I remember my first coaching victory well. A decade ago as a recent college graduate, there was an ad in the local paper for a volunteer to coach in the local middle school league.
It sounded like fun. And it was. One problem: I was given an "expansion" team (because winning is so very important in youth sports), which meant I had to pick from players who weren't already in the league, had brothers in the league or didn't really know anything about the league.
As you might imagine, we were pretty terrible. But the kids worked hard, and on one day toward the end of the season, everything fell into place. We made some shots we never had, survived shooting at our own basket twice and earned a victory. We finished 1-14, most of the losses of the lopsided variety, but to this day, that win remains one of my best coaching memories.
As of Sunday morning, six Division I teams have yet to win a game this season. Fortunately, with scheduling as it is, only two Division I squads (Savannah State in 2004-05 and NJIT in 2007-08) have managed to pull off the feat over an entire season in this century.
Of the six "oh-ands" -- Towson, Binghamton, Hartford, Chicago State, Grambling and Northern Illinois -- Hartford might have the least chance to finish without a win. But that is fairly small consolation, no?
Not to get all Jeff Foxworthy on you, but you know your program is struggling when:
· You show up at Chase Family Arena (basically a nice barn) 15 minutes before the game, sit in the nearest open section, wonder at tipoff why some students are sitting near you and turn around to realize it says "Student Section" behind you.
· There are seven banners hanging from the rafters, and they are all for the women's team (former UConn national champion Jen Rizzotti has done a fantastic job with the women; they have won a pair NCAA tournament games in the past six seasons).
Tonight's opponent is Niagara, who I know nothing about, except that the team seems fairly young and inconsistent, which was borne out in the game, and features freshman Juan'ya Green, who -- in addition to the unique name -- is the second-leading scoring freshman in the country. He didn't hurt himself with 25 points in this one.
The Purple Eagles started MAAC (I call it the Maaaaack, like a sheep, to discern from the Mid-American Conference) play 0-2 last week, including a 36-point home loss to Iona, who may be emerging as the MAAC favorite.
Would this be the night that the Hawks could wipe the zero from their name and move on to getting ready for America East play?
Niagara -- led by Joe Mihalich, who seems like he might be a mid-major "lifer" now in his 14th season at the helm -- used its athleticism by employing an extremely aggressive 2-3 zone. Hartford initially took the lead with a trio of 3-pointers, but the 9-8 advantage was the last they would enjoy on the night.
Hartford countered Niagara with a zone of its own, but it was much less active. The Purple Eagles were quicker and able to get out and run off Hartford misses. Marcus Jordan, who was 6-for-9 from behind the arc, hit a pair of 3-pointers to key a 16-4 run that put Niagara up 34-18 late in the first half. The advantage stayed in double figures for most of the rest of the night, as every time Hartford would score, Jordan or Green would answer.
John Gallagher is in his second season as Hartford coach. I saw him in one of his first games last season at Quinnipiac, and I must say I didn't exactly leave with a favorable impression. He ranted and raved, threw jackets and never shut up, and his team lost anyway. There are too many young coaches like that around.
But Saturday night, he was much more subdued. I guess losing -- Gallagher and Hartford finished 11-20 last season, meaning his career record is 11-30 after the loss to Niagara -- does that to you. He stayed positive even after his team made key mistakes and a couple of big calls went against him.
Seemingly out of the game down 16 midway through the second half, Hawks freshman Wes Cole led the unlikely charge back. Cole, listed at 6-feet, 165 pounds but you can probably knock a few off both of those numbers, couldn't even hold on to the ball in the first half, quickly finding his way quickly back to the Hartford bench. But Cole was a different player in the second half, scoring eight straight points, including back-to-back 3-pointers to bring Hartford within eight.
Cole, who amazingly finished with 26 points on 8 of 13 3-point shooting in just 19 minutes, would hit seven treys in the second half alone. (Hartford would finish 15-for-31, and the two teams combined to hit 24 3-pointers.) When freshman Nate Sikma (yes, he's Jack Sikma's son, but more importantly for us, Luke Sikma's brother) hit a free throw with 33 seconds left to bring Hartford within 70-67, there was legitimate hope.
Gallagher would probably tell you that the next sequence sums up his existence right now. Sikma missed the second free throw, but Mark Nwakamma -- instrumental in the comeback -- grabbed the rebound only to have Jordan steal it from him when he tried to kick it back out.
Gallagher looked to the sky, turned toward Nwakamma and clapped his hands in encouragement. What else could he do?
Jordan was subsequently fouled and made his free throws, and Niagara (4-6) sent Hartford to 0-10 by hanging on for a 79-76 victory.
On the way out, I happened to walk by the media table where Gallagher was giving his postgame interview to Hartford radio. He commended his kids, said better days were coming and went to the locker room.
Unlike me, who coaches for fun, Gallagher knows that if he keeps losing, there's no guarantee he will keep his job. The college basketball world, particularly below the Red Line, is littered with guys who tried to turn beleaguered programs like Hartford around, only to find it impossible. Perhaps that's why Mihalichtook the time to hang around, give him a hug and chat with him for a minute or two after the teams departed.
Gallagher will likely have a couple of more seasons to figure it out no matter how poorly the Hawks do this season. Despite the loss and the winless record, I have new respect for him based on what I saw. But looking at his team, I don't know how many wins that respect will get.
NIAGARA 4-6 (0-2) -- J. Green 9-15 6-7 25; A. Mason 5-9 3-3 14; M. Jordan 6-9 2-2 20; A. Tanksley 1-8 5-8 7; S. Gillette 1-1 3-4 5; J. Thomas 2-6 1-2 5; A. Langford 1-1 0-0 3; S. Jones 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 25-50 20-26 79. HARTFORD 0-10 (0-0) -- N. Sikma 4-9 1-2 11; A. Torres 5-8 4-4 18; C. Brothers 1-4 0-0 2; Y. Moore II 1-7 0-0 3; M. Nwakamma 5-7 1-2 11; W. Cole 8-13 2-2 26; G. Maciel 1-3 0-1 2; C. Wroe 1-1 0-0 2; O. Faulk 0-0 0-0 0; J. Schneck 0-0 1-2 1. Totals 26-52 9-13 76.
Three-point goals: NIAG 9-19 (S. Jones 0-1; M. Jordan 6-9; A. Mason 1-2; J. Green 1-4; A. Tanksley 0-2; A. Langford 1-1), HART 15-31 (A. Torres 4-6; G. Maciel 0-2; C. Brothers 0-1; W. Cole 8-13; Y. Moore II 1-4; N. Sikma 2-5); Rebounds: NIAG 30 (A. Tanksley 9), HART 20 (N. Sikma 6); Assists: NIAG 11 (M. Jordan 7), HART 17 (C. Brothers 4); Total Fouls -- NIAG 20, HART 21; Fouled Out: NIAG-J. Thomas; HART-None.