The music in the lobby of Siena’s gym was playing “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge.
Five minutes later, the familiar figure of Mitch Buonaguro, in a nice black leather jacket and new black-rimmed eyeglasses, walked through the glass doors.
I guess this had the potential to be an awkward meeting, but not really. On the contrary, Mitch was as comfortable on the Siena campus as he’d ever been, despite the fact that the school gave him the boot just 10 months ago.
It seemed like an apt opportunity to get caught up with the Saints’ former men’s basketball coach, who was fired last March after three losing seasons, the last of which was one of the worst in the proud program’s history.
Since then, he’s observed practices and worked clinics; at 6 p.m. today, he’ll make his broadcasting debut on ESPN3 when he supplies analysis for the Siena women’s game at Fairfield.
To prepare for the new gig, he scouted coach Ali Jaques’ Wednesday practice at the ARC, where Buonaguro worked for the last eight years, five as Fran McCaffery’s lead assistant during one of the greatest stretches the team has ever enjoyed, and the last three as the head coach who couldn’t win. Starting with tonight’s game at Manhattan, the 7-10 men’s team has at least 15 more chances to equal last season’s win total.
Buonaguro is anything but a pariah, though. Hearing his infectious laughter bounce off the gym walls was a reminder of how important he’s been to Siena’s recent success and also how much he’s still a part of the extended Siena family.
“It is strange. But it’s fun, and Ali’s been very nice and invited me back,” Buonaguro said. “Everyone’s been nice, so it’s fun. Siena treated me great, [president] Father [Kevin] Mullen and [athletic director] John D’Argenio on down. I had eight great years here, great memories, great teams. I have nothing to regret. Siena is a big part of my life.”
Buonaguro and his wife, Suzin, live on eight acres in Ballston Lake, where they board three horses.
Mitch, who won a national championship in 1985 as Rollie Massimino’s lead assistant at Villanova, said he’d like to coach again, but in the meantime, he’s trying his hand at this broadcast stuff.
He’ll be partnered with play-by-play man Dean Darling and has two other ESPN3 games lined up.
Suddenly, the 60-year-old is a rookie in need of coaching.
Besides in-game analysis, Buonaguro will interview the coaches at the under-12 media timeout in each half and introduce the key player from each team.
“There’s the aspect of analyzing the game, but there’s also the technical aspect of it where you’ve got to mesh with the producer and the play-by-play guy,” Buonaguro said. “The first time you do it, you’ve got to go through it and hopefully, it doesn’t go off with any glitches.”
Buonaguro said another challenge he’ll face tonight is remaining impartial, since one of the teams is Siena. He’s gotten advice from friends like Pete Gillen, Steve Lappas and Seth Greenberg.
The 1985 Villanova team and McCaffery’s success at Siena each led to head coaching jobs for Buonaguro.
Fact is, he’s always done his best work as an assistant. His forte is scouting an opponent and formulating a game plan. The trappings and myriad responsibilities of a head coach don’t necessarily suit him.
“You know what I miss is being around a team; I don’t really miss all the other stuff,” he said, laughing.
Buonaguro has followed the current men’s team and roots for them, especially since he recruited many of the players, like Rob Poole and Evan Hymes.
“I’m happy they’re doing well,” Buonaguro said. “They have good chemistry, and the addition of the point guard [Marquis Wright] has really helped. He’s a pass-first point guard, which has made Poole better. They’ve got a good chance to finish in the top half of the league.”
As these things usually go, Buonaguro was ripped by a small but vocal segment of the Saints’ fan base even before he started his first season as head coach. At a school like Siena, some people will always demand the hot young prospect when there’s a change.
Instead, they got a guy in his mid-50s who lived down to their expectations. Say what you will about Buonaguro’s record, though, his devotion to the program could never be questioned. He’ll always be well-liked and well-regarded here.
He still wants to coach, and will be networking, as will the rest of the coaching universe, at the Final Four in Dallas.
In the meantime, he’s proof that you can teach an old dog new tricks.
Besides the TV assignments, his wife has put the novice horseman to work.
His laugh hit the gym walls again when I suggested that perhaps the boss was delegating some of the, um, less desirable duties to him.
“I get all of that,” he said. “I don’t get the fun stuff. I get the stuff that’s not fun to do.”