Mike Lonergan has GW basketball back in the conversation, ahead of schedule


GW is 14-3 under third-year Coach Mike Lonergan, who has found a perfect fit in Foggy Bottom. (Richard A. Lipski/For the Washington Post)

Mike Lonergan speaks in a staccato, machine-gun riff, never slowing down as he pores over details, names, games — including that impressive Atlantic 10 upset on Tuesday night.

“I probably got 4,500 texts after we beat VCU,” George Washington’s coach said on his office couch, which is across the street from Smith Center, the 4,000-plus-seat gym that’s beginning to shake with sound again.

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

It was the day after his Colonials delivered the strongest message of their 14-3 season, the night they flipped the script on a perennial giant-killer, knocking off the Rams and remaining unbeaten at home.

GW’s back? GW’s ba- . . .

“Well, wait. I think the buzz is here, the excitement is here and the foundation is here,” Lonergan says. “But I don’t know. I’m a coach. I don’t want to sound like Lou Holtz, but our point guard has got a hip injury. He’s fighting through it and trying to get through the season. We’re only seven or eight deep. I don’t think we’re going to take a huge step back because we have some good recruits coming. So I feel good about the future.”

The present is showing promise, too.

Best Little Team That Could — an unofficial Washington sports title — is taken seriously by its annual holder, if only subconsciously.

Whether it’s George Mason’s still-surreal Final Four run in 2006 or American’s back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances in 2008 and 2009, the title is almost always held by a non-power-conference program in the region.

(Gary Williams would occasionally do Jedi mind tricks and convince the gullible that his plucky Maryland kids were “Hoosiers,” using actual parts of the state flag to dress his cute little Terps up in Hickory High red and gold as they did battle against Duke and North Carolina. Yes, we gladly bought in.)

This mythical designation is so important that if no area school contorts into the glass slipper in a given year, we sometimes grow desperate and expand the region to places like Richmond, where VCU spun us on its fingertips en route to the 2011 Final Four.

With George Mason and AU rebuilding, the Rams and their 5-hour Energy coach, Shaka Smart, had a firm grip on Best Little Team That Could for a good three years, despite being roughly 120 miles away.

But then Cinderella morphed into a mini-Goliath, moved up to a bigger conference in the Atlantic 10 and walked into Smith Center favored over the home team on Tuesday night.

Smart might have known before the Colonials kept staving off every Rams charge in the second half, but his players probably didn’t realize their opponent’s long, storied history as underdogs. See, long before they chanted “V-C-Who? V-C-U!” in Richmond, George Washington slung the stone that slayed college basketball’s biggest and baddest.

The Colonials were the area’s original Little Team That Could. Mike Jarvis took them to four NCAA tournaments in eight seasons — including the Sweet 16 in 1993 — and relished beating John Calipari and then-powerful U-Mass., twice toppling the Minutemen when they were the nation’s No. 1 team. Karl Hobbs took them to No. 6 in the AP poll in 2005-06 and to three straight NCAA tournament appearances between 2005 and 2007.

Shoot, decades before Shawnta Rogers and Pops Mensah-Bonsu, GW took out No. 5 West Virginia and Jerry West in 1960. (Zeke from Cabin Creek was outscored 42-40 that night by Jon Feldman.)

That’s about the only fact Lonergan didn’t know about GW.

Being a Bowie guy and from fine prep hoops stock at Archbishop Carroll, he went on to coach a Division III powerhouse at Catholic, winning the 2001 national title. After beefing up his résumé and assisting Williams for a year at Maryland, he took the Vermont job and led the Catamounts to the NCAA tournament in 2010.

When the chance to come home and fix GW came up in the form of a five-year contract, the 47-year-old Lonergan leapt at the opportunity. His father, Jack, who attended Holy Cross the same time Bob Cousy was starring there, is 83 now. It was a natural move for family and career purposes — really, the reward for 20-odd years of sacrifice.

“My first job at American International College as a grad assistant — nothing, zero,” Lonergan says, recounting his early gigs. “Second job, full-time assistant at Colgate: $2,000. Third year: $12,000. Fourth year: $14,000. I got the Catholic U. job at 26 years old for $26,000. That’s four years out of college when some of my classmates are out of law school.”

Then he landed at Maryland for $110,000 as an assistant and then Vermont for about the same amount, trying in vain for six years to eventually push his salary up to $200,000 in an area with a high cost of living. He turned down several higher-paying Division I jobs because they would have been lateral moves, and he didn’t want to lose too much money on his house in Burlington.

“I was told to never take a job for money, but after a while it wasn’t cost-beneficial to leave until something I really thought was good for me came up,” he said.

In the ’80s, Lonergan would attend Colonials games, sitting transfixed as he watched Red Auerbach’s mannerisms from his customary seat at Smith Center. George Washington was the perfect fit.

It’s been a slow build since Lonergan replaced Hobbs in 2011, both in terms of on-court success and buzz around the program. The Colonials went 10-21 in Lonergan’s first season and 13-17 a year ago, and while the crowds were bigger than in the last years of the Hobbs era, average attendance at Smith Center still barely topped 2,500. But this season, the kids who were picked to finish 10th in the conference by the Atlantic 10’s coaches in the preseason have grown up quickly.

The Colonials have beaten Miami, No. 20 Creighton, Rutgers, Maryland, Georgia, Rhode Island and now VCU — with an assist from GW alum Mike Brey, who gave the Colonials a pregame pep talk after the Notre Dame coach was inducted into the school’s athletic hall of fame Tuesday night.

A national ranking seems likely. After that, there is only place to go: back to the NCAA tournament, where all the good giant-killers go.

“We’ll see,” Lonergan says, squinting through day-old stubble. “We still have a ways to go, but this feels good.”

He does small schools, mid-majors and reclamation projects so well it’s almost crazy to envision him taking a big job at a power-conference school.

No, Mike Lonergan is right where he needs to be right now: the dues-paying, gym-rat lifer, on the cusp of bringing back the original Little Team That Could.

For more by Mike Wise, go to washingtonpost.com/wise.

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