Three years ago, men’s basketball needed a change.
The program had garnered a three-year streak of 20-win seasons starting in 2013 and took the first-ever NIT Championship win back to Foggy Bottom in 2016. But months after the confetti flew and the dust settled, men’s basketball became entangled in controversy as former head coach Mike Lonergan fell under verbal and emotional abuse allegations, leading to his dismissal, a legal dispute and a rush of players transfering out of the program.
When the team needed a leader two months before the first tip-off of the 2016-17 season, officials looked to the bench and called up 31-year-old Maurice Joseph. But just three years into his five-year contract with men’s basketball, Joseph was fired from the helm one day after turning in the program’s worst record in a decade.
Joseph’s head coaching tenure does not boast postseason accolades. The Colonials secured a single winning record under the head coach and averaged fewer points per contest each season with Joseph at the helm.
But former players said Joseph brought energy and passion to a program in turmoil, despite being the youngest and most inexperienced head coach in the Atlantic 10.
Taking the helm as a fresh face
Joseph – a third-year assistant coach at the time – was tapped to lead the program over his more-experienced colleagues.
Then-sixth-year associate head coach Hajj Turner was knocked down to an assistant role for Joseph and former assistant coach Carmen Maciariello, who had nine years of experience in the position overall, was also snubbed for the job.
The hire positioned Joseph as one of the youngest Division I coaches in the nation and the youngest coach in the A-10, clocking in about 18 years younger than the average age of other coaches in the conference.
“I don’t think anyone else could handle it any better than the way he did,” Isaiah Armwood, who played under Joseph for three years, said. “He did it – I can’t say perfectly to a certain extent – but he did it in a way under these circumstances and he never really made excuses.”
His youth made him relatable to his players, some of whom were merely a handful of years younger than him.
Joseph – who spent three seasons as a player under Lonergan at Vermont from 2007 to 2010 – was just 26 when he joined Lonergan at GW as an assistant director of operations for the 2011-12 season.
“It was just a great shoulder to lean on whenever I needed something, anything, and I could relate to him because we’re closer in age,” Armwood, who was a junior when Joseph came to GW, said. “But that was the main thing, that was the main thing that I could come to him and talk to him unlike the other coaches and that was very beneficial for me.”
Balancing challenging circumstances
As interim head coach, Joseph helped the Colonials to a 20-15 record, a third-round appearance in the A-10 Championship and a College Basketball Invitation Tournament berth, all mere months after their head coach was yanked from the roster.
“I will forever be indebted to Mojo because of how he handled the situation that we were all put in for that 2016 to 2017 season,” former men’s basketball player forward Tyler Cavanaugh said.
After holding the pieces together for a season, it was downhill for the Colonials. In the 2017-18 season, the team saw its first losing record in five seasons without key players inherited from Lonergan like Cavanaugh, who averaged 18.3 points per game the season before.
Coming into the 2018-19 season, Joseph’s roster was without a returning player who averaged double-digit points for the first time in at least 21 years. In the three years Joseph led the program, GW never advanced past the second round of the A-10 Championship.
During his tenure, GW sent two players – Cavanaugh and 2018-graduate Yuta Watanabe – to the NBA, but Joseph faced a challenge recruiting the same caliber of talent as his predecessor.
Displaying blind loyalty
When the Colonials drained a clutch bucket or executed a perfect defensive stop, Joseph could be seen on the sidelines beating his chest with excitement and screaming encouragements to his team – at times until he was completely hoarse.
At a postgame press conference in January after the team lost on the road to George Mason, Joseph had yelled with such power throughout the entire matchup that a microphone could barely pick up his voice as he addressed a room full of reporters.
When the scores were tight and he needed each player on the hardwood to execute their game plan perfectly, more often than not Joseph could be seen crouched at half court with his hands folded in front of him – laser-focused on every move.
The final year under Joseph, affectionately called “Mojo” by his team, marked the lowest point for men’s basketball in more than a decade as the Colonials strung together just nine wins in the year.
Even with the program’s number of wins decreasing each season under his guidance, Joseph remained optimistic and dedicated to his team, even saying he was convinced GW could win an A-10 Championship after the Colonials were whooped in their final game of the regular season by George Mason by 16 points.
Joseph and his team of assistant coaches did not return multiple requests for comment. An athletic department spokesman declined to facilitate interviews with current student-athletes.
Looking ahead at the program
When athletic director Tanya Vogel announced Joseph would not return to lead the program, she said the decision was necessary because the team was “not reaching our full potential on the court.”
Less than a week after the announcement, the department installed former Siena head coach Jamion Christian, who finished his season at Siena second in the league and made two appearances in the NCAA Tournament when he was at Mount St. Mary’s from 2012 to 2017.
Christian is known for his “endless energy,” according to Vogel, but former players said Joseph had the same presence.
“I think the best thing he did for the program was to bring passion and intensity in his approach to coaching and practice,” former men’s basketball player Bo Zeigler, who transferred to the program for the 2017-18 season, said.
While athletic department officials were quick to attribute losing seasons to insufficient leadership, only time will tell if the Colonials’ 12 returners can turn around the program’s recent history of disappointing performances.
“The coaches have the keys to the car and they have to give the players the fuel to perform,” Zeigler said. “At the end of the day players have to perform and play at a high level, but coaching is definitely a KEY part in the team’s success.”