Friday, April 23, 2010

Ithaca Journal: "Courtney answers Cornell's basketball needs"

Bill Courtney, the new head coach of the Cornell University men's basketball team, talks Friday at the press conference where he was introduced, about how he sees the desire of the players to work hard to continue the success of the team.

By Brian Delaney
Ithaca Journal
April 23, 2010

ITHACA -- Bill Courtney was on a recruiting trip Thursday, riding one of those shuttle trains between gates the Atlanta airport is famous for, when the call came.

The phone call, from Cornell athletics director Andy Noel, initially got cut off. No signal. When Noel finally got through, Courtney received the news he'd waited 15 years to hear.

He was a Division I men's basketball head coach.

"Ecstasy," he said.

On Friday afternoon, Courtney was introduced as Steve Donahue's successor and officially tasked with sustaining the Big Red's recent unprecedented success as three-time Ivy League champion.

"Our goal is to win Ivy League championships," he said. "That's what we intend to do. We're going to make the sacrifices and do the work it takes to get to that level. I don't know when it's going to happen. I hope it's next year. But we're going to win Ivy League championships."

He said Cornell is an "easy sell" for recruits.

"I think this is a special place," he said. "I think this is a place where young men will want to come to school, have a great experience."

Selling is what Courtney does best. As a Division I assistant coach since 1995, he's built a reputation as a standout recruiter with stops at George Mason, Providence, Virginia and Virginia Tech.

He was chosen over two other finalists: Temple assistant and former Penn standout Matt Langel, and Wisconsin assistant Gary Close. Courtney was signed to a four-year contract. Financial terms were not disclosed by the university.

Courtney's charisma was on full display Friday. With a large crowd in attendance at Cornell's Hall of Fame Room, including most of the 2009-10 team, Courtney promised his teams would play with great energy and continually contend for Ivy League championships.

He reeled off a list of thank you's, beginning with Donahue and ending with his two sons, 9-year old Billy and 7-year old Derek, his wife Gina, and his mother, Hattie Courtney.

He appeared relaxed and confident while mixing in a few moments of levity, and answered a question about why he was a good fit for Cornell by referencing Ryan Wittman's preference for wearing sandals.

"I'm a feel guy," Courtney said. "So the vibe here is great. I'm talking to (Chris) Wroblewski and those guys, and Wittman -- I want to see him in his sandals. You got your sandals on, Wittman? You know, I like that. Someone said, it's an elite place, but not elitist. The people are real. The people are real here."

Courtney's lack of Ivy League ties, as either a player or coach, makes this a rare hire. But never has Cornell's men's basketball job been this attractive, and the quality of candidates considered, Noel said, was strong.

Noel, who went as far as to say this hire was "enormous" and "vitally important," learned quickly in the process that Courtney could recruit. It's the undeniable gold star on his resume. But Noel said he spent countless hours finding out if Courtney had the necessary strategical acumen to pair with his ability to build relationships with recruits.

"I did a lot of research on that side of coaching, the X's and O's and the motivation of the students and that type of thing," Noel said. "It certainly met my expectations, which were pretty high."

Noel said the support to hire Courtney, from both administrators and players, was "overwhelming."

Courtney's job, based on recent history, will be a difficult one.

The last two Ivy League coaches to get hired by a program coming off a league championship were Penn's Glen Miller and Princeton's Joe Scott. Miller won a title in his first year with Fran Dunphy's strong returning core, but both he and Scott bottomed out and are now out of the league.

On the surface, Courtney is considerably more affable, certain to be a player's coach and connect well with fans and alumni. He plans on playing an up-tempo style of basketball similar to Donahue's, but will finalize his approach after he becomes more acclimated with the returning players and incoming freshmen.

"He stressed that to us, not much would change," said freshman Miles Asafo-Adjei, who was one of five players to meet with each candidate. "We're definitely an up-tempo team. ... As much as he likes to score, he's a very defensive-minded coach and I think that's something that's going to help us win games."

Said Courtney: "We're going to guard, that's for sure."

Courtney said he's interested in hiring a staff with Ivy League experience, and hopes to have that staff in place by semester's end. He said he received advice during the interview process from former Columbia coach Joe Jones -- now on Donahue's staff at Boston College -- and plans on picking Donahue's brain as much as possible in the upcoming weeks.

Two years ago, he was a finalist to replace Pat Flannery at his alma mater, Bucknell. Ultimately, Dave Paulsen got the job.

At times, doubt crept into Courtney's mind about whether he'd ever make the jump from assistant to head coach. But he said he remained confident a phone call like Thursday's, and a day like Friday's, would come.

"I knew that if I kept doing my job, it would happen," he said. "I'm not one of those self-promoting guys who get jobs just to get jobs. I wanted it to be the right place, the right place for my family. I knew it would come if I kept doing what I was doing."

He said Cornell will not back down to anyone, even with the loss of eight key seniors to graduation this May.

"Obviously a lot of people jumped on the bandwagon this year. We're going to make sure they stay," he said. "These last few years have been the best run in school history. But my hope is, the best is yet to come."


Anonymous said...

I hope he's humble enough to keep some of the structure that Donahue put in place. For example, I thought our pre-game warmup drills were very well-thought out and all built with the purpose to get everyone game-ready. I don't see a lot of other schools doing the stuff we did including Harvard or Kentucky. I hope Courtney keeps those pre-game drills.

Anonymous said...

Also, every new coach says they want to play an "uptempo offensive game with high pressure defense." They're just words. I can't wait to see what we're actually running this fall.