By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 16, 2006
If practice started at 6 a.m., Steve Pikiell would be at Smith Center by 5:30. By the time George Washington's players arrived, Pikiell had stretched and limbered up and was waiting at the front of the gymnasium. Sometimes, he would tell the Colonials that he already had downed five cups of coffee. Sometimes, it would be seven.
"His energy level was just crazy," George Washington forward Omar Williams remembered.
"I would say he was more excited than the players sometimes," George Washington guard Carl Elliott said.
"I couldn't wait for them to get through the door," Pikiell agreed.
Which is why no one in Foggy Bottom is at all surprised by Pikiell's latest hyper-enthusiastic project. Hired at Stony Brook last spring, GW's former top assistant was handed a roster depleted by NCAA sanctions and defections. One scholarship player missed the preseason because of a back injury. Another left the team to concentrate on schoolwork. A third was academically ineligible for the first semester.
Pikiell's first nine games as a Division I coach included seven road trips, three against Big East schools. Using a lineup littered with freshmen and walk-ons, Stony Brook lost all nine games.
"Steve walked into an impossible situation," said Stony Brook Athletic Director Jim Fiore, who hired Pikiell. "The first semester was kind of like trying to raise the Titanic. And the scary thing is, he's making progress and lifting it."
Indeed, the Seawolves (3-11) -- who will face No. 17 GW in a nonconference game tonight -- won three of their next four games, in the process knocking off defending America East champion Vermont. Mitchell Beauford got his grades in order and leads the team in scoring. Co-captain Bobby Santiago is now talking about "a new era" of Stony Brook basketball. And Pikiell, 38, is talking about turning Stony Brook -- which has had one winning season since joining Division I in 1999 -- into the next George Washington.
"The potential here is outstanding, we have everything in place," he said. "Basketball is the program that has kind of put a spotlight on [GW], and that's what we're trying to do with our university."
George Washington's players have proudly followed their former coach's progress, looking for Stony Brook's scores on sports tickers and text messaging Pikiell after his team wins.
"Coach Pikiell is as much a part of what's going on now as he was when he was here," said GW guard Danilo Pinnock, one of the players Pikiell helped bring to Foggy Bottom. "Everybody on this campus loves him."
Like GW Coach Karl Hobbs, Pikiell was a point guard at Connecticut, although they played for different coaches (Hobbs played for Dom Perno, now an assistant athletic director at George Washington, while Pikiell was recruited by Perno but played for current U-Conn. coach Jim Calhoun). Pikiell was Hobbs's first hire at George Washington, and he did some of everything for the Colonials, preparing game plans, making travel arrangements, working on budgets and counseling players.
He also continued to burnish his reputation as an insatiable recruiter. Pikiell lived with his wife and three children in Odenton, partly to avoid the District's high cost of living and partly because of the short ride to BWI airport for recruiting trips.
"Just a relentless recruiter," Hobbs said. "I mean, he's like a Rottweiler. Once he grabbed on, he just wasn't going to let go."
GW's players said they have no doubt Pikiell will be a successful recruiter at Stony Brook, a 22,000-student state school located about an hour east of New York City, and the early results have been promising. The NCAA took two scholarships away from Stony Brook last spring because of infractions committed under a previous administration; those penalties will be satisfied by next year. Pikiell has signed the largest early-recruiting class in school history, one that is ranked among the top 40 in the nation by recruiting service HoopScoopOnline.com. Pikiell also brought GW transfer Ricky Lucas, a former All-Met at Herndon, to Stony Brook.
"I don't like to talk ahead, but I think they're going to be great," said Santiago, who is a senior. "I wish I could stay another year. It's just going to get better."
Plans are underway for close to $1 million of capital improvements next year, including new locker rooms, new team rooms and a new basketball floor. Pikiell signed a five-year contract last spring; Fiore said he'd like to extend it to 50.
"I know I work hard, and I know I have unbounded energy, and he puts me to bed," Fiore said. "Steve's blowing this thing up."
Then there's the matter of tonight's game. Hobbs asked Pikiell to schedule the game when he had trouble finding sufficient home opponents for the Colonials, but neither man is particularly looking forward to the experience.
"Trust me, it's the last team I want to play," said Hobbs, who calls Pikiell one of this best friends, "because no one likes coaching against family."