Thursday, January 3, 2013

Mihalich Restores Niagara's Luster with Wins, Class

After an overnight on the Canada side of Niagara Falls, your Hoopscribe made the requisite stop at the border crossing on the way to interview Niagara men's coach Joe Mihalich and watch his team practice Wednesday afternoon.

During the brief give-and-take with the security guard at the border, I was asked my purpose for my trip.

I explained that I was a sportswriter and was on my way to interview the Niagara men's basketball coach.

"Have you interviewed him before?" I was asked.

"Many times," I responded.

"I know coach Mihalich pretty well," added the border security guard. "He is just a class act."

Class act, indeed.

Mihalich, over the years, has become one of Western New York's most-revered sporting personalities. He is a gregarious, well-spoken ambassador not only for Niagara University but for mid-major level basketball in general.

And, that he has only three losing seasons of the past 14 (Niagara failed to get over .500 in 16 of the 22 seasons prior to the hiring of Mihalich) and is the MAAC's all-time winningest coach (251-196) in the conference's 32-year history doesn't hurt the perception of him.

Most importantly, Mihalich has restored more than a little respectability to a program that once had plenty of that. But most of that positive history dates back to when Frank Layden coached the program more than 40 years ago, when Hubie Brown played in it more than 50 years ago or when Calvin Murphy electrified Niagara with his play in the late 1960's/early 1970's.

Since Murphy's days the program has had more than its share of ups and downs, and there were more valleys than peaks.

Between Layden (1976) and Mihalich (who took over in 1998), the program's record was 272-344. It was enough to get the all four of the coaches who came between Layden and Mihalich fired.

Mihalich, though, has helped restore the luster to a program whose way-back-when tradition he uses as a selling point to recruits.

These days, though, that Mihalich has added to the tradition with his record of success, and his a never-wavering devotion to an up-tempo style of play preferred by players, has made him arguably the program's strongest selling point.

Class act, yes. But with what Mihalich has done with Niagara basketball he could likely run for political office in his community and win in a landslide.

Past history shows it's not easy to win at Niagara, a place where, Mihalich acknowledges, people perceive as having two seasons: Winter, and July.

"But, that's not the case," said the Niagara coach. "This is a beautiful place. It's not easy to convince kids to come up and take a visit, but once they do they discover what a great area we're in here."

Mihalich has sold enough good basketball players about the virtues of attending Niagara over the years to have become the conference's all-time winningest coach.

"Fifteen years here ... I'm the luckiest guy in the world," said Mihalich. "What does being the winningest conference coach say to me? The answer is a cliche: I've been here a long time.

"But, the greatest compliment I've ever received is when someone pointed out that I've averaged 17 or 18 wins a year over my time at Niagara, and that' it's not easy to win that many games here every year."

It's a feat that hasn't gone unnoticed by peers.

"Two-fifty (wins) in 14 years; that is a remarkable feat, said Hartford coach John Gallager, who was on the losing end of Mihalich's 250th career victory.

Like Mihalich, Gallagher is a Philadelphia native who has known Mihalich since he was 10.

"He's got to be considered one of the best coaches," Gallagher told the Buffalo News earlier this year. "He really knows how to get his guys to play hard. He does a phenomenal job recruiting. His plans are very, very -- in my opinion -- detailed. His guys know what they're doing.

"So to put in perspective, first how many guys stay in one place 15 years? He's been offered five or six other jobs, we all know that. He loves the Niagara area. He turned down La Salle, his alma mater ... He grew up in Philadelphia, but he's from Niagara Falls."

Indeed, Mihalich's office reflects that. While one of assistants, another Philly native, displays a Philadelphia Phillies' hat on his desk, the only hat on a shelf behind Mihalich's desk supports a Buffalo Bills' logo.

Mihalich's tenure as a MAAC coach, though, almost started elsewhere.

Back in 1994, when he was an assistant at La Salle, Siena College came calling.

Mihalich went through the interview process and was one of the final two candidates to take over the Saints' program to succeed Mike Deane.

Mihalich was so sure he was going to get the Siena job that he sought out advice from an Albany area sportswriter about school district options for his children.

"It came down to Bob Beyer and me," said Mihalich. "They went with Beyer. Those things happen. I'm pretty happy with how things turned out."

After losing out at Siena, Mihalich remained at La Salle for four more seasons (he was an assistant there for 17 years) before Niagara reached out.

The Niagara basketball community, for sure, is pretty happy with how things turned out, too.

It found the right coach to rebuild a program whose best days were long ago, a coach who continues to add to his own legacy as a rightful part of Niagara's strong basketball tradition.

It found a coach who is indeed a class act.

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