NCAA Division I college basketball in the Capital Region has assigned new meaning to “March Madness” in recent years, at least in terms of the comings and goings of head coaches.
Now that the smoke has cleared from all the mayhem in the early rounds of the men’s tournament (it’s been fun, Saint Peter’s), we see a Final Four that speaks to stability and continuity, with bluebloods Duke, North Carolina, Kansas and Villanova left standing.
Meanwhile, recent developments suggest potential for our local D-I programs – the Siena men and women, and the UAlbany men and women – to maintain a reputation in recent years as the Fragile Four.
And that’s not to even mention the player transfer portal that is sure to crumble rosters to some degree.
Upheaval in the coaching ranks has practically become a rite of springtime around here. And all signs from UAlbany, now that the school is investigating men’s head coach Dwayne Killings’ program for “an incident alleged to have occurred just prior to a men’s basketball road game in late November 2021,” indicate that there’s a good chance 2022 will be no different.
If Killings is no longer the Great Danes head coach in 2022-23, it would mark the sixth change at the top of one of the area’s four D-I basketball teams since 2018, with 2020 – while everyone was well in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic – the only year in that stretch without a coaching change.
The coaching carousel in college basketball is always especially active at this time of year. It’s the nature of a job in which your performance is primarily measured by won-lost record. The safest bet in the sport cashed in on Wednesday when Saint Peter’s Shaheen Holloway got the Seton Hall job vacated by Kevin Wiillard, the new head coach at Maryland.
What sets the turbulence in the Capital Region apart a little bit is that few of the recent coaching changes have been 100% voluntary on the coach’s part.
And even among those few, one still managed to substantially accelerate the wave of instability that has forced school athletic departments to keep search firms on speed dial.
When Siena hired Jamion Christian to replace Jimmy Patsos in 2018, it marked a step forward from a coach who resigned during an investigation of inappropriate behavior in the men’s program. Two years later, the NCAA issued a report on violations and penalties to the program.
A week after Christian started the job, he said, “I love it here. Every day I’ve been here, the more people I meet, the more passionate people I meet about Siena basketball and Siena College, the more I’m 100 percent sure this was the right decision. That gets verified every day.”
Ten months after he started the job, he said, “We can’t wait to pump our love into our players each and every day.” But he wasn’t talking about the Saints, upon having just taken the job at George Washington, with his time at Siena amounting to a one-and-done season.
(Side note: Christian was fired by GWU on March 14 after three losing seasons, including a COVID-battered 2020-21 that limited the Colonials to just 16 games)
The other 100% voluntary departure was Joanna Bernabei-McNamee, also in 2018, when she lasted just two very successful seasons with the UAlbany women before being lured away by Boston College.
Her predecessor, Katie Abrahamson-Henderson, coached the Great Danes women for six seasons and was fully expected to leave for a higher-level job in 2016 for having led UAlbany to five straight NCAA Tournaments and advancing to the second round in 2015-16 with a No. 12 seeded upset of Florida. She did so well at her next stop, Central Florida, that she was hired by Georgia on Saturday.
Colleen Mullen replaced Bernabei-McNamee at UAlbany and took the Great Danes to the NCAA Tournament two weeks ago, in her fourth season, and Carmen Maciariello just finished an injury-riddled, inconsistent third season after having gotten the Siena men’s job when Christian left.
The 2021 revolving door was particularly spin-busy.
Siena chose not to renew Ali Jaques’ contract after nine seasons with the women’s team, and hired Jim Jabir, who was the Siena head coach from 1987-90.
And one of the trademark pillars of continuity on a campus known for its concrete verticality, UAlbany men’s coach Will Brown, was also out, after 19 full seasons as head coach.
He was replaced by Killings, a promising young coach who vowed to breathe life into the program.
While taking into account that Jabir has over 30 years of experience as a Division I head coach at various stops, the foursome of Mullen (4), Maciariello (3), Jabir (1) and Killings (1) have a combined total of just nine seasons in their respective current stints. Contrast that to Siena baseball coach Tony Rossi, who is in his 53rd straight season (46 in Division I) in Loudonville.
We’ll see if Killings remains in that group. Don’t count on it.
Initial reporting by Jeff Goodman of the Stadium website on Monday claimed there had been alleged physical contact between Killings and one of his players.
Later Monday night, UAlbany had issued this statement: “In late February, the University’s Office of Employee Relations was made aware of an incident alleged to have occurred just prior to a men’s basketball road game in late November 2021. Consistent with campus policy and practice, the University immediately began a thorough and impartial investigation. Because this process is ongoing, the University cannot comment further at this time.”
Although the statement doesn’t shed any light on what may have happened or who was involved, there’s a distinct echo to Rick Bennett’s resignation as the Union College men’s hockey coach on Jan. 28, eight days after he was placed on administrative leave while the school conducted an investigation of “his coaching style and practices,” the school said.
When Killings was introduced as the new UAlbany men’s basketball head coach, he opened by saying, “Wow. You know, you dream about this opportunity – so I just want to let this soak in for a second.”
That was just over a year ago.
Suddenly, it seems like much longer than that.