When Mitch Buonaguro was asked recently about the biggest change he’s encountered in his move from being Siena’s top assistant to being the program’s head coach, he responded with a joke.
“I’ve had to buy some better suits,” said Buonaguro.
Tongue in cheek response, yes.
But, after more than 35 years prowling basketball sidelines, after being an active coach in some capacity for over 1,025 Division I contests … there isn’t likely to be much that Buonaguro hasn’t seen before beyond the better cut of wearing apparel he’s sporting these days.
Buonaguro not only had been Fran McCaffery’s right-hand man over the past five seasons at Siena, but it could easily be perceived that he was the proverbial basketball brains behind the operation.
Buonaguro was the front man in recruiting, using his unusually extensive list of contacts to connect with and attract many of the players that enabled Siena to win the past three MAAC championships. And, now, he's seemingly bringing in players that appear capable of maintaining the program’s high competitive level.
He has always been the tireless worker who, if he wasn’t burning the proverbial midnight oil in front of TV watching game tape of future opponents in his office he was doing the same at his home.
Buonaguro is one of two coaches taking over a conference program this season, but couldn’t be any more different from the other, Iona’s new coach Tim Cluess.
Cluess, who has had extensive success on the Division II level, has never before coached a Division I team.
Buonaguro? He not only has been a Division I head coach in the league (Fairfield, 1985-1991), but already owns a MAAC Coach of the Year plaque for his team’s work in his first season with the Stags.
While in Fairfield his first two teams went to NCAA tournaments before he was fired after the 1990-91 season when his final four seasons there produced 33-80 record.
But, Buonaguro, obviously, knows his way around college basketball circles. How many MAAC head coaches have ever worn a national championship ring?
Buonaguro has one, courtesy of being the top assistant on the 1984-85 Villanova team that upset Georgetown in that season’s national championship game.
His role in that upset of the Patrick Ewing-led Hoyas was this: Buonaguro had the Georgetown “scout,” meaning he was responsible for preparing Villanova’s scouting report for that game, and for finding the flaws in Georgetown’s game and how best his own team could go about beating the Hoyas.
The general public still perceives that outcome as one of the biggest upsets in college basketball history. But, Buonaguro doesn't agree.
“We thought we were going to win the game,” he said. “We were well-prepared for them.”
So there probably isn’t any doubt about how well Siena’s preparation, under Buonaguro, will be for opponents.
“In truth the biggest challenge is to keep this program where it is,” said Buonaguro. “We’ve won the league for the past three seasons. So our goal is pretty simple. We’re trying to win the league again.”
Siena will certainly be different. Gone are its “Big Three,” its three four-year starters _ forwards Edwin Ubiles and Alex Franklin and pont guard Ronald Moore.
The Saints will also be bigger this year, with the addition of Seton Hall transfer 6-9, 245-pounder Brandon Walters and a starting role for 6-7 ½ O.D. Anosike. The Saints’ best player this year is 6-9, 255-pounder Ryan Rossiter. The roster includes one other 6-9 player, forward Davis Martens.
The Saints have the most height in the conference as well as being one of the bigger mid-major level teams nationally.
“We’ll still try to play up tempo like we have in the past,” said Buonaguro. “But, we’ll probably concentrate a little more on stopping people, too.”
Buonaguro has also helped secure the program’s future by reportedly securing verbal commitments from 6-5 shooting guard Rob Poole, and forwards 6-9 Ryan Gomis and 6-8 Omah Silas.
But, for now, the 57-year old Buonaguro isn’t thinking beyond Saturday’s season opener with Vermont.
“You have to play them one at a time,” he said. “If we start thinking about Minnesota (Siena’s next game after Vermont), we’ll get beat by Vermont.”
Spoken like a veteran coach, even if he hasn’t been in the lead chair for the past 19 seasons.
“Yeah, first time in 19 years,” said Buonaguro, who knows that most individuals who get fired from the mid-major level rarely get another chance to run another program. “I’m excited, particularly because Siena is a great job. Some guys get jobs that are just bad jobs, but I’ve got a job at one of the top mid-major schools in the country. I had 45 public commitments this off-season, and that just doesn’t happen at this level elsewhere.”
Buonaguro, though, knew well the demands of the job long before it opened up. He helped create them with his behind-the-scenes work that not only produced a 112-51 record at Siena over the past five seasons but increased McCaffery’s profile enough for him to move on for a big-money job at Iowa.
The other result was the recent success polished Buonaguro’s star enough for him to be the only real seriously considered candidate to stay at Siena and replace McCaffery.
Buonaguro is the first to admit he’s a different coach than he was two decades ago in his first chance at doing this.
“I’m probably not as fiery as I was back then, although I still am fiery,” he said. “I still yell a lot, but I’m probably a little more accepting of things. I’m a better communicator now. But, I know you can only look ahead one game at a time and that you prepare for it as well as you can.”
Spoken like a veteran of the profession. And, for those who need any evidence about Buonaguro’s ability to prepare for a game … Villanova’s 1985 upset of Georgetown in the NCAA championship game should suffice.