”

Donahue: “I have to coach a team.”

School: “Then you won’t get the job.”

Donahue: “Guess I don’t get the job.”

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What had triggered this momentous, but silly and fleeting, remote call? Oh, Donahue and Cornell had just won two games.

He had previously won 144 in 10 seasons at Cornell, with a meticulous arc that told of daily struggle and incurable hope, going from 7-20 in 2000-01 to 5-22 to 9-18 to 11-16 to 13-14 to 13-15 to 16-12 and up to three great years 22-6, 21-10 and 29-4 around the asphalt at this moment. But he’d just won two games in three days, and because we’re all pissed off, two kind of trumped 144.

His experienced and motley Cornell team of Ryan Wittman and Jeff Foote and Louis Dale and Chris Wroblewski and more and more and more had just spent a Friday and Sunday in Jacksonville when No. 12 Seeds raided the No. 5 Seed Temple, 78 -65, in a game Cornell led by 19, and then No. 4 Wisconsin, 87-69, in a game Cornell led by 24. That threw Cornell into the Sweet 16 and Donahue into the imagination of athletic directors who are mad and need the applause of fans sprouting madness.

It’s as if those two days out of three counted for more than the 3,481 days on the job that preceded them, even if those 3,481, especially those seven tough years, required more skill and rigor. And considering it was two days that Donahue said, “I did little this weekend; I didn’t have to” and “I wasn’t even really stressed; it was very strange.”

“And you’re right,” he said over the phone this week. “My life turned around.”

This flip, based on a measly number of games, is one of the March Madness maniacs, always waiting for a coach who manages to win two or three games, and Las Vegas didn’t expect him to win – like it did Kent State coach Stan Heath (2002 Elite Eight and hired from Arkansas) or Florida Gulf Coast coach Andy Enfield (a stunning 2013 Sweet 16 and hired from Southern California) or, at a different pace, Jim Larrañaga and Porter Moser who do the up 11th-seeded George Mason (2006) and Loyola Chicago (2018) to You’re-kidding Final Fours, then stayed about five and three more seasons, respectively, before moving south to Miami and Oklahoma.

The latest coach to feel that kind of flip would be a 46-year-old with unforced charisma, Shaheen Holloway, the former esteemed point guard recruit from Queens and New Jersey who went on to play pro basketball in the Dominican Republic, Germany and Israel played , Turkey, the United Kingdom and Venezuela. Holloway worked as an assistant to Seton Hall and then as the head coach at little St. Peter’s in Jersey City, going 10-22 and 18-12 and 14-11 and 22-12 and finishing second in the conference in 2022 before leaving the conference 2022 won tournament and then…

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In just nine days from March 17-25, 2022, Holloway’s No. 15 seed Peacocks went further than any No. 15 seed had ever done, toppling No. 2-Seed Kentucky, No. 7-Seed Murray State and No. 3-Seed Purdue. Four days after the Elite Eight lost to North Carolina on March 27, Holloway took the podium as the new coach at Seton Hall and said something telltale.

“First,” he said, “I wouldn’t be up here if it weren’t for these 15 young men, so…”

He was referring to the 15 St. Peter’s players who showed up to show his love for him as an unusual presence in another school’s audience. The Seton Hall crowd, who at least knew their New Jersey, applauded these Peacocks for a good 27 seconds. There was a pause. “Pirate nation,” Holloway said to his old and new nation, Seton Hall, “we can do better. Pirate nation, those 15 young men right there. Stand up.”

They did so, again in many cases, for another 27 seconds.

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What happened to that coach and those players this past March only becomes more amazing when you visit St. Peter for a game at the Victor R. Yanitelli, SJ Recreational Life Center the following season. It’s February 10, 2023. It’s a Friday evening and Marist has come to town. There is a ready parking lot directly in front of the gym and the meter takes up quarters. The line at the ticket booth has an adorable high school feel, with cheerleaders lined up near the entrance to smile greetings, and the competitive pool through the windows to the left of the basketball gym and kids and their parents who coming out of the pool to squirm through the line and the prices on the sign including general admission $20 and seated $50.

It’s one of those stores where the outside door across from the townhouses leads pretty straight onto the gym floor, where it’s five steps (or less) from the hallway outside the gym to the bench seating, where the clothing items for sale are on a shelf fit .

The number of visitors in the well-kept gymnasium: 758.

It is the third largest home crowd of the year.

