Colonials nab coach of the year

The head coach at the University of Vermont will take to the sidelines at GW next season, bringing with him a record of both athletic and academic success from his student athletes.

Mike Lonergan, the six-year head coach for the Catamounts, boasts a 100-percent graduation rate from his student athletes. He leaves Vermont as the coach with the third best record in program history, boasting a 126-68, .649 record. His hire comes amid a review of the Department of Athletics launched by the Board of Trustees and chaired by New York Yankees team President Randy Levine. The review will take a comprehensive look at the direction of athletic programs at GW.

The men’s program has been searching for a head coach since Karl Hobbs was let go April 25 after a decade in the position. Incoming athletic director Patrick Nero said potential candidates were evaluated according to four criteria: the academic success of their players, the personal reputation of the coach, metro Washington ties and success on the court. Using former Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese as a search consultant, Nero narrowed the national pool of 25 candidates to one.

“He really stood above everyone else when we looked at the four criteria,” Nero said. “I was familiar with him and I knew of his success. In this day and age in college basketball, there are many people out there who have had success. We looked at many different people and Mike rose to the top.”

Lonergan and Nero have a prior connection through the America East Conference, where Nero served as commissioner prior to being hired by GW. Vermont, the program Lonergan wll be leaving to come to Foggy Bottom, is a member of that conference. Nero downplayed that connection Friday, emphasizing that Lonergan’s experience and credentials were the driving force behind his hire.

“I would see Mike at a game, just like I would see the other nine basketball coaches,” Nero said. “It was what you would call a typical commissioner to a coach-of-a-team relationship.”

During the 2010-2011 season, the Catamounts, who were predicted in pre-season polls to finish fifth in the America East, captured the league title, qualifying for the NIT and earning a 23-9 record. It was the program’s fourth straight season of at least 23 victories and earned Lonergan his second honor as America East Coach of the Year.

Prior to coaching at Vermont, Lonergan served as the men’s basketball head coach at Catholic for 12 seasons. He led Catholic to seven straight NCAA Division III tournament appearances and nine overall, finishing his career with a 251-88 (.740) record.

“He’s the total package. He understands how to recruit, he understands how to develop talent and he understands how to get those guys playing their best,” Steve Howes, men’s basketball head coach at Catholic said. Howes was an assistant coach on Lonergan’s staff when he was at the helm of Catholic’s basketball program.

Lonergan was the only men’s basketball coach in the nation to win a regular season conference title each year from 1998-2004. He was also the only men’s basketball coach in the nation to lead a team to an NCAA Sweet Sixteen each season from 1998 to 2002. Lonergan declined to speak directly to the press Friday, but released a statement regarding his hire through the University.

“The opportunity to return to my roots in the Washington, D.C., area and build a program at an exceptional school like George Washington was too good to pass up,” Lonergan said. “The combination of GW’s strong academics, commitment to excellence and athletics tradition make it an ideal position, and I am eager to get started.”

The move to GW could prove lucrative for Lonergan. The Burlington Free Press reported that Lonergan’s base salary at Vermont is $180,980, and a three-year deal he signed in January 2010 indicated his base salary will increase to $189,000 in July and $198,450 next summer. In comparison, the University reported in a 2009 tax form that Hobbs’s salary was $586,989 annually, meaning that Lonergan could be poised for a substantial salary increase. Nero declined to comment on the terms of Lonergan’s contract.

Lonergan will take helm of the Colonials as they come off of their best season in the past four years, with 17-14 overall record and a 10-6 mark in Atlantic 10 play. Nero emphasized a long-term vision for the team Friday, pointing out a focus on building the program around established, competitive goals.

“We’ve made it really clear that our expectation is to build on that [success], but we’re not going to judge it on one year,” Nero said. “We want to build a program that can be competitive.”

Keith Osentoski, the vice president of Colonial Army, the official student spirit group for basketball at GW, said students are excited about Lonergan’s hire. They see the new coach’s experience as a promising sign for the future of the program, he said, boosting morale for the season ahead.

“I think that what we as fans are looking for is a team that plays for the postseason. And I am convinced that the energy that our new AD Patrick Nero and Mike Lonergan are bringing to the program is a commitment to get back to that,” Osentoski, also a Hatchet columnist, said. “We are excited to get back to a program that is playing for the postseason.”

A key decision that will fall on Lonergan’s shoulders in his new role will be hiring his coaching staff, made even more important by GW’s incoming recruiting class. That class, considered to be the best Hobbs brought in during his tenure at GW, includes 6-foot-8 center Erik Copes, widely regarded as Hobbs’s best-ever recruit.

Copes signed a national letter of intent to play at GW, one that the University would have to release him from if the high school senior were to matriculate at another institution without losing a year of NCAA eligibility.? The 6-foot-8 center has yet to decide what course of action he will take, but his decision will likely be influenced by associate head coach Roland Houston, a seven-year veteran at the University and Copes’ uncle. Houston is still on the University’s payroll. Nero said Friday that specific staffing and recruiting decisions have yet to be made, but that Lonergan is prepared to reach out to the program’s recruits as he steps into his new role.

“I can’t specifically talk about any recruit at this point,” Nero said. “I will say that now that he’s officially on board, coach Lonergan will be reaching out to the young men that have signed with GW, get them adjusted, and get the plans moving forward.”

When reached for comment, Andre Noble, director of athletics and men’s basketball coach at Imhotep Charter High School, where Copes is currently a senior, said that Copes had yet to discuss the possibility of playing under Lonergan.

Lonergan spent the 2004-2005 season as an assistant coach at the University of Maryland, and prior to his stint at Catholic, he worked as an assistant coach at Colgate University. Originally from Bowie, Md., Lonergan graduated from Catholic in 1988.

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