Saturday, August 28, 2010

Coach Courtney and Cornell Meet Again

Long before he became Cornell's Robert E. Gallagher '44 Head Coach of Men's Basketball, the Big Red were trying to figure out a way how to defend Bill Courtney. During 1991 and 1992, Courtney was a two-time First Team All-Patriot League selection with Bucknell University. He graduated with 1,499 caeer points, a mark that still ranks among the top 10 all-time at the school. And he has some experience "torching" Cornell too.

On January 4, 1992 in Lewsiberg, Pa., in a game against Cornell, Courtney scored 31 points and dished six assists and grabbed five rebounds, helping Bucknell to a 98-96 victory over the Big Red. A year earlier, on December 29, 1990, Courtney, then a junior, scored a game-high 21 points with four rebounds and four assists in a 93-85 Big Red victory in Ithaca.

Below, an archived article from the March 27, 2006 issue of USA Today, covering George Mason's run to the 2006 Final Four and Courtney's role in building GMU's run.
Former Mason assistant enjoying ride vicariously

Bill Courtney believes George Mason would not have reached the Final Four had he remained on Jim Larranaga's staff. It is not a claim your average assistant coach would put on his résumé, but Courtney deals in the currency of truth.

"I would've convinced Jim along the way to do one little thing differently that wouldn't have worked," Courtney said. "The stars had to be perfectly aligned for this to happen, and part of that destiny was me leaving."

He left last June for Providence, Larranaga's alma mater. Funny how it works out. Courtney grew up 15 minutes from George Mason, as under-recruited as the kids he would later sign for the ride of their lives. Courtney desperately wanted to play in Mason's Patriot games.

Rick Barnes, then the Mason coach, called to express interest, then immediately bolted for — where else? — Providence. "My dream was shattered," Courtney said.

He became a star at Bucknell, good enough to play in the USBL, in Hong Kong and on a Milwaukee Bucks summer team. He coached some high school and college ball before Larranaga interviewed him at Bowling Green 10 years back.

"My interview consisted of staying at Jim's house, in his son's bed," Courtney said. "Woke up, played two-on-two with his sons, had a cookout and went to the movies to see De Niro and Wesley Snipes in The Fan."

They loathed the movie and loved each other. A year later, when George Mason called for Larranaga, Courtney entered his boss' office armed with heavy local knowledge. "Is George Mason really a better job than this one?" Larranaga asked his aide.

Courtney talked up the campus and the leftover talent in the Washington, D.C., area. "We can do special things there," he said.

They spent so many days on the road together, Courtney figured Larranaga logged more hours recruiting than any head coach. They spent one endless car ride through Florida listening to Pat Conroy's The Lords of Discipline. Courtney did all the driving. Sometimes he did all the talking, too.

Like the night Will Thomas' mother asked him to say a pre-dinner prayer. Courtney was a Baptist with a Catholic wife, recruiting a Catholic high school prospect he thought might be Baptist. He asked the Lord seven or eight ways to bless their food, then hoped for the best. He landed far more than he lost.

"Jai Lewis," he said. "First day of the recruiting period, 7 a.m., I was in his mother's house in Columbus, Georgia, before she went to church."

Lewis' mother thanked Courtney for that visit Sunday amid the delirium after George Mason swiped Connecticut's spot in the Final Four. A George Mason official had given the Providence assistant a floor pass so he could party with his grown-up recruits. The Colonial Athletic Association was letting the Big East behind the VIP ropes. "When I recruited these kids," Courtney said, "I told them, 'Our goal is to win the whole thing.' "

Not the conference tournament. Not the first round of the NCAA Tournament. "The national championship," Courtney said.

George Mason is two games from that title, and friends are busy calling Courtney to rub it in. "You're a moron," they joke. Courtney is sporting enough to laugh along. He knew the Patriots would be good this year, maybe not this good.

But he also knew he wanted to be a head coach and that Big East assistants get better, faster looks. "When I first told Jim I was leaving," Courtney said, "he wasn't happy. But a day later he gave me his blessing and told me he loved me just the same. The hardest thing was telling the players."

The players who scored the George Mason scholarship Courtney never got. They understood he needed to advance his career, just like they understood when Courtney's fellow aide, Eric Konkol, left last year to support his wife's pursuit of a doctorate degree at the University of Minnesota.

Courtney and Konkol often speak about what they shared and what they're witnessing. "We both agree, if we had to leave for George Mason to go to the Final Four, we'd do it over and over again," said Konkol, who just helped Hopkins High School win the Minnesota state title.

He'll join Courtney in Indianapolis for an emotional reunion, but not before Courtney fields a dozen phone calls from Larranaga, who wants to know all about the Friars' December loss to Florida and its own Providence alum, Billy Donovan.

"Jim's calling me so much now," Courtney said, "I had to tell him, 'Coach, I'm not on your payroll anymore.' "

Larranaga wants to keep him in the huddle. It's his way of showing that George Mason never would have made this ride without Bill Courtney on board.

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