July 22, 2011

Lonergan heads home to coach Colonials

Dream jobs can mean different things to different coaches.

For some coaches, that first Division I opportunity represents the ultimate goal. Other coaches want the chance to work at Kentucky, North Carolina, Kansas or any other program that has legitimate Final Four aspirations each season.

George Washington represented Mike Lonergan's ideal situation, and not just because it gave him the chance to coach a school that has reached eight NCAA tournaments since 1993. Lonergan wanted the opportunity to go home.

"It's a dream job for me," Lonergan says.

Lonergan, 45, had spent the past six years coaching at Vermont and leading the Catamounts to four postseason appearances, but he remained a D.C. guy through and through.

Born in Silver Spring, Md., Lonergan was a class salutatorian at D.C.'s Archbishop Carroll and stayed home to play for Catholic University. Just four years after graduating from Catholic, Lonergan returned to his alma mater for a 12-season run as coach.

Lonergan now gets a chance to return to his hometown in a move that represents a family reunion. He has three sisters in Bowie, Md., where Lonergan plans to live. A fourth sister lives about 90 minutes away. His 80-year-old father also lives in Bowie.

"My first reaction was that I don't have to make that 9 1/2-hour trip to Vermont anymore," says Jack Lonergan, Mike's dad. "Now his whole family can go to the games."

Jack Lonergan pitched for the Holy Cross baseball team that won the 1952 College World Series, but Mike Lonergan believes he inherited his competitiveness from his late mother, who also happened to be his first basketball coach. Maureen Lonergan eventually coached softball and soccer at Bladensburg (Md.) Elizabeth Seton High.

So it made sense that Lonergan eventually wanted to coach in the D.C. area. Of course, most coaches would dream about more higher-profile D.C.-area destinations such as Georgetown or Maryland, where Lonergan actually worked as an assistant for a year.

Lonergan, though, always felt a particular affinity for George Washington, which is in the Atlantic 10. As a high school and college student, he often would go to GW games because the campus was conveniently located near a Metro station. He occasionally would look up in the stands and find one of his heroes, George Washington alum and legendary Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach.

"It was like being in the presence of royalty," Lonergan says.

Lonergan always seemed destined to follow his hero into the coaching profession. Although he wasn't a star player by any means, Lonergan grew up a gym rat. He didn't necessarily have size or great skills, but he was a great passer and defender whose grit and zeal for the game made him a blue-chip coaching prospect.

"Everyone who saw Gary Williams play says that when you watched him play, you knew he was going to be a great coach," says Loyola (Md.) coach Jimmy Patsos, who played alongside Lonergan at Catholic. "Mike Krzyzewski was a gritty and hard-nosed player - not an all-star player - at Army for Bob Knight. [Duke assistant] Steve Wojciechowski will be a great coach because he was a grinder. [Pittsburgh coach] Jamie Dixon wasn't a star, but he was a hard-nosed player.

Lonergan through the years
Here's a look at Mike Lonergan's year-by-year coaching record.
1992-93Catholic21-6NCAA Division III 1st round
1995-96Catholic19-8NCAA Division III 1st round
1997-98Catholic25-4NCAA Division III Sweet 16
1998-99Catholic23-7NCAA Division III Sweet 16
1999-00Catholic24-5NCAA Division III Elite Eight
2000-01Catholic28-5NCAA Division III champions
2001-02Catholic26-3NCAA Division III Sweet 16
2002-03Catholic24-5NCAA Division III 1st round
2003-04Catholic24-6NCAA Division III 2nd round
2006-07Vermont15-8NIT 1st round
2008-09Vermont24-9CBI 2nd round
2009-10Vermont25-10NCAA 1st round
2010-11Vermont23-9NIT 1st round
Totals377-15610 NCAAs (9 Div. III), two NITs, one CBI
(NOTE: *-Lonergan returned to head coaching in 2005 after spending one year as an assistant at Maryland)
"Lonergan's from that same mold. You looked at him and always knew he'd be a coach."

After starting his coaching career as an assistant at American International College and Colgate, Lonergan became the youngest active Division III coach in the nation when he took over Catholic's program at the age of 26. Catholic captured a Division III national title in 2001 and won at least 23 games and reached the NCAA Division III tournament in each of Lonergan's last seven years on the job.

