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Pressure builds around Parrotta; Canisius coach under fire during another losing season

It is a familiar situation in college basketball: A team struggles on the floor. Alumni and fans grow irritated and direct much of that displeasure at the coach. The athletic director, in turn, says he will assess the coach and the program at the end of the season.

Canisius has lost 20 games, the fifth time it has done so since 2000. The Golden Griffins are 5-22 going into the final weekend of the regular season. They play at Manhattan tonight and at Siena on Sunday.

Here's what we know for sure: Coach Tom Parrotta has a six-year record of 64-118 with a year remaining on his contract. And he has three talented transfers sitting out this year, two of whom have a year of eligibility remaining.

That's about it.

Everything else is an unknown for the Canisius men's basketball program, starting with the future of Parrotta. There's been a feeling of uncertainty almost from the start of the season with questions intensifying each game. Canisius Athletic Director Bill Maher has said he will evaluate the coach after the season.

"Everyone wants Tom to succeed. He's a great person and he's done a great job with the kids," said Anthony Masiello, the former Buffalo mayor who played at Canisius from 1966 to '69 and is in the school's Hall of Fame. "Our players graduate, they are good in the environs of the school, and they're being developed not only as good students but good people and that's a major plus for Tom. In some cases, people want to see more results but you have to look at the total body of work."

It's an interesting setting. There's a coach who has averaged barely 10 victories a season during his tenure who is convinced help is on the way in transfers Freddy Asprilla, Isaac Sosa and Jordan Heath. He's been applauded nationally because his players graduate in three years and leave with their master's degrees after four. Parrotta has a 100 percent graduation rate among players who stayed with the Griffs for four years. But there's a restless fan base that isn't convinced Parrotta is the coach who can reverse the program's miserable fortunes. As the season winds down these are issues Maher and school President John J. Hurley need to resolve.

"Obviously we're disappointed in the wins and losses this year and where the team is from a record standpoint," Maher said. "No decisions have been made on Tom and we evaluate everything at the end of the season. There's nothing that's been done to say, 'Hey, this is where we're going with things.' "

But it's the way things have been that has fans wondering if the school ever will find the winning touch. Canisius' last winning season was in 2000-01 under Mike MacDonald, who took over from John Beilein after the 1997 season. The Griffs have had two winning seasons since, both under MacDonald, who was fired and replaced by Parrotta in 2006.

"There's other schools across the country that are similar to Canisius who are doing very well," said Brian Dux, who played at the school from 1999 to '03. "For instance, I just saw Middle Tennessee State. They have a great record and a very similar background. I'm conflicted because sometimes I think we're going to make strides and when we don't it gets really frustrating."

After he lost five seniors, Parrotta figured to be rebuilding in 2011-12. Canisius had one senior and seven players with no Division I experience. Parrotta tried to ease the blow by trying to get Asprilla declared eligible immediately but his appeal was denied by the NCAA. Nevertheless, no one expected another 20-loss season.

"They're frustrated and I'm 100 percent with them in their frustration," Parrotta said. "It's warranted because people want to win. You know what? I want to win. I've always wanted to win. No one is more competitive than I am. Frustration? I feel for every one of our fans."

Where Parrotta went wrong initially was overselling his first recruiting class when a restrained approach may have been called for.

"He's a sales guy, a good-looking guy and people thought when he got there it was going to turn around right away," said Canisius graduate Ron Raccuia, one of the program's most prominent boosters. "But that's the only way Tom knew how to get the people engaged in the program. The trouble with that is you give people expectations and when you don't meet those expectations it seems so much worse than what actually happens."

Indeed, last year's senior class of Julius Coles, Elton Frazier, Robert Goldsberry, Greg Logins and Tomas Vazquez-Simmons finished with a four-year record of 47-77 and topped out at 15 victories in each of their final two seasons.

"What the Canisius people have to realize is this program was so far removed from competing that everyone has done things at least to get it up to mildly competitive," Raccuia said. "People think that the job is done but we still can't compete with the Ionas and the Fairfields of the world because we don't spend the type of money that they do. But some people don't want to hear that."

There are rumblings of discontent from fans and alumni this season as Canisius is fighting desperately to avoid one of its worst seasons in school history. But there isn't much booing or chanting heard at home games because the fan base has lost its enthusiasm.

Canisius is averaging 1,199 fans per game at the 2,196-capacity Koessler Athletic Center. The Golden Griffins had their first, and only, sellout of the season when they hosted rival Niagara on Jan. 19.

"You have some people in the Canisius College basketball family who are big supporters and some who are not," Masiello said. "I think the thing that concerns people who are not supporters is that they expect more wins and that's understandable."

But Parrotta believes recruiting is trending in his favor and the evidence is seated on the bench.

Players often transfer because of lack of playing time but Asprilla was the starting center at Kansas State. Sosa led Central Florida in three-point shooting and was the third-leading scorer. But the best of the lot could be Heath, the 7-foot transfer from Division III Roberts Wesleyan College in Rochester.

Two years ago as a high school senior at Irondequoit in suburban Rochester, Heath, the older brother of Griffs freshman Josiah Heath, was a 6-4 guard who didn't compete on the summer basketball circuit and was overlooked by recruiters. Now 8 inches taller, Heath's guard skills remained along with intuitive defensive awareness and athletic ability.

"There's talent starting to trickle in and that's not by accident," Parrotta said. "That's by building something and having people trust you and entrust you with their kids. Five years ago, we're not going to attract an Isaac Sosa or a Freddy Asprilla. Freddy came in and took a look but he wasn't ready to turn down Kansas State to come to Canisius. It's taken five years to get to the talent I think we need to go out and win this thing."

But will Parrotta be allowed to coach them? In response to a reporter's request for an interview in mid-February, university president Hurley echoed Maher's comments about Parrotta and the program being evaluated at the end of the season and declined further comment. This is a cold-hearted business and the bottom line -- graduation rates or not -- is that a coach's winning percentage is often the sole barometer when it comes time to retain him or part ways.

"I want nothing more than to deliver what I set out to do," Parrotta said.

email: rmckissic@buffnews.com