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Wednesday, August 28, 2013
Joe Mihalich back in his comfort zone


Editor's Note: All week ESPN.com is taking a look at new faces in new places. As part of our coverage, Andy Katz will be diving into the mid-major ranks to profile a first-year coach each day.

Joe Mihalich had a flight out of Atlanta back to Western New York on Sunday of the Final Four in April.

He didn't take it.

He had heard that Hofstra athletic director Jeff Hathaway might call him. So he took a chance.

"I woke up Sunday and never heard from him," said Mihalich, who was prepared to go back to Niagara for his 16th season. "Then thankfully Jeff called at 1:30 p.m. We met at 2:30 p.m. and were there for hours talking about Hofstra. I realized it was a special place. The next day I flew back to Niagara and there was a voice mail to come back down Tuesday."

Mihalich took the job, making what could be perceived as a lateral move, but upon further review is not.

Niagara is in the MAAC, a largely one-bid league. Hofstra is in the Colonial Athletic Association, which through attrition and the departures of VCU, George Mason and Old Dominion is now essentially a one-bid league.

The attention, though, on Long Island versus Western New York isn't close, along with the the proximity to top recruits and his roots in Philadelphia.

The time was right for a move. And the spot made sense. Mihalich could have pined for a traditional football school gig in a power-five league. He had the pedigree, résumé and connections. But he fits at a basketball school.

Mihalich loves the leadership at Hofstra. While Hathaway had his battles at UConn with Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun, the relationship couldn't be smoother right now with Mihalich. Hathaway has to make this work, because Mihalich is his guy after firing Mo Cassara, who replaced Tim Welsh after Tom Pecora left Hofstra for nearby Fordham.

Joe Mihalich
Joe Mihalich said he wouldn't leave Niagara unless for a special place, which ended up being Hofstra.

Mihalich said he had no plans to leave Niagara. The Purple Eagles had just won the MAAC. They had been to two NCAA tournaments and three NITs, with winning records in 12 of his 15 seasons. But he also said he could be swayed to leave for what he termed "a special place, never knowing that special place would be Hofstra."

Mihalich dismisses the streamlining of the CAA. The addition of the College of Charleston certainly staves a bit of the sting of losing Old Dominion. But the absence of VCU and George Mason still hurts. Northern teams in the CAA haven't been able to break through since joining -- Hofstra, Drexel, Northeastern and Towson. But along with Delaware, there is a distinct Northern influence now; four of the nine schools -- Charleston, James Madison, UNC Wilmington and William & Mary -- are south of Washington, D.C.

"There are a lot of great basketball programs not in football conferences, and there is still a league as good as ever and it's still called the Big East," Mihalich said. "It all starts with players. I don't know how good we're going to be, but I just love being with these kids. Our goal is to surprise a lot of people this year. We've got [a] great work ethic. These guys get along so well."

The Pride have only nine eligible players this season with three transfers. Mihalich told them that conditioning will be critical since getting hurt or in foul trouble is not acceptable.

The goal is to be in play for three days in March. Mihalich has gotten used to dealing with the stress of having to win a conference tournament. He had to do that in the MAAC and the same will occur in the CAA, which has moved its tournament to Baltimore just in time for Towson under Pat Skerry to be a legitimate contender. The usual advantage Southern teams had in Richmond, Va., (see VCU and ODU) has now shifted to Baltimore and Towson.

"Our staff is used to this," Mihalich said of having one bid. "The league has become a bit of an unknown with all the changing parts. The league has changed. We all looked around and said, 'Why not us?' Who will be the next VCU or George Mason? Who is going to be that team? We feel it could be Hofstra. I'm sure Charleston is staying it and so is James Madison."

And so is Towson, Drexel, Northeastern, Delaware, Wilmington and William & Mary. This league is wide open for years to come.

"We have a new attitude, a new culture, a new team," Mihalich said. "It all starts from the top. Everything is in place here. It's a great opportunity."

The Pride picked up two fifth-year transfers in Zeke Upshaw, who played behind Jackie Cunningham at Illinois State, and Dion Nesmith, from Monmouth. Two of the three transfers sitting out came from Niagara, Juan'ya Green and Ameen Tanksley.  The pressure will be on them and SMU transfer Brian Bernardi to produce in practice, because there are only nine eligible players, including three freshmen.

"[The transfers] are all very good players," Mihalich said. "[Upshaw] couldn't get on the court [at Illinois State]. Dion is a good basketball player. This is a chance for these guys. They've embraced it."

And Mihalich has done the same with the area and the school.

Living in Western New York was suburban life. The faster pace of Long Island has re-energized the 56-year-old (he turns 57 Thursday).

"For me and my wife, it's like we're back in Philly 15 years ago," Mihalich said. "It's tough to get a parking spot. No one will let you in to merge. Up there, oh gosh, people are so nice."

Mihalich said he probably went to Niagara Falls roughly 75 times in 15 years. It was regular spot on a recruit's tour. There is no sightseeing on Long Island for the recruits, although they have easy access to everything in Manhattan by train. The campus is the selling point.

The timing was perfect for Mihalich and his wife, Mary. His three sons are all out of the house. Two are coaching basketball and the other track.

"Everything has been pointing to what a great opportunity this is," Mihalich said. "It's hard to explain. Somebody said when you least expect it, that perfect job would come along. I didn't realize it would be here."

But it is. Now he can't wait to see if it's as wonderful, productive and satisfying as he claims it is since his arrival.