By Dan Sweetney
April 24, 2010
ITHACA -- Five Cornell men's basketball players huddled around a roundtable to meet one of three finalists for the vacant head coaching position in a dark room in Lynah Rink on April 14.
Fresh off the most successful season in school history the five --Louis Dale, Errick Peck, Aaron Osgood, Chris Wroblewski and Miles Asafo-Adjei -- thought they were there for a business-like interview with Virginia Tech assistant Bill Courtney.
But at some point the meet-and-greet turned to conversation about practical jokes on freshmen, long-lasting friendships Courtney developed while living with teammates during his college days and the desire to take the program's success a step further.
"It didn't seem like an interview," Cornell forward Aaron Osgood said. "It seemed like a few people just getting to know each other really well. He made a lot of jokes, but you could tell he was really serious about his beliefs and he knows a ton about basketball. We just really connected with him."
Courtney was the second of three finalists to interview for the task of replacing Steve Donahue. Temple assistant coach Matt Langel and Wisconsin assistant coach Gary Close also had on-campus interviews. After the players met with each candidate, they shared their unfiltered opinions with athletics director Andy Noel.
The consensus was that Courtney was the best fit to become the 21st men's basketball coach in school history.
Sophomore guard Chris Wroblewski described Courtney's personality as "outgoing," "energetic" and even "a little bubbly." What also stood out to Wroblewski was that Courtney didn't see a reason why the Big Red can't make it to the Sweet 16 again, or even the Elite Eight -- like George Mason did en route to the Final Four in 2006.
Courtney recruited the players who led Mason to the national semifinals.
"His will to win is something that is important to us because a lot of people are writing us off, the one-year wonder kind of thing," Wroblewski said. "I need that kind of motivator and believer in us."
Said Asafo-Adjei: "Out of all the guys we interviewed, there was always that awkward moment at first when you meet him, and you try and feel each other out. But with Bill, I can't remember any awkward moments. He felt comfortable immediately with us, I felt comfortable immediately with him."
Courtney said his ability to relate to Cornell's players stems from his collegiate playing days at Bucknell, which competes in the academically-stringent Patriot League. Because of that, he was able to understand the academic component the players must endure, and the importance of keeping it fun for the players.
"At the same time, they're not going to be able to get too much by me because I'm going to know what's going on," Courtney said jokingly. "And I told those guys, when we're on the court I'm going to push you and it's all business and we're going to work hard. We're going to have fun working hard, but we'll work hard. But off the floor we're going to be able to connect. I want them to feel free to talk about anything to me."
Noel said preparation for the search process began a month-and-a-half before Donahue left for Boston College. It became obvious to him that schools courting Donahue would come "at a much greater level."
He created a binder of information on potential coaches that grew to be several inches thick.
Langel was the first candidate on campus, visiting April 11-12. Courtney was next, meeting with school officials and players April 14-16. Close was the final candidate, visiting Ithaca on Monday and Tuesday.
Along with the players, 17 school officials met periodically with the candidates. The "vast majority" of the people involved in the interview process felt Courtney was the best fit, Noel said. Ultimately, Noel made the final decision.
"It wasn't like a canned, this-is-what-I-have-to-say-on-an-interview," Noel said of Courtney's meeting with the players. "It was really 100 percent from the heart, and that's what he did in all of these meetings, and people really felt connected and felt like as a coach and a leader of an important program -- this is the right leader."