College Basketball Nation: Centenary Gents

Adam Walsh enters basketball purgatory

October, 28, 2010
Gathering his team around at the start of practice, Adam Walsh explained how Memphis had called to request practice film of his Centenary basketball team.

“Memphis is worried about us,’’ Walsh joked to his players.

“And then one of our freshmen said, ‘They’d better be worried about us,’’’ Walsh recalled.

The idea that mighty Memphis, ranked 19th in the preseason, might be afraid of a small school in Shreveport would be funny on a normal day.

That the freshman offering the trash talk was a non-scholarship player inked to play at the Division III level makes it all the more comical.

But such is life at Centenary, where the Gents reside in a strange basketball purgatory. This season they are members of the Summit League, a Division I team with nonconference dates against the likes of the Tigers, LSU and Tulane.

Next season, they will join the American Southwest Conference, a Division III league, where they’ll square up against the likes of Hardin-Simmons, Concordia and Texas Lutheran in what will then be a 16-team conference. Faced with a dwindling endowment that had dropped 20 percent and the need to find budget cuts totaling $1.5 million, the alma mater of Boston Celtics legend Robert Parish made the decision to drop down in divisions.

What may have been a fiscally responsible and sensible decision was nonetheless the cause of much upheaval in the athletics department. Some staff members within the department left, including -- eventually -- men’s basketball coach Greg Gary, who waffled and wavered before finally taking a job as an assistant at Duquesne in May.

Five players bolted as well.

Walsh, all of 31 and Gary’s assistant for the past three years, took over the crazy situation. He is not just the head coach now, but the assistant athletic director in charge of compliance, game-day management and the department’s SAAC adviser as well.

He has a team with eight new faces, all of them non-scholarship players recruited to play Division III ball.

Except this season they’ll play D-1.

“I’m blessed to have this opportunity, but in a way I feel like I’m going to get two first years,’’ Walsh said. “I’m going to get a little bit of a do-over next year.’’

The grounded Walsh, who got his start as a manager at High Point and climbed the coaching rungs from Division II to junior college, isn’t trying to sugarcoat things. He has set realistic goals for his team -- he’d like the Gents to qualify for the Summit League tournament -- but all the while has challenged them to do more than what is expected.

“My motto around the office is if we don’t set the bar high, we can’t expect much out of our players,’’ Walsh said. “We’d like to finish in the middle of the pack and be conference tournament-eligible. We never have before, so why not go out with a bang?’’

Really, there is plenty to play for. The scholarship guys are all transfer-eligible, meaning they could play immediately for another Division I school next season. This, in effect, is an audition year.

And the newcomers just brought in will never have the chance to play the caliber of competition they're facing this season, and can only be better for it next season.

But to Walsh, playing with pride and showing character has even more far-reaching implications.

“We want to leave a good impression, but I’m more interested in what this does for these guys 20, 30 years down the road,’’ Walsh said. “I tell them all the time that I’m trying to help them grow and to be able to handle such a big challenge is a part of the deal. This will help them when they face problems later in life.’’

For now, though, the problems come in the form of Will Barton and Joe Jackson and Wesley Witherspoon. The Gents will be served up as home-opening fodder for Memphis on Nov. 12.

“The good thing is, there is no doom and gloom with these guys at all,’’ Walsh said. “Everyone was nodding their heads, saying Memphis better be worried. It’s funny, I know, but it’s also the attitude that they’ve got to have. If they didn’t think that way, then I’d be worried.’’
Imagine you got a job. Good for you! You wouldn't go so far as to say it's your dream job, but it's your first full-time managerial position in a tough economy, and you're a pretty young guy, so, you know, pat yourself on the back. Your Mom sends you a greeting card with a cartoon rocket ship and a little text bubble that says "Up, up and away!" (Millennial mothers would totally do this.) You've got to admit -- you're pretty stoked.

Now imagine the company that just hired you told you it was downsizing the company drastically. And that you were going to have to re-hire a huge chunk of your team. And -- oh yeah -- your downtown SoHo New York office was no longer financially viable, so the company was moving most of its workforce to a corporate office park in Paterson, N.J. Would you still take the job?

That's pretty much what happened to Centenary coach Adam Walsh, a 31-year-old who took his first head coaching gig at the school three months ago and who is dealing with the athletic program's transition from Division I to Division III. Many of the coaches and assistants in other Centenary programs are running from the school as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, Walsh has lost five players this offseason, three of which decided to play at Division I programs and were able to transfer without restriction thanks to the school's D-III move.

Matt Norlander (of College Hoops Journal and The Dagger fame) wrote about Walsh's fun summer over at Fox. At the very least, Walsh seems to be dealing with the insanity well:
“Some people are OK with it, completely excited about it, and we’ve also had some staff who wanted to leave because they want to stay in Division I as long as they can as coaches,” Walsh said. “I completely understand it. There are so many opinions on both sides of this, and I understand what everyone’s going through.“

“I’m looking at this season as an opportunity for our guys to improve themselves,” Walsh said. “We’re approaching this head-on; I don’t want our guys to feel left out. We’re doing the Division III switch and there’s a lot of different feelings about it. There’s a lot of negative feelings about the switch, and so, as a program we’re really hoping, through a lot of our guys, to make this a positive situation.”

Centenary's season should be just as interesting as its offseason. Walsh's team will still be competing as a Division I squad in 2010-11. It'll still be playing in the Summit League, and it'll still have a chance to make it to the NCAA tournament. As Norlander writes, though, since the Gents are in the first year of the Division III transition, they'll follow Division III rules off the court even as they take on big boys like Memphis, Marquette, LSU and Tulane.

Chances are it's going to be an ugly year for Centenary, with high turnover and staff defections, but if Walsh's team can somehow, just maybe, pull off a few upsets and make a go at the NCAA tournament -- well, a first-year coach and his ragtag bunch playing for their school's last best chance at the NCAA tournament? That's the stuff cheesy sports movies are made of.

You know what? I think I just became a Centenary fan.