Quote by St. Bonaventure, the Cinderella of the Atlantic 10
If Cinderella was staged on a basketball court, the protagonist would certainly be wearing St. Bonaventure University jersey and the Fairy Godmother would be Mark Schmidt. He is the one who brought the Bonnies back from the hell they fell into after the scandal that shook the university in 2003, turning them into the feel-good story of the 2015-16 season.
In order to understand the impact coach Schmidt had on St Bonaventure programme and the enthusiasm that welcomed the extension of Schmidt’s contract until 2022, we have to start with how unique this university is. Better known as “The Bubble”– a nickname used by the students to describe the protectiveness of the programme, much like a family – SBU was built in the middle of the countryside in the state of New York, a few miles from the town of Olean and far from the big cities: Buffalo is about 72 miles away, while New York or Philadelphia are a six-hours drive.
The college is better known for its cold weather and the snow than for sports, and since it lost its football team since 1970 – when the programme was shut down due to bad weather, tight spaces and lack of interests among students and locals – the campus lives and breathes basketball, especially after the great Bob Lanier brought the team to the Final Four in 1970. Lanier tore a ligament in his knee in the East Regional final, forcing him to undergo his first knee surgery, and never played the Final Four, finishing his university career without a national championship, just like he would finish his Nba career without a ring, despite playing for 14 seasons between Detroit and Milwaukee.
In such an environment, it is easy to imagine the effect of the 2003 scandal that involved both the team and the university management. The events became public because of Jamil Terrell, who had a certificate not in compliance with the requisites for an associate degree at SBU, and later involved coach Jan Van Breda Kolff (ex New Jersey Nets and Virtus Bologna), president Robert Wickenheiser, and William Swan, one of the top manager at SBU, who was blamed for not stopping the Terrell affair. Swan hung himself in his house after leaving a note where he apologised to his family and the university.
When, in 2007, coach Schmidt took the reins of the programme, he found himself in a difficult situation: Anthony Solomon, the coach he replaced, could not get the community and the players to trust the programme again in his four-years tenure, and the team crumbled after an overall record of 24 wins and 86 losses.
After spending seven years as an assistant in Xavier, where he coached future Nba players in James Posey and David West, followed by six years as head coach at Robert Morris University, coach Schmidt faced this situation head-on and made things clear from day one: it was not the time to lose hope. Before the scandal, SBU had played in the tournament five times (in 1961, 1968, 1970, 1978 and 2000) and was granted a spot at the NIT twice. The idea was to bring back into the programme people – players and members of the staff – who could understand the emotional importance of the basketball team for the Olean community.
He started from the very basic and imposed model figures, especially among his players. The senior class of Zarryon Fereti, Michael Lee and Tyler Relph flourished in the lone season under his guidance: the Fereti-Lee duo was fifth in the Atlantic 10 in points, averaging 31.5 per game, and Relph finished the season as the best free throw shooter in the whole Division I (94%). Nowadays, he teaches ball handling and more his basketball camps:
Schmidt’s new approach immediately paid dividends: in 2008-2009 the Bonnies qualified for the Atlantic 10 tournament with a 15-15 record and played for a spot in the Ncaa tournament, a goal they would reach in 2011-2012, when Schmidt led his team to the first conference title and the second round of the bracket, carried by their on-court leader, Andrew Nicholson, who was then drafted by the Orlando Magic.
But the best season so far, according to coach Schmidt himself, is the 2015-2016, when he was chosen as the Atlantic 10 coach of the year and SBU finished with a 22-9 record. Cnsnews.com reported that he was proud of the achievements and the approach his players showed, while the award was not that important to him. In 2011-2012, “with Nicholson, it was expected for us, and if we didn’t do well in the Atlantic 10, it would’ve been a disappointing year. Whereas this year, if we came in eight or ninth, people would be like ‘well, yeah, that’s where they were picked’. But we exceeded expectations, so it’s gratifying”.
Especially because the year started with an injury riddled team and coach Schmidt had difficulties running a 5vs5 practice. In January, after three consecutive losses against Duquesne, Dayton and VCU, most thought the Bonnies were done, but they won 10 of the following 11 games. Among these, a 79-72 win against Dayton on February 20th, the first road win against a top ranked team. “No question,” said coach Scmidt, “that was a signature win. That was the win that gave us the ultimate confidence of saying: ‘you know something, we can win every one of these games going down the stretch”.
Last season, however, did not finish as well as it could be expected for coach Schmidt and SBU. Despite the positive record, the Bonnies were left out of the 68 teams that played the tournament. Most insiders were surprised by this decision, including Bernadette McGlade, the Atlantic 10 commissioner, who admitted to be “shocked”, considering teams like Dayton and VCU were co-winners of the Atlantic 10 regular season.
“We can’t allow 10 guys in a room to define how good a season we had”, said Schmidt to the Associated Press when asked to comment on it. But the decision was indeed taken and the Bonnies had to make-do with an invitation to the Nit as the top seed and live with the disappointment of seniors Marcus Posley and Dion Wright, who will never have another chance to play the tournament.
Without them, the team will rely on juniors Jaylen Adams – who scared the community in the summer when he was considering to move to Texas – and Idris Taqqee. They will share the floor with senior Denzel Gregg, the Atlantic 10 Sixth Man of the Year last season, and Matt Mobley, who transferred from Central Connecticut State and was one of the best scorer in the Northeast Conference, averaging 17.2 points per game.
Will coach Schmidt turn last year frustration into positive energy for the season? Most likely he will, but the team seems weaker than last year and it will not be easy to fight for a spot in the tournament. However, his new contract gives him the chance to think about the future of the Bonnies and to work on his approach made of devotion and desire to win.
(di Isabella Agostinelli)