LEWISTON — The men’s basketball office at Niagara University is largely barren. Sure, there are links to the Purple Eagles’ past – a Taps Gallagher bobblehead doll in one corner and a gym bag with Frank Layden’s name in bold letters in another – but the place is somewhat desolate. Some would argue, perhaps unfairly, that Niagara’s roster is a mirror image.
Chris Casey, the office’s primary tenant, was introduced as the school’s new coach on April 22 with a roster stocked with enough talent to make NCAA Tournament runs for at least two seasons. A week later, Juan’ya Green and Ameen Tanksley asked to be released from their scholarships and T.J. Cline and Malcolm Lemmons were in tow. By May 10, a time when programs are securing commitments from the Class of 2014, Casey had eight scholarships available.
On top of that is the fact that Casey is replacing a legend in Joe Mihalich, who left Niagara as the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference career leader in victories. In the 10 previous seasons before Mihalich arrived in 1998-99, Niagara finished above .500 just twice. He took his legacy, not to mention Green and Tanksley, with him to Hofstra.
“The situation that Chris has now is not the same as when he said ‘yes,’ ” Niagara Athletic Director Tom Crowley said. “We wish Joe the best, everyone feels that way, but now it’s Chris’ turn.”
And Casey, the head coach at LIU Post the last three seasons, is smiling. One man’s view of a windswept rebuilding project is another man’s symbolic opening for redecoration.
“I took the head coaching job at Niagara University, not a job to coach specific guys,” Casey said. “I took this job because of the community of people that are here, because of the past success of the place and the potential success of the place, because of the league that it’s in and what the university is about. That’s why it’s a good job. Would I have liked to coach that team intact? Obviously. I would be lying if I didn’t.”
Casey has been coaching for 28 years and he has come to the realization that anything can happen while hoping for the best. Things can change quickly for the worse and then just as quickly for the better.
“It didn’t work out that way but they’re all great kids and we were hoping they would stay but they chose not to and we wish them the best,” Casey said. “Everybody just kind of moves on. Move on to the next thing.”
Crowley, himself a longtime college basketball coach, anticipated massive turnover. He hired Casey because he did his time at St. John’s, Central Connecticut State and Saint Peter’s as an assistant. Crowley needed someone with experience.
Casey, 49, was a two-time captain at Western Connecticut State and in his senior year in 1986 he led the Colonials to a 25-3 record. He started recruiting Western New Yorkers while at Saint Peter’s and signed willowy forward Kevin Sanford, Fajri Ansari’s first Division I prospect from Turner-Carroll.
In eight seasons at Saint Peter’s, Casey recruited seven All-MAAC players before leaving for his first head coaching job at Division II Rutgers-Newark from 1998 to 2001. By his third year, Casey led the Scarlet Raiders to their second postseason appearance since 1985 before becoming an assistant at Central Connecticut for three seasons.
It was at Central Connecticut that Casey recruited and developed forward Corsley Edwards, who was selected by the Sacramento Kings in the second round of the NBA draft. In 2003, Casey was named an AFLAC National Assistant Coach of the Year. At St. John’s, he brought in Big East-ready talent in D.J. Kennedy, Paris Horne and Sean Evans.
The tense transition notwithstanding, Crowley feels he hired the right man to remold Niagara.
“He’s very much paid his dues, worked his way up and knows the business very, very well,” Crowley said. “He knows college basketball, he knows coaching, he knows the MAAC, so Chris has a very, very good background. Obviously Chris has walked into a challenging situation and it’s Division I basketball so there’s challenges all over the place.”
“You hope they don’t leave, but that’s the world we live in in Division I,” Crowley said of the departed players. “We did the best we could, it’s a challenge, but Chris has jumped in full force and has done well.”
Casey has few options but to make Niagara his own.
“You don’t go and worry about things you can’t control; the only things you worry about are things you can control,” said Kansas assistant Norm Roberts, who was the head coach at St. John’s when Casey was an assistant. “That’s how it is and Chris knows that. You move on. Guys that are here are here and if they’re not here the other guys are going to step up and make plays or we’re going to recruit some guys who are going to step up and make plays.”
So recruiting, which is always a priority, became more important as Casey tries to put a team together.
“Anything worthwhile is a challenge,” Casey said. “I don’t look at what’s happened, I look at it as what’s going to happen. What can we make happen? What can we fix? What can we get moving in the right direction? A lot going on? Yeah, but you have to, every day, roll your sleeves up and work to figure it out.”
By May 16, he proved true to his reputation as a dogged recruiter by signing forwards Dominique Reid and Aaron Bodie and guards Karonn Davis and LIU Post transfer Emile Blackman. The 6-foot-8 Reid from Erial, N.J., who is regarded as an Atlantic 10 level talent, could be a steal.
“He was a terrific recruiter,” Roberts said. “He did a good job in New York and did a very, very good job with guys in New Jersey. He did a great job at evaluating those guys.”
Casey wants to expand Niagara’s recruiting base while maintaining a presence on the Eastern Seaboard and in prep schools because of the concentration of talent. He values the talent available in places like Texas and Florida as well as Western New York.
“We have to be good in the area and I’m including in the area places like Detroit, some areas in Ohio,” Casey said. “If you go and recruit and you watch Albany City Rocks play and if they’re playing a team from Vegas you have to study the Vegas kids, too.”
Roberts said Casey, who was initially hired as the director of basketball operations, was probably his most organized assistant.
“I never had to worry about being on the road, discipline with our guys, guys going to class, guys doing the right things, guys taking care of their business, whatever it may be,” Roberts said. “When we went out on the road, we could go out on the road and recruit and I could go back and make a couple of phone calls to find out what was going on and I knew that everything was intact when he was there.”
On the floor, Casey’s script for offense is similar to Mihalich’s, whose teams transitioned rapidly from defense to offense.
“I’m not much of a play-call guy, I’d rather work on individual games and get guys better and get some concepts to play within and the let them go play,” Casey said. “You’ve worked on it, I trust your decisions, now go play.”
Steve Hayn, who coached against Casey in the East Coast Conference at Dowling College, said LIU Post was always well prepared.
“He made the best use of his personnel; he really maximized the personnel that he had in his program and they were very efficient,” said Hayn, the one-time Fredonia coach.
Casey’s teams played in transition and flowed into a very well-executed motion offense. Offensively, they presented challenges with a good combination of rugged frontcourt players and skilled, versatile talent on the perimeter. Defensively, he wants to play man-to-man and create offense off turnovers.
Casey’s supporters believe the same will be said about his teams at Niagara when the blanks are finally filled in.
He has four scholarships to give and Casey believes he will fill them with players who can contribute, not just be warm bodies. Green, Tanksley and Cline are gone but leading scorer Antoine Mason and sixth man Marvin Jordan return.
The walls in the basketball office will be filled with mementos soon enough. The glass is always half full in Casey’s world with plenty of room for more.
“You have to stay optimistic,” Casey said. “When you sit around worrying about what could have been, then you don’t spend time dealing with what is.”