College Basketball Nation: Andy Toole

Twenty years ago, I covered Rider in its first-round NCAA tournament game against Kentucky. The Broncs of the Northeast Conference were naturally a 16-seed; the Wildcats of the soon-to-be NBA were a No. 1 seed.

Rider’s best player, Darrick Suber, agreed to do a blog for our newspaper, The Trentonian, detailing the experience. His entry from the game day in Nashville included his memories of walking onto the Vanderbilt court for the first time, into the throng of the Big Blue Nation and hearing one distinct voice yell in a female Southern drawl:

"Here come the lambs," she said.

As in to the slaughter.

She was right, of course. Kentucky won that game 96-52, as is scripted in those sorts of matchups.

Which takes me to what happened Tuesday night on the small campus of Robert Morris University in Moon Township, Pa., hometown of one John Calipari.

The Colonials beat the Wildcats 59-57.

Let me retype that.

[+] EnlargeRobert Morris' Andy Toole
AP Photo/Don WrightAndy Toole's Robert Morris team earned a 59-57 victory over Kentucky in the NIT first round.
Robert Morris University, whose best postseason appearance before Tuesday night was an almost-win against Kansas in 1990, beat the University of Kentucky, whose latest best postseason appearance came 350 days ago, when the Wildcats won their eighth national championship. A program with more losses than wins in its history beat the program with more wins than anyone in college basketball history.

So feel free to say that this was "only" an NIT game and mock the fact that Robert Morris fans stormed the court.

Then understand the absolute impossibility of what just happened.

After the brackets came out Sunday night, players and head coach Andy Toole understandably reacted as if they’d been punk’d.

"I feel like Rocky in 'Rocky I' who just got his shot against the champions in our home city," he said.

Guard Velton Jones tweeted, "Really? Why can’t I breathe right now?"

Well, Velton, because the Robert Morris Universities of the world are supposed to be the sacrificial lambs, not hosts -- and that was only from an ironic twist of NCAA hosting fate -- and certainly not winners.

According to the Department of Education’s latest equity in athletics numbers, the Colonials men's basketball operating expenses are $307,670. Kentucky spent $212,242 … per participant.

Robert Morris’ gym includes a track circling the court and lines on the court for volleyball games. Kentucky’s newly upgraded locker room is one step below the Plaza.

Calipari makes $5.2 million. Toole? Well, Toole does not.

Money, apparently, can buy you neither love nor basketball victories.

The Colonials didn’t just win this game, they deserved to win it. They outplayed the Cats. That says as much about Kentucky as it does about Robert Morris, but I’m not going to ruin the Colonials’ moment by bogging it down with UK's myriad of issues. Calipari covered that in his postgame news conference.

As starry-eyed as the Colonials might have been on Twitter, they never played like deer in headlights, not even after Lucky Jones headed to the showers after a foolish -- and dangerous -- flagrant foul on Archie Goodwin.

They looked as calm as their baby-faced coach. Toole, by the way, might be the only Division I coach who could challenge Brad Stevens in the head-coach-most-likely-to-get-carded-at-a-bar competition.

Given his first head-coaching gig at the age of 29, after Mike Rice moved on to Rutgers, Toole was nonchalant about being the youngest coach in Division I tag. He told me dryly in 2009 that he could very easily become "the youngest head coach to be fired," so why get hung up on it?

Toole comes by his sane outlook and bright hoops mind naturally. He played for Fran Dunphy at Penn, helping the Quakers to two NCAA tournament berths. What he lacked in physical skills he made up for with basketball smarts, a talent he has brought with him to his coaching job.

His team did exactly what it needed to do on both ends of the court, draining available 3-pointers and picking smart spots to drive.

Now Toole and his players have given Robert Morris its most significant moment, certainly in basketball history and maybe in the school’s history altogether.

For one day at least, the lambs pushed back and refused to be silenced.
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.’’