Andy Toole looks to maintain momentum

August, 13, 2010
8/13/10
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They imagined beignets for breakfast and crawfish for dinner, life in the Garden District and nights on Bourbon Street.

And then Mike Rice said no, turning down the job opening at Tulane.

His assistants, tired of the tap dance of potential job changes, got together.

“It was a roller coaster for all of us; every time his name came up for a job, me and Jimmy Martelli would get together and think, ‘What are we going to do?’’’ Andy Toole said. “After Tulane, we promised not to get excited any more.’’

And then Rice, long a hot name in the coach-search carousel, finally pulled the trigger.

But Toole stayed put.

And he couldn’t be happier.

Five days after Rice left Robert Morris for Rutgers, Robert Morris chose Toole to replace him.

At 29, Toole narrowly beats out Appalachian State’s Jason Capel for honors as ‘youngest coach in Division I,’ a tag Toole thinks has about as much meaning as his current win-loss record.

“It’s nice to say to recruits on the phone, but other than that what’s it mean?’’ Toole said. “You could also become the youngest head coach to be fired.’’

Not likely.

Toole’s driver license may say he’s a greenhorn, but those who know him best say he has a veteran coach’s mind.

Toole played at the University of Pennsylvania, shepherding the Quakers to a 47-13 record and two NCAA tournament berths in his two seasons. He admits that he wasn’t “always the most athletically gifted’’ player on the court, but instead relied on his basketball instincts.

Those instincts told him right away that a coaching career was in his future. After graduation, Toole went to work for The Hoop Group. He served as the director of the Eastern Invitational Basketball Clinic, but more importantly, made contacts in the basketball world. He spent one season at Lafayette alongside former Penn assistant Fran O’Hanlon before partnering with Rice at Robert Morris.

“He knows exactly what he wants and exactly what he’s doing,’’ said Temple’s Fran Dunphy, who coached Toole at Penn. “I’m not at all surprised at his early success. He was a terrific leader for our team and was really great for me. I’d have something that I wanted to do and he’d already taken care of it with his teammates.’’

That basketball savvy worked well when Toole arrived at RMU with Rice three years ago. Together the two developed not just the Colonials’ system, but also the program’s identity.

Rice built Robert Morris on defense, on players who switch constantly without thought or concern and who ended up allowing opponents to score just 65 points per game this past season.

“He helped me create it,’’ Rice said. “Co-author is the perfect term. Not only did he help with how to break things down and teach, but he also helped to manipulate the guys’ thinking, trick them into doing what we wanted to do. Getting guys to defend for four or five minutes at a time is brutal. They don’t want to but through film and conversation, he helped make it happen.’’

That’s why Rice urged his administrators to look past Toole’s birthday when choosing the next coach. He pointed out to other programs like Butler and Xavier, universities with a history of hiring from within and reaping the benefits of the continuity, as a model for what Robert Morris could be.

And Toole has no intention of breaking the mold.

Why would he?

The Colonials are in the midst of a pretty sweet run. In 2008, Robert Morris made its first appearance in the NIT. The Colonials then followed it up with back-to-back trips to the NCAA tournament, including a near-Cinderella moment this season. Robert Morris took No. 2 seed Villanova to overtime before losing, 73-70.

Four seniors from that team are gone, but Toole still has plenty to build on -- namely Karon Abraham. The Northeast Conference’s Rookie of the Year, he led the team with 13.6 points per game, including a 23-point performance against Villanova.

“These opportunities don’t come about for people my age too often,’’ Toole said. “Robert Morris has had three of its best years in school history, so for the administrators to say, ‘We trust you to continue this,’ is both humbling and flattering. My job now is to every day go out and prove those people right for having faith in me.’’

Dana O'Neil | email

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