Siena athletic director John D’Argenio must have said “It’s an anxious time” a half-dozen times during a press conference at the school on Monday.
In the wake of head coach Fran McCaffery’s departure for the University of Iowa, everyone close to the Siena basketball program is wondering who will be the next head coach, and how soon he will be hired.
One candidate quickly emerged, McCaffery’s lead assistant, 57-year-old Mitch Buonaguro, a former head coach who has over 30 years of Division I experience and who recruited many of the current Saints and the two top prospects who have signed national letters of intent to attend Siena next season.
In the coming weeks, D’Argenio, in conjunction with school president Rev. Kevin Mullen, will attempt to balance the urgency of hiring a coach quickly to help make the transition smooth, against the desire to take their time to explore as many candidates as possible.
McCaffery has made a strong push to the school administration to promote Buonaguro, the Fairfield head coach from 1985-91 and an assistant to Rollie Massimino when Villanova upset Georgetown for the 1985 national championship. If Siena hires somebody else, Buonaguro has a seat on McCaffery’s bench waiting for him.
“I’m excited about the opportunity to pursue the job, and I’d like to stay; I think I made that clear,” Buonaguro said. “Fran has offered me a position with Iowa, but my preference would be to stay at Siena.
“The sooner the better, but I know there’s a protocol to this, too. The university wants to do their homework and make sure they have the right candidate. John’s got to feel comfortable with the decision. However long it takes, I’m willing to wait.”
“Usually, my first rule is I don’t comment on that, but this is the exception to that rule,” D’Argenio said. “Mitch has been a big part of our success. We respect that. I’m sure we’ll talk before the week is out.”
Whoever is hired will have a significant legacy to continue, after McCaffery led Siena to three straight Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championships and NCAA tournament appearances, and first-round NCAA victories in 2008 and 2009, over Vanderbilt and Ohio State, respectively.
Siena will lose the core of its lineup — Alex Franklin, Ronald Moore and Edwin Ubiles — to graduation, so the new coach will have to rebuild, to some degree.
D’Argenio said he hasn’t been contacted directly by any coaching prospects, but has heard from several agents for coaches.
He said he has some people with whom to consult, but Siena won’t be hiring an outside search committee.
“The timeline will be as short or as long as it takes to make the right decision,” D’Argenio said. “If that’s an assistant or head coach, so be it. I’m going to be working with our president. The idea is that, as athletic director, I’ll be in contact with a lot of people, to find out whether they’re good fits or not.
“Then, when we get it to a certain critical number, he’s going to join me in that vetting process. At the end of the day, I’ll make a recommendation to him — one, two, three people, I’m not sure of the exact number — and then we’ll go from there, and he’ll make the final call on it.”
If the players had a vote, there would be a consensus to keep Buonaguro.
He said he and his wife, Suzin, have settled into life in the Capital Region, having bought a house two years ago, but they’ve already agreed to move to Iowa City if he doesn’t get the Siena job.
“Coach Mitch would be great,” said shooting guard Clarence Jackson, who will be one of three seniors on the team next season. “I honestly looked at him as a head coach on this team. He was just like coach Mac. They had a great relationship with each other.
“He’s won a lot of games with different teams. I’ve got full confidence in him. If that doesn’t work out, I would love to have somebody of his stature and coach Mac’s stature, somebody who’s going to bring success to this team and keep this team well-rounded, somebody with a serious side and a cool side to him, too.”
McCaffery informed the team on Sunday morning that he was leaving.
Considering his success in five seasons, the Saints said they weren’t surprised to see him go.
“I always tried to lie to myself that it wasn’t going to happen, but it was something that I prepared for, and I’m definitely happy for him,” said center Ryan Rossiter, a preseason MAAC Player of the Year candidate next year, when he’ll be a senior.
“I think we all kind of knew what was about to happen. We accepted it. He told us the news. He wanted us to hear it from him instead of through the media, and that’s how he’s always been as a coach. It was sad to see him go.”
“Right now, you don’t have a coach,” Jackson said. “We’re trying to be our own coach and keep everybody together. We know we’re all family, we’re all close and we’re in here for each other. You just hope for the best and try to keep it going and continue to keep the Siena qualities, and we’ll be fine.”
Besides the coaching vacancy, another pressing question is whether incoming freshmen Trenity Burdine and Melsahn Basabe will still want to come to Siena.
Burdine, a 6-foot-5, 170-pound swingman from Reading, Pa., and Basabe (6-7, 215), a forward from Glen Cove (St. Mark’s), signed in November.
In general, schools usually release incoming freshmen from NLI’s if they request it in the event of a coaching change.
“We’re trying to talk to them day by day,” said Jackson, who has exchanged text messages with both players. “We really don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m very close with both of them, so we’re hoping that they’ll still want to want to come here and be part of a winning tradition.
“They were obviously kind of messed up about it, too. They didn’t really expect it. It’s tough. You can’t really, you know, beg them, you just have to go with it and hope that they want to be part of our team next year.”
“I talked to them,” Buonaguro said. “I think they would still come. We all were part of the recruiting. It’s a wait-and-see game for everybody. In talking to them, I think they’re committed to Siena. I think they’re familiar with me, and I recruited both of them and they both like me, so, yeah, I certainly think it would help [if he was promoted to head coach].”