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The first thing you noticed during Joe Mihalich's Coach of the Year acceptance speech Thursday was that he never used the word "I".

"This is a team award," the Niagara University coach said after pulling down top honors in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference in his rookie season. "This is a tribute to our players. This is a great tribute for our assistant coaches."

Along the way he also thanked his family, the school that last spring took a chance on him and all the other coaches in the conference.

After he left the stage he nearly kicked himself for not mentioning Jack Armstrong, the fired coach who had recruited most of the players on this year's team. He was so bothered by that you thought he might bolt back to the podium just to correct the oversight.

You don't see that a lot in sports anymore. You especially don't see it in basketball where in the 1990s the individual reigns supreme.

But then Mihalich is hardly a '90s kind of guy. While Thursday's press conference was the usual mix of folks preening for prime time television footage, clothes horsing to the extreme and opponent psyching to the point of being obvious, Mihalich was old school all the way. From the top of his failing non-styled hair to the soles of his beefy penny loafer shoes, he was thinking about nothing but the opportunity at hand.

"Every one of the 10 guys (coaches) in this room would trade this for the thrill of cutting down those nets on Monday night and that includes me," he said. "It's a nice honor, but we don't want to stop now."

Say what you want about this being Armstrong's team. Fret all you want about the fact that four senior starters -- including Alvin Young, the MAAC's best player -- are nearing the end of their time on Niagara's campus. The fact remains that Mihalich did the job. A career assistant who was under pressure the moment he was given the job, he took the opportunity and he ran with it. The Purple Eagles in their first season under Mihalich went 16-11, 13-5 in the MAAC, and won the league's regular-season championship. They earned top seed in this weekend's tournament and they reignited a passion for basketball at a time when many in Western New York were certain the flickering flame had finally burnt out.

Seventeen years of waiting for his one shot and -- BANG! -- Joe Mihalich delivered. Big time.

Niagara doesn't just play basketball, it plays up-tempo basketball, the kind of game that gets people talking.

The Canisius-Niagara game of Feb. 6 (a one-point win by Canisius) is already in the books as the most exciting game in the still-brief history of Marine Midland Arena.

You can argue that Young, who blossomed under Mihalich's tutoring, created more excitement around here than any Purple Eagle since Calvin Murphy, the man WNY hoop fans have been waiting a lifetime for someone to replace.

And Mihalich didn't just ride Young's coat tails either. He was a good player under Armstrong. He was a better one under Mihalich.

"He's to me like an extension of my family," Young said. "He didn't try to make me into one thing or another. He let me play to the level of my ability and that gave me so much confidence. I've always said I've had two great coaches at Niagara, but coach Mihalich he allowed me to become the player I was capable of being."

In a lot of ways that's the ultimate tribute to a coach. You have to play hard and you have to work hard, but that's only the first step in a process. The best coaches are the ones who take what they have and create an atmosphere that allows players to play to the best of their ability.

Mihalich did that this season. He didn't just mold one player, he molded a group of players and he molded them into a team.

Whatever happens from here on out, no one can ever take that away from him. It's an honor he richly deserved.