It’s hard not to think about all of them – the players, the practices, the road trips, the long recruiting rides. But mostly the players. I got a chance to be the head coach at Rhode Island College 9 years ago, and I showed up with all sorts of ideas in my head. More than once I remember leaving the Murray Center after practice my first year thinking “Man, thank God there are no message boards at this level, because I screwed that one up.”
But the players at RIC gave me the single most important gift anyone can give a young coach – they believed in me. I was their third coach in three years, and everything we did was different, a lot of it was uncommon, some if it probably nuts. But they bought in and believed in me. That started a pretty incredible ride.
It’s hard not to think about all of them as I get ready to take the floor for our first practice at the University of Maine, because more than anything else they are the reason I am here. I remember clearly how inconsistent we were early that first year, when I still hadn’t figured it out. I remember the “Get the message” practice (I’m sure they all do to) when I realized I had to change things in January. I remember going on a run that year, and I still can’t figure out how we lost in the tournament. I remember going to Keene in the post-season that year thinking our guys were completely out of gas, and winning by 40.
I’ll never forget telling our guys we were playing Iona in an exhibition game that 2nd year, and that we were going down there to win the game. I wasn’t sure if they really believed me. I’ll never forget the feeling of being up 22 at halftime, or winning the game by 9. I remember my point guard Kinsey Durgin calling me that January when I was trying to change the tone at practice to make us tougher, to tell me it wasn’t working. He trusted me enough to critique me and have a direct conversation about it. I remember being in the parking lot after wins, talking about how other teams had lost, realizing we had a path to our first Little East title. I remember that bus ride back from UMass Boston with that first Little East title, then backing it up in the tournament, and beating Keene again at Amherst. I remember Amherst. I remember way too much about Amherst.
I remember how selfless that first group was, with 6 seniors playing and only 2 of them starting. I remember going on the road that next year and winning it again, at UMass Dartmouth. I remember the Murray Center becoming the home office of Little East Basketball, seemingly hosting the tournament every year. I remember the new pride on our guys faces when they walked around with RIC basketball gear on. I remember the look, the swagger, the toughness on their faces when we got off the bus and walked into another team’s gym. I remember the confidence we had in each other. I remember seeing what trust looked like on a basketball court late in close games. It’s hard to describe the feeling of coaching a team that you know just isn’t going to let you lose. I remember how proud I was to show up every day and be their basketball coach.
I remember the bus rides, how great they felt, coming back from Keene with a win or coming back from Eastern with their nets around our necks. I remember being amazed at how unwilling those kids were to lose. I’ll never forget another coach telling me “you guys are just relentless. We feel like we have to kill you to beat you.” I remember so many times being asked how we did it, and starting the answer with “we’ve got some tough, tough kids.” Because we had some tough, tough kids.
I remember going to watch other teams practice when I got the chance – division I, II and III – and thinking maybe we were doing something that was uncommon. I remember thinking if our guys ever watched some of these practices with me, they’d be mad at me over how much running we do. I remember the “Yeaaaaaahhhhhh” I would here when I said the words “2 on 2 Rebounding.” I remember every one of them slapping the floor to start every possession of shell drill. The 6:00 miles and the pick-up games at the Rec. Center. The 8-6-4-2s that ended with guys pulling so hard for each other, leaving everything they had on that floor for their teammates. I remember telling them “UMass-Dartmouth is done right now, but we’re still working.”
Most of all I remember the players. KP and Kinsey and Tony and Dubs, Sweets and Stanko, Cam and Bobby. Kamari and Z and Wil and ‘Seem. I’ll never forget how hard Tone and Rell went at each other every day in practice. Nick and Darius just walked into my office to tell me they wanted to play, and I had no idea who they were, and they started on back-to-back Sweet 16 teams. I remember the pride they took in carrying on the tradition, with new guys stepping up year to year. Mase and Shaq, Mikey and Tom. I remember driving back from a recruiting trip in Maine (of all places) and finding out that Tah was an All-American. The tone that Ethan set every day with how hard he competed. The way Carl Lee always kept things loose, whether he meant to or not. I remember all of the text messages I’d get that just said “Red” when some team on national TV was up 3 with under 10 seconds to play. Middlebury at Middlebury. Oswego at Oswego. Hosting NCAA Tournament games in Providence live on local television. I remember the crowd at the Murray Center willing us to a win over Hobart in the first round.
I’ll never forget the conversations we had when it was all over. The hugs and the tears, the thank you’s and the good-byes. The first kids in their family to graduate. The pride on Grandma’s face when she saw her grandson in a cap and gown. A group of kids for 9 years that was so much tougher than I could ever be, that taught me so much more than I could ever teach them. I remember a group that challenged me to be great every day, that made me better with their approach.
I’m about to take the floor for the first time in an official practice as the head coach at the University of Maine. We’ve got a great group of kids and we are really excited to get started. But I can’t help but think about 9 years worth of kids at RIC this weekend. Kids who brought it every day, who competed on an uncommon level and showed unnatural toughness. More than anything else, those kids are the reason I am here, and I’ll never get tired of remembering the time we spent together.