Yet that gaudy record didn't do much to help Lonergan land a coaching position at a Division I school. That's why he left Catholic after the 2003-04 season to become an assistant for Williams at Maryland.

"I loved Catholic, but I didn't want to look back and have the regret of never chasing my dream of becoming a Division I head coach," Lonergan says. "It changed my resume. I don't think it should work this way, but [when I got to Maryland], people started looking more at what I did at Catholic, what I'd done at Colgate. I'd been sort of labeled a 'Division III guy.' "

Lonergan wasn't the only one who'd noticed this.

Williams had watched Lonergan's teams at Catholic and knew the guy was a quality coach. When Lonergan joined his staff, Williams knew it wouldn't be long before another Division I program hired him away because all Lonergan needed was Division I experience.

"It's really a shame it works out that way," Williams says. "A lot of hires are to make a splash, how big a name do you have. A lot of times that only comes through coaching at Division I, no matter how successful you are, even if you're as successful as Mike was at Division III.

"I might look at it differently. I'd been a high school coach who worked my way up through the ranks. I always felt if you can coach, you can coach. You might need to learn the recruiting thing or some other things with the media, but if you can coach basketball, you can coach the game."

Sure enough, Lonergan stayed at Maryland only one season before Vermont gave him his long-awaited Division I head-coaching opportunity.

"The thing I noticed about Mike is he always saw the game really well," Williams says. "A lot of guys are good recruiters - I think Mike also can recruit - but while the game's going on, certain guys don't make great adjustments. They don't really get a feel for the game.

Seeking to bounce back
George Washington made three consecutive NCAA appearances from 2005-07, but the Colonials haven't earned a bid since. Here's a look at GW's records since 2005. All those results came under former coach Karl Hobbs, who was fired April 25 after posting a 166-129 record in 10 seasons.
2004-0522-811-5NCAA 1st round
2005-0627-316-0NCAA 2nd round
2006-0723-911-5NCAA 1st round
2009-1016-156-10CBI 1st round
"I think Mike has that ability. He has a good feel for how things are going on the court and he makes good adjustments as the game goes on."

Lonergan was fortunate in that he didn't have to rebuild a program at Vermont. The school was coming off three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances under Tom Brennan, who retired at the end of the 2004-05 season. Lonergan did a good job of maintaining what Brennan had established despite taking over a team that had endured heavy graduation losses.

Vermont went 13-17 in Lonergan's first season, as it didn't have anyone who had averaged as many as five points per game the previous season. The Catamounts bounced back to go a combined 103-51 in Lonergan's next five seasons while reaching one NCAA tournament, two NITs and one CBI.

Lonergan takes over a George Washington program that hasn't earned an NCAA bid since 2007, but he could end that drought in a hurry. The Colonials return four starters from a team that went 17-14 last season under Karl Hobbs, who was fired in late April. GW also will have Lasan Kroma, who sat out last season with a foot injury after averaging 11.8 points per game in 2009-10.

"There is a good nucleus here and some good experience returning," Lonergan says. "I'm excited about that. My first year at Vermont was really tough. We had a lot of guys who were very inexperienced who became starters right away."

Lonergan's D.C. ties could help him add even more talent.

As a Maryland native who played and coached in the D.C. area, Lonergan knows many of the coaches at the high schools near GW's campus. His assistants have similar connections. Hajj Turner worked at Maryland for two seasons. Pete Strickland, a former Coastal Carolina head coach, has served as an assistant at Old Dominion as well as Dayton and N.C. State. Kevin Sutton grew up in northern Virginia, though he's best known as the most recent coach of national high school power Montverde (Fla.) Academy, near Orlando.

Lonergan says that familiarity "can help a lot. Per capita, [the D.C. area] probably has the most NBA players, the most Division I players of anywhere in the country."

Recruiting should prove easier at George Washington than at Vermont, but that's not the biggest reason Lonergan chose to come home. It was the best choice for his family.

He gets to spend more time with his father, and his four children - who range in age from 3 to 12 - now get to spend more time with their grandfather and aunts. Margaret, his 10-year-old daughter, eventually will get a chance to attend Elizabeth Seton High, where the athletic fields are named in her grandmother's honor.

Lonergan thought it was a treat to attend GW games and see Auerbach in the stands. He can only imagine how special it will feel to look from the bench this winter and see most of his family in the crowd.

"It's a great fit for me," Lonergan says.

It could prove a great fit for the Colonials as well.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.



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