LEWISTON – It felt like the dark ages of Niagara basketball finally were over Tuesday at the Taps Gallagher Center.
Granted, hope abounds at most introductory news conferences for head coaches. But this was more hopeful than most because the Niagara community was so eager to turn the page on the past six seasons and so excited about the new name running the Purple Eagles.
New head coach Patrick Beilein didn’t disappoint. The 36-year-old son of University of Michigan coach and Western New York icon John Beilein spewed optimism to a crowd of about 400 gathered at the arena.
“I promise you one thing: We are going to win at an extremely high level,” Beilein said. “We are going to do it the right way. We are going to win championships. As you come to games, you’ll see a team that’s fun to watch, with high IQ. We will not turn the ball over. And we are going to guard. … Our culture will hang a lot of banners going forward.”
Beilein knows about winning. As a player for his dad at West Virginia, he went to the Elite Eight and Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament in 2005 and 2006. As head coach of Division II LeMoyne the past four years, he compiled a record of 77-44 (.653) and went to three straight NCAA D-II Tournaments.
The Niagara loyalists in attendance were ecstatic.
“It’s so exciting,” said longtime Niagara season ticket holder Rocco Surace, chairman of the Niagara president’s 20-member board of advisers. “The coaching pedigree is there, the basketball pedigree is there. I attended a couple games this year where there wasn’t this many people at the games. I had friends who did not renew their seats the past couple years. They’ve already emailed me to say ‘I’m in.’”
“The thing that is so invigorating to me is the energy I’m feeling is like it was when I was here,” said Niagara great Marshall Wingate, Class of 1972. “You can feel it. Change is difficult. But when you embrace it and you have the school backing him, anything can happen.”
There’s nowhere to go but up for Beilein.
Niagara’s record the past six years under recently fired coach Chris Casey was 64-129. That was the fifth-worst winning percentage (.332) in the nation among the 280 active Division I head coaches who had coached at least 100 games. Niagara had 23 players transfer out of the program under Casey. The Purple Eagles are coming off a 13-19 season in which they finished 10th out of 11 in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.
Casey also came from Division II, with a .713 win percentage over three years. But Casey inherited a juggernaut of a program at Long Island University-Post that had won 81 percent of its games in the four years before he took over. Beilein built success at LeMoyne, which won 52 percent of its games the four years before he arrived.
And, of course, there is the name. The Beilein-Niland clan is the First Family of Western New York basketball, with a winning coaching history that dates to the 1940s. (John Beilein’s mother was a Niland.)
John Beilein has won 754 games in his career, including 89 at Canisius in the 1990s. He has taken four different teams to a combined 13 NCAA Division I Tournaments. He was in the front row at the news conference, along with his wife and Patrick’s mom, Kathleen.
“I really thought this was a no-brainer for him and for the university,” John Beilein said. “But they had to decide that, and I was just keeping my fingers crossed that he could do this because I love Niagara University, and I love the MAAC.”
John Beilein, a Newfane native, retold the story of attending his first Division I college game at the Gallagher Center as a seventh-grader.
“I grew up on a farm playing outside, playing in a barn, and I said this is the greatest basketball arena I’ve ever seen in my life,” John Beilein said. “This is like a dream come true for our family, and obviously for Patrick.”
Niagara graduates three senior starters, including its top two scorers and rebounders. The leading returning scorer is junior guard James Towns (10.5 ppg). Guards Raheem Solomon (7.5 ppg) and Marcus Hammond (5.8 ppg) both had promising freshman seasons. But Niagara’s front-court needs help. There currently are three open scholarships. As of today, Niagara easily is the last-place team in the MAAC.
“I was a little shocked with Casey leaving,” Solomon said. “Hearing Patrick Beilein’s history, me getting to know him will be very important. He played basketball at a high level and was a very good player. I think that’s a very big thing for us. He will understand us as players and help develop us.”
Beilein said he does not view the job as a colossal rebuilding project.
“I don’t view it that way at all,” Beilein said. “Watching film of the team last year and the returning pieces that I know of, there are some parts here. We talk about culture. ... It’s gotta start off the court with the little things. The attention to detail. So I can promise you one thing: We’re going to guard. We’re going to be hard-nosed. Not many teams are going to enjoy playing Niagara in the upcoming seasons.”
Niagara has ranked in the bottom five in the MAAC on defense six straight years and was last in three-point defense three of the last six years.
“I’ve been in the top on defense,” said Patrick Beilein, who played strictly man to man at LeMoyne. “I know it’s Division II, but still a very challenging conference. I think I have a great idea of how we can get to the top.”
Niagara fans can expect to see the Michigan two-guard offense, with the floor spaced, one low post, hard cuts, backdoor action and ball screens. It requires skilled players who can pass well, line up on the perimeter and knock down 3-point shots.
“He plays what I call winning basketball,” John Beilein said of his son. “You have a bunch of young men who will play together. You take care of the basketball, you take good shots, you play solid defense, you don’t beat yourself. That’s been one of the reasons we’ve been able to win, and it’s one of the reasons he wins right now.”
Patrick Beilein said his entire family was attending the Sabres game Tuesday night.
“I’m going to get them a win tonight, you can mark my words, and I’ll hit the ground running tomorrow,” Beilein said.
Clearly, he does not lack for optimism, a trait he’ll need in turning around the Purple Eagles.