So while the excellent coach Bashir Mason, formerly at Wagner, with a 14-18 year rebuild that ended with an impressive trip to the semi-finals of the conference tournament as No. 10, you might be amazed from the stands, like this place Kentucky has ever fallen and then some is a matter of outlandish, cherished madness.

Then somehow even a valued former player and former assistant at one venue (Seton Hall) thought he owed his new job to a sudden breakthrough in braces while training at another venue (St Peter’s). And while Holloway, out of respect for his current players at Seton Hall, who went straight 17-16 in his first year in Colorado with a final NIT loss 65-64 in Colorado, declined interview requests to talk about last March in St. Trolling Peter the idea that the Magic March of St. Peter helped him “win the press conference” would be another La Dee Da norm that’s absolutely insane.

A wise voice at the age of 73 said it himself.

“I would explain it like this,” Larrañaga said over the phone. “The idea that if you’re looking for a basketball coach, you want the guy who ‘wins the press conference.’ You introduce a new coach, but then everyone says, “Oh my god, he took his team to the Sweet 16.” “He took his team to the Elite Eight.” That excites the fans, and that [athletic director] looks like a genius.” He said, “I think coaches know when you’re hot you’re hot, when you’re not you’re not.”

Sure, it’s silly, but then he calls the NCAA tournament “the greatest sporting event on earth” and says, “What makes the NCAA tournament so special is the unpredictability.”

He’s forever a pillar of that unpredictability, like his No. 11 seed George Mason in 2006, No. 6 seed Michigan State, No. 3 seed North Carolina, No. 7 seed Wichita State and the No. 1 seed Connecticut fell to reach a You joke about Final Four.

Technically, that’s four games. Before those four, Larrañaga coached 580 and won 331. This former assistant to Terry Holland in Virginia was head coach – at Bowling Green and George Mason – for 7,304 days, making him a proven coach. Suddenly, 10 days in March changed the noise around him.

“Well, the attention I got and the number of people who recognized me increased dramatically,” he said. “There were more people who recognized me and wanted my autograph” – in airports, at the grocery store, at Pomodoro’s in Fairfax. Immediately after the game against North Carolina, Larrañaga’s agent began voting with nuggets.

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“‘What do you think?'” he said of an offer.

“I said, ‘Well, I’m busy,'” said Larrañaga, he said. “I think of nothing else.”

Next came Wichita State, another win, and “Oh my God, there’s a lot of interest now,” he recalls the agent’s words. “And then, after the Final Four,” Larrañaga said, “I decided, ‘You know what, I’m just having too much fun.’ “He stayed for five more seasons before charging far south where he stayed 11+ and navigated the ACC and hit an Elite Eight and two Sweet 16s.

That those seven tournament wins out of 251 in Miami help define him epitomizes how everyone succumbs to our insanity, and Donahue understands the skewed equation too. He stresses that there are trainers out there “who are probably better than the ones who just catch lightning in a bottle.” For one, he brings up Tod Kowalczyk in Toledo. “He’s a great coach,” says Donahue — 21 seasons at Green Bay and Toledo, .584 winning percent, but hasn’t hurt March Madness, including a 26-6 team going into the Mid-American Conference tournament that just finished one conference conclusion fell short.

But while madness reigns, Donahue understands. “I mean, honestly, that’s part of the thrill of the event,” he said. “As coaches we try not to get caught up in that, but part of what we want to do is give those [players] incredible memories. I get chills to this day just thinking about walking off the field [in Jacksonville] and the standing ovation that cheers us, the Duke fans. . .”

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His Big Red reached the East Region semifinals in Syracuse, NY, losing 62-45 to Kentucky, the No. 1 seed from which the NBA selected five players in the first round of the 2010 draft, led by No. 1 John Wall . The end brought two shocks: the final dressing room together, and then the decision in “48 to 96 hours” to take a lucrative job he didn’t already have. While the bond with these players would prove unusual even 13 years later, and while there is something inexplicable about the intensity of the “madness” that enlivened that bond, and while another Cornell 2010 player marriage is imminent, there are three more more tables filled with Cornell 2010 players.

That will be long after Donahue took the job at Boston College, where he endured four seasons in tough ACC before meeting his current Penn, who just made the Ivy League semifinals.

“I wish I was at the tournament,” he said wistfully, no doubt which tournament he was referring to.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/2023/03/16/march-madness-coaches-cinderella/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=wp_homepage A Cinderella run has sent many trainers to shiny new jobs

Ian Walker

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