Mike Lonergan had to move up in the coaching world to became anonymous. A starting point guard and then a national championship-winning bench boss at Division III Catholic, Lonergan was even more of a campus celebrity at Vermont where the men’s basketball and hockey teams are the state’s favorites.
But Lonergan, wearing his George Washington University Colonials Basketball sweats, walked from his office yesterday to a nearby restaurant, ate lunch and walked the couple of blocks back to work without anyone seemingly recognizing him.
The lack of attention to the Colonials’ new coach shows how far GW hoops has fallen off the area’s radar since making the NCAA Tournament eight times from 1993-2007 including a Sweet 16 berth that first year under former coach Mike Jarvis.
The Colonials, who were six games under .500 the past four years under Lonergan’s predecessor, Karl Hobbs, are 8-13 this season heading into tomorrow night’s visit from Atlantic 10 power Xavier.
“Hopefully, we’ll start winning again, get GW back on the map and have more attention focused on our program,” Lonergan said.
At Catholic, Lonergan inherited a fine squad and went 21-6 in his debut. And his first Vermont team might be his favorite despite a 13-17 record because the players overachieved and reached the conference tournament final.
GW was supposed to be on the rise this season with promising guard Lasan Kromah back after missing last year with a foot injury. Instead, the Colonials have struggled with being “willing to do the little things” that would help against a schedule that has included games at ranked schools Syracuse, Cal and Harvard as well a matchup with 2011 Final Four qualifier VCU. All told, GW is 0-8 away from Smith Center since Thanksgiving.
“We were picked eighth in the A-10, but we had four starters back and I thought we’d be a lot better, but even when we got off to that 4-1 start, we had a lot of weaknesses,” said the 46-year-old Lonergan. “I haven’t done a great job of hiding our weaknesses and haven’t really been figuring out enough strengths so it’s definitely been a disappointing season to this point. I really like the guys on our team and I feel bad that I haven’t been able to help them reach their goals. I used to have the Midas touch. Everything I did worked.”
Indeed, Lonergan posted winning records during 15 of his 18 seasons at Catholic and Vermont with 10 NCAA trips. Not that he regrets coming to GW which he aims to put in the top echelon of the A-10 along with Temple and Xavier and thus compete for an NCAA bid every year.
“I’m happy to be home and it’s even better for my wife and (four) kids,” said the former Archbishop Carroll point guard who returned to his native Bowie with his wife, former Catholic women’s coach Maggie Lonergan, to be near his four sisters and their father. “You run into people on a daily basis which is great. We loved Vermont, but we didn’t get many people visiting us.”
Nor did he get the recruits who have visited Foggy Bottom. Episcopal’s Kethan Savage, Greek center Kyprianos Maragkos and Argentinian power forward Patricio Garino have signed with GW while Landon’s Joe McDonald, like Savage a probable All-Met guard, has committed to play for the Colonials next year.
“I’m very excited about the future and the guys we have coming in,” said Lonergan, whose 2012-13 team will also include 6-foot-9 Isaiah Armwood, a transfer from Villanova. “We inherited a roster with one local kid. We’re one of the top schools in the country academically and we’re an international city. DC’s a great place to go to college. We want to recruit locally, nationally and internationally. Why look elsewhere for kids when they’re not any better than the kids right here?”
Freshman forward John Kopriva was headed to Vermont but changed course to follow Lonergan to GW.
“He’s a winner and he does it the right way,” Kopriva said. “There’s a lot of attention to detail. If you’re going to set a screen, you have to set it in the exact right spot. There are no short cuts.”
That’s also true off the court where Kopriva is pre-med and Serbian sophomore forward Nemanja Mikic is majoring in finance.
“The coaching change has been huge for me,” Mikic said. “Last year, I used to get most of my shots when we were creating havoc. This year, we still try to play fast, but I’ve had to work harder for my shots. I’ve become a better player because of that.”
When the majority of the Colonials agree with Mikic, they should start restoring Lonergan’s lost magic touch.
David Elfin has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1975. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the author of the new book: “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March.