Wednesday, April 10, 2013

MAAC's Coaching "Dean," Mihalich, Goes To Hofstra

For years he has claimed the title of "dean" of MAAC coaches.

No one ever coached in the conference longer than Joe Mihalich, who has been Niagara's head coach for the past 15 years. Before that he was an assistant coach at La Salle for 17 seasons, 10 of those years when that program was a league member.

That's 25 of the 32 years years the MAAC has been in existence. No one, to my knowledge, has been connected to the conference for so long. No coach has been a greater cheerleader, a better promoter, for the MAAC than Mihalich.

He ingrained himself, endeared himself to a Niagara community that had been watching on-court mediocrity in the years between Frank Layden (who left in 1976) and Mihalich (who took over in 1998).

Your blogger's trips to Western New York always resulted in finding Mihalich admirers, whether they be border security, local business owners or just about anyone within reasonable proximity of the Niagara campus.

Mihalich revitalized a once-proud program that happens to be located, just south of Canada, in a snowbound area where -- let's be honest -- it isn't the most-desirable place to which to bring in recruits.

But, somehow, Mihalich found good players and built good teams. His preferred up-tempo style of play appealed to players who might otherwise not have came to Monteagle Ridge.

He had just three sub-.500 records in 15 years, an accomplishment made all the more remarkable because of the challenges related to his school's geographic location. He had a 265-203 record at Niagara, more wins than any MAAC coach in the league's 32-year history.

But, like every good coach Mihalich is moving on. A variety of reports indicate that Mihalich will be announced, later today, as the new coach at Hofstra.

It's surprising in the sense that it felt that Mihalich would always be around the MAAC. At his age, 56, he was getting close to that time when bigger programs would look elsewhere for concerns over just how many more years he would go on.

But, Mihalich is as enthusiastic and as vibrant as ever. The move brings a reported six-year contract that will be worth more than double what he was being paid at Niagara. Those numbers, the years and the salary, bring the type financial security one rarely finds in the MAAC.

Mihalich leaves a program that couldn't be in better shape, coming off a regular-season league title with a starting lineup that returns intact, along with a few key reserves also coming back.

It was a situation that brought out the best of Mihalich, who was asked if such a young team having so much success was surprising, if things were ahead of schedule.

"I didn't know there was any schedule for this," quipped Mihalich.

Those with long memories will recall how MAAC history might have been drastically changed when, in 1994, Mihalich was one of the finalists to replace Mike Deane as Siena's coach.

That school's search had identified Mihalich, still a La Salle assistant back then, as one of its two final candidates. Mihalich was so certain he would be offered the Siena job that he quizzed this scribe about the merits of local school districts and where he should enroll his then-young children.

Instead, Siena hired Bob Beyer.

Bad move for the Saints, but a great turn of events for Niagara. Still, Mihalich didn't get his first opportunity to run a program for four more years when the Purple Eagles brought him aboard.

The result was the best era of Niagara basketball, in terms of on-court success, since Taps Gallagher stopped coaching there in the mid-1960s.

For sure there are mixed emotions. It's never easy to see a good guy, an individual who was such a terrific ambassador not only for his own program but for the conference, to move on.

Yet, those are the ones we root for to have success, to find bigger and better opportunities.

And, so, it's now Mihalich's turn to try bigger and better.

But, that's not to say he won't be greatly missed at Niagara, in the Western New York region, and throughout the MAAC.

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