Steve Pikiell will be announced as the new Rutgers men's basketball coach this afternoon. After 11 seasons at Stony Brook of the America East conference, Pikiell is making the jump to the Big Ten. He had taken over a program that was transitioning to Division I and hadn't found success before his arrival. After a 20-67 record in his first three seasons, there was surely skepticism on whether Stony Brook would ever become a competitive team. The next season Pikiell broke through with a 16-14 record and the following season took them to their first postseason berth with a trip to the NIT, finishing with a 22-10 record. Finally this past season, the school's sixth season with 22 plus victories in the past seven, Stony Brook made its first NCAA tournament appearance in program history.
Long ago, there was another coach who took over a fledgling Division I program, transitioning in a new league and having never made an NCAA tournament appearance. The school was Northeastern and the coach was Jim Calhoun. He became the head coach of the Huskies in 1972 and after a 19-7 start as an independent, had a six season run with a 75-65 combined record. They hovered just over .500 each season with zero postseason appearances. What followed was five of the next seven seasons with 22 plus wins and five NCAA appearances, the first five in program history.
Calhoun then made a similar leap as Pikiell is making today, leaving Northeastern and the North Atlantic Conference for UConn and the Big East. The school was a NCAA tournament regular in the fifties and sixties, with one Elite Eight appearance. However they hadn't made the big dance since the seventies when Calhoun took over in 1986. UConn went 9-19 in Calhoun's first season, navigating conference play against college basketball powers Georgetown, Syracuse, Villanova, and St. John's. UConn was an afterthought in the Big East at the time, something that is hard to imagine now.
That all changed under Calhoun, who followed his debut season with 25 consecutive winning seasons, 18 NCAA tournament appearances, 4 Final Four trips, and 3 national championships. The success that Calhoun led the Huskies to is staggering when looking at their previous history. He entered a conference loaded with successful programs and when he was done, left with his program the most successful and accomplished in the conference during his tenure. Pikiell was a two-time captain for Calhoun on his first two teams to make the NCAA's. He also served as an assistant coach in the nineties under Calhoun.
As Pikiell makes his own big leap into a power conference, there is no better mentor to have than Jim Calhoun. While the business of college basketball has changed tremendously from over three decades ago, Calhoun navigated through that change and was successful through it all. Pikiell is taking over a bigger project than Calhoun did, as Rutgers has endured 10 consecutive losing seasons and 25 seasons without an NCAA appearance. The Big Ten of today is more established and deeper than the Big East that Calhoun competed in back in the eighties.
With all that Rutgers fans have endured with this program, the bar is set pretty low for Pikiell. Steve Politi spoke with Calhoun about Pikiell's task ahead of him at Rutgers and had this to say:
"Do I think it's a fight at Rutgers? Yeah," Calhoun told NJ Advance Media on Saturday soon after NJ Advance Media broke the news that Pikiell had gotten the job. "But there is no doubt in my mind that Steve will have a good chance to recruit in a place that's 36 miles from the Lincoln Tunnel. He'll do a great job."
Only time will tell, but one coaching legend thinks so. "He's not going to work miracles," Jim Calhoun said, "but he's going to get Rutgers back where they think they belong and where I think they belong."
Of course, regular NCAA tournament appearances are the dream, but the goal for now is restoring the program back to respectability. No one expects Pikiell to replicate Calhoun's success at UCONN. However, if he can restore pride and make Rutgers a winning program again, he will be treated like a king just the same.
Having Calhoun advising Pikiell at Rutgers, either officially or unofficially, is a major positive. Calhoun turned an also ran major conference school into a perennial power. Pikiell turned around a mid-major school in Stony Brook much like Calhoun did at Northeastern. The great unknown is whether Pikiell can do the same in turning around a major conference doormat in Rutgers. Calhoun is already advising Pikiell, per this interview with Adam Zagoria:
"One of the things we'll be talking about [with Pikiell] is the makeup of the staff becomes incredibly important," Calhoun said.
"Not only next year's class that you have coming [needs to be] maintained, but what are you doing over the next couple of years to make sure you gets kids that you should get. Putting that staff together is going to become incredibly important for recruiting and you need X's and O's and you need a coach who can develop players. You're taking care of today but you're making sure that Year 1, Year 2, Year 3 are all going forward, too. So those are the kinds of things we'll be talking about."
"You can tell me all about they don't have a facility," Calhoun said. "We won an NIT and also lost to Christian Laettner in the Final 8. Those two things happened in our first four years playing in the old field house, so i don't believe that."
As I wrote soon after the hiring was announced, there was no fail proof coach that Rutgers and athletic director Pat Hobbs could have hired. However, Pikiell built a program from almost nothing at Stony Brook and made them a perennial postseason team. Pikiell learned from Calhoun, who did the same thing at Northeastern, before succeeding even more so at a higher stage with UConn. Can Pikiell make Rutgers a remake/sequel of Calhoun's epic Act II?
We shall see but Rutgers fans should take comfort that Pikiell will have his own personal Yoda by his side, guiding him through the process. While Pikiell has a lot of work ahead of him, he knows a great portion of what is ahead of him, both from his own experiences and that of his mentor. As the old idiom states, "knowing is half the battle." With Calhoun as his teacher, the bar is set high, and the student will certainly aim to achieve the same success. However, if Pikiell can come anywhere close to the success that Calhoun accomplished before him, Rutgers fans will look back on today as when it all changed for the better.
"Coach Calhoun has been my mentor since day one. My mentorship under him has been invaluable. It's great to have his support." Coach Pikiell— Rutgers Basketball (@RutgersMBB) March 22, 2016