I know this firsthand because I was one of those people.
“It’s a coach-killer job,” I said when he and I sat down at an NCAA tournament first-round site in Des Moines before Stony Brook played Kentucky in the first NCAA tournament game in Seawolves history. “Why run away from happiness?”
Pikiell didn’t disagree, but it was apparent his mind was made up.
“I heard that from a lot of people,” he said with a laugh Thursday morning. “I got what everyone was telling me. But I wanted the challenge. Plus, there was a part of me that felt like the job was done at Stony Brook, that we had kind of reached the pinnacle of where we could go.”
Less than two weeks into 2020, Pikiell would be the first to tell you the challenge at Rutgers hasn’t yet been met, but the Scarlet Knights are a long way down the road from where they were when he took over in 2016.
Then, they were coming off a seven-win season and their 25th straight year without an NCAA tournament bid or even an over-.500 conference record. They were in their fourth conference since 1991, which was the last year they had gone to the NCAAs. In two Big Ten seasons under Jordan, they had gone 3-33 in conference play.
Fast forward to Tuesday, when the Scarlet nights beat 20th-ranked Penn State, 72-61, in front of a raucous sellout crowd in the ancient Rutgers Athletic Center. The win improved Rutgers to 12-3 overall and 3-1 in the Big Ten — its best start to a season since 1975-76 and its best conference start since 1994-95.
“Our fans are all smiling right now,” Pikiell said in a phone interview later in the week. “I’m sitting here watching Illinois on tape and I’m not smiling.”
That’s Pikiell’s emphasis right now: Let’s not get carried away. And his concern with the Illini came to fruition Saturday, when Rutgers struggled on offense and fell at Illinois, 54-51. That said, Pikiell understands why Rutgers people, after years of turmoil in the athletic department and nonstop losing in football and basketball, are delirious over the notion that they might — might — end their 29-year NCAA tournament drought nine weeks from Sunday.
“I tell people we still have 16 games to play in the toughest league in the country,” said Pikiell, 52, ahead of the loss at Illinois. “That’s a long way to go. But we’ve got kids who believe in what they’re doing. I have a lot of experience with this sort of thing. So I think I know what has to be done.”
Pikiell’s experience with turning around programs goes back to his playing days, when he was part of Jim Calhoun’s first recruiting class at Connecticut. When Calhoun arrived, a lot of U-Conn. people believed the school was overmatched in the Big East, which sent three teams to the Final Four a year earlier, in 1985.
In Calhoun’s second season, the Huskies won the NIT. Two years after that they were 31-6, won the Big East title and lost to Duke in the Elite Eight on a buzzer-beating jumper in overtime by Christian Laettner.
“When we won the NIT in 1988, that was legendary in Connecticut,” Pikiell said. “That’s how far down the program had been. Then it all clicked in two years later, and you know the rest.”
Pikiell worked for Calhoun after graduation and then went on the assistant coach’s odyssey until Stony Brook, which had been in Division I for just six years, hired him in 2005.
“It was a lot like U-Conn. had been,” Pikiell said. “They’d never had a winning season in D-I. I remember the first time we won two in a row, the campus went crazy. That’s how far down we were. Then, in my last year, we won 18 in a row and then lost to Vermont — which, as always, was very good. The next day I walked the campus and people were asking me: ‘What’s wrong, Coach? Can you fix it?’ ”
They fixed it in time to win the America East tournament, clinching that first NCAA bid. The star was Jameel Warney, a 6-foot-8 unstoppable force whom Pikiell had recruited out of New Brunswick, N.J. — right under the nose of Rutgers.
Then, after that 26-7 season, came the offer to take the coach-killer job.
Rutgers had been a solid program years earlier, peaking in 1975-76 when Tom Young took a team led by Jordan and Phil Sellers to the Final Four. Young reached four NCAA tournaments before leaving for Old Dominion in 1985. Since then, in addition to the four conferences, there have been eight coaches. The last one to have any real success was Bob Wenzel, a Rutgers graduate, who took the Scarlet Knights to the NCAAs in 1989 and 1991 before the football-motivated move from the Atlantic 10 to the Big East and eventually his firing in 1995.
It got worse with the move to the American Athletic for one year and then the Big Ten, where Pikiell went 13-43 in conference play over his first three seasons. But there was a glimmer last season, when Rutgers went 7-13 in the Big Ten and was far more competitive.
“I just tried to do the same things I’d learned from Coach Calhoun and had applied at Stony Brook,” he said. “Build with kids coming out of high school. Find kids who may have been overlooked a little because they might be a little overweight or underweight or look a step slow. Work with those kids; watch them get better.”
Rutgers’s best player is Ron Harper Jr., a New Jersey kid who liked the idea of staying close to home. The 6-6 sophomore is the team’s leading scorer at 12.4 points per game and its second-leading rebounder at 6.3. He’s one of four sophomores in the starting lineup. Only two seniors are among the 10 players who get serious minutes.
“My first couple years at Stony Brook, I only played six guys, because that’s all I really had,” Pikiell said. “Then, a couple guys got hurt and I’ve got guys starting who had never checked into a game. I learned. Now, I try to play nine to 10 guys regardless.”
Rutgers’s depth is being tested because Geo Baker, a 6-4 junior who Pikiell said might be his most important player, has missed three games with a thumb injury and probably won’t be back for a few more weeks. So far, the Scarlet Knights have managed without him. But, as Pikiell pointed out, the next nine weeks won’t be easy.
“I do love the challenge,” he said. “That’s why I came here.”
It hasn’t been easy, but Pikiell has already proved a lot of people wrong. At least I’m not alone.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.