When Milan Brown gathered his Holy Cross basketball team for the first time, he told them he understood their frustration. He empathized over the revolving door that had spun three coaches in and out of the locker room in as many years and he promised that he would help rectify a lost season that had started with promise and ended in disaster.
And then he waited.
He waited for his players to admit that they were part of the reason that Sean Kearney’s Holy Cross tenure lasted less than a calendar year.
“They took ownership,’’ Brown said. “To me, that was the biggest thing. If they were going to say it was 100 percent because of someone else, we were going to be in a bit of trouble. But they didn’t do that.’’
For many people, the chaotic tempest of Holy Cross’ most recent season stood as Exhibit A in the argument that college athletics has lots its mind. Kearney, a former Notre Dame assistant who had waited years for his first D-I head-coaching opportunity, was fired less than eight months after he was hired.
Athletic director Dick Regan cited the team’s 9-22 record in a season when the Crusaders were picked to win the Patriot League, plus a roster full of returning players, as the reason for his change of heart.
Which, certainly, isn’t an awful reason. We all like to think that coaches are hired to mold men and bring integrity and joy to campus. They’re hired to win.
Except rare is the coach who is given just one year to show his abilities and rarer still is the Patriot League coach -- a league that only saw the need to offer scholarships 12 years ago -- who is dismissed with such callousness.
“It’s such an unusual thing for a school like Holy Cross,’’ Regan admitted. “We want to be competitive but winning isn’t everything. But there comes a point where you have to do what you think is right, even though people aren’t going to agree with it. The bottom line, when I assessed where did things go wrong and is this something that can get better, I didn’t think it could.
“It was a difficult position for Sean. He was following Ralph Willard, who is a very strong personality, a demanding, tough and firm guy who knows what he’s doing. It was very daunting, but I didn’t see it getting better. He had lost the players and when that happens, it’s almost impossible.’’
Even in the cutthroat world of college athletics, the news made people sit up and take notice.
“Was I cautious? Yes, but I wasn’t afraid,’’ Brown said. “Because of the short term with Sean, you kind of take a look back and make sure you know what you’re getting into, but sometimes you also step out on faith. Something like this didn’t happen for me to turn it down because I was afraid.’’
Intimidating isn’t really a word in the man’s vocabulary. He got his first head-coaching gig at Mount St. Mary’s, stepping into the spot vacated by Jim Phelan. The bow-tied coach spent 49 years in the coaching profession, becoming one of just four men to amass more than 800 victories before his retirement.
But by the time Phelan left, the Mount had fallen on hard times, stringing together four losing seasons in his final years. Brown breathed new life into the program, scheduling like a maniac -- Georgetown, Pittsburgh and Siena were among last season’s nonconference foes -- to develop a better Northeast Conference team.
His approach paid off. In Brown’s final three years, Mount St. Mary’s put together three winning seasons, including a 2008 NCAA tournament berth.
Regan didn’t know much about Brown when he started his coaching search. But when he called around to coaches for their opinions, none had anything but praise for Brown. They cited the way his teams always played defense -- Mount St. Mary’s allowed just 64.7 points over the last three seasons -- and an attitude that immediately appealed to Regan.
“Everyone told me how much they hated playing against Milan’s teams because they took you out of your comfort zone,’’ Regan said. “When you play teams with superior athletes, you have to do that. Ralph made a believer out of me about defense and a lot of what I heard about Milan reminded me of Ralph.’’
Brown inherits what is, despite the coaching turnover, a pretty good situation at Holy Cross. The Crusaders return four starters and 11 of 13 letter winners, including one-time Patriot League Rookie of the Year R.J. Evans, who comes back after averaging 13.4 points and 5.1 rebounds per game last season.
And in a league that has produced its fair share of postseason drama -- Kansas, say hello to Bucknell -- Holy Cross has recent history to compliment tradition. The Crusaders made four trips to the NCAA tournament between 2001 and 2007, scaring the bejesus out of Kentucky (72-68 winners in 2001) and Marquette (72-68 winners in 2003). They also count a guy by the name of Cousy as one of their alums.
“The difference here is, we’re not trying to create history; we’re trying to recreate it,’’ Brown said. “We know it can be done here.’’
To do it, Brown now has set aside all of the kindness he used in that first meeting. Believing his players needed a mix of tough love and a kick in the pants, he has gone back to lessons learned as a child to run his team.
“I told them, ‘There are going to be some days you don’t like me and that’s OK because the great thing is, there are going to be some days I don’t like you, either," Brown said.
"That’s how my father ran our household. As kids, when we were doing good, my dad told us we were doing OK because he didn’t want us to stop. And when we were doing something we weren’t supposed to be doing, we were tapped for it. Tapped pretty good. And then he’d hug us and tell us what we needed to do to correct it. I’m going to be hard on them, but I’m in their corner."