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A Seat in the Bleachers: Siena's next choice a key decision

Thursday, March 14, 2013
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— You pass Hoffman’s Playland on your right as you travel south on Route 9.

The sun finally came out on Wednesday, but there is still evidence of winter in wilting, dirty snowbank detritus and the silent, vacant rides.

A mile down the road, on the left, are the pristine white columns of Siena Hall, and this is where the rollercoaster is clattering away in full dip-and-dive, for the moment.

Siena College fired its men’s basketball coach, Mitch Buonaguro, on Tuesday, bringing to an end a three-year stretch of losing that immediately followed in the wake of some of the most glorious years in program history.

It seems like a long time ago that Ronald Moore hit the “Onions! Double order!” three-pointer against Ohio State in the NCAA tournament in Dayton.

Edwin Ubiles’ 360-degree breakaway dunk while Siena trailed Fairfield in the MAAC tournament championship game — a game the Saints would win in overtime — was ages ago. Wasn’t it?

In fact, those plays happened less than five years ago.

Siena went 8-24 this season, matching the program record for losses in a season, and the momentum and some of the brand capital the school accrued during the Fran McCaffery years are gone.

That may mean that there won’t be as much pressure on the next head coach as there was on Buon­aguro, but it does mean that there is plenty of pressure on athletic director John D’Argenio and president Rev. Kevin Mullen to hire someone who can win this time.

At Siena, which has a history of performing well on a national stage despite its relatively tiny undergraduate enrollment, the basketball program isn’t just a fun diversion, it’s an integral part of overall Strat­egic Mission of the school.

Because of that, an 8-24 season simply can’t be tolerated.

“I don’t think the brand has been diminished,” D’Argenio said on Tuesday. “I can tell from the emails I get and the fact that we still had good average attendance.

“Yes, there were no-shows from some season ticket holders, but we’re still able to bring people into the arena. So it’s still strong. Now, obviously, we can’t continue like this, but we haven’t reached the critical stage.”

It’s difficult for a school the size of Siena to maintain consistency in its flagship athletic team because, as soon as a coach is successful, he’s plucked away by somebody bigger with more money.

Or, the coach fails so miserably that the school is forced to make a move.

Since Mike Deane left in 1994, no coach has stayed at Siena longer

than five years, and there’s a distinct pattern at work, one that D’Argenio would rather not see.

Deane had three 25-win seasons and beat Stanford in the NCAA tournament in 1989.

Bob Beyer followed, and never won more than nine games in a season before being fired after three years.

So Paul Hewitt resurrected the program and promptly left for Georgia Tech after just three seasons, followed by one good season with Louis Orr during which Siena was 20-11.

The Rob Lanier teams showed promise early, then dipped to 6-24 in 2005. This season was a grim echo of that one.

Buonaguro had three losing seasons after McCaffery teams won 97 games in four years. McCaffery’s first season produced a 15-13 record with a depleted roster.

“It’s [the next hire] very important,” D’Argenio said. “I think we have talent on the roster. We lose O.D. [Anosike], which is a big loss, but this team showed, at times, that it can play very well. So it is important, because you can’t be down for very long, or you start to become irrelevant, and we certainly don’t want that.

“We wanted to get off that treadmill of highs and lows and have some consistency. It didn’t work out way the we wanted it.”

D’Argenio pointed to other MAAC programs as evidence of how hard it is for mid-majors to win consistently.

“I was watching the championship game, and you look at those teams … Iona has had a nice run, and they had another one in the past, then a downslide,” he said. “So did Manhattan. Unfortunately, that’s the nature or our position.”

D’Argenio called the basketball program “resilient,” and that quality faces a stern test this time, especially if players transfer and recruits, including Troy High’s

Javion Ogunyemi, feel compelled to go somewhere else.

Assistant coach Craig Carter, who is working on administrative duties until the next head coach is hired, said he’s confident that the last three seasons have done nothing to hurt the program’s identity.

“I’ve always said that the Siena basketball program for the most part recruits itself,” he said. “I don’t want to speculate on what they’re [players] thinking about because it’s a tough situation for everybody. I would imagine that the atmosphere, the experience of playing Siena basketball is still something they’re going to be attracted to.

“A lot of other things come into play. Who gets the job, what style of basketball they play … who knows? I’m not going to speculate and be disrespectful of the search process John is doing.”

D’Argenio said there is no specific desired profile for the next coach, other than the ability to win championships.

Some of the names that have been the subject of speculation are former Hewitt assistant Cliff Warren of Jacksonville, Andy Toole of Robert Morris, Northeastern’s Bill Coen, former Siena player Matt Brady of James Madison, Bucknell’s Dave Paulsen, Vermont’s John Becker, Stony Brook’s Steve Pikiell, Florida International’s Richard Pitino and even Loyola’s Jimmy Patsos.

Certainly, Siena would love to hire someone who could sustain a run of success for a long time.

“A long time” at a school like this appears to be five years, which is why you “always have names in a drawer, just in case,” D’Argenio said.

 
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