Niagara’s Chris Casey Keeps Rolling with the Punches

Plenty of MAAC head coaches have had obstacles put in front of them; none may be greater than those Chris Casey has had to face just two seasons after Niagara won the regular season title. When the Niagara Purple Eagles open their 2014-15 season, their regular season championship will feel like the distant past.

By the time next season starts there will be no players or coaches on the team that won the league by a game over Loyola (MD) and Rider. When Joe Mihalich left for Hofstra, Niagara athletic director Tom Crowley filled the position with then Division II LIU Post head coach Casey.

When this season starts, all of the team’s key players who departed will begin exercising a combined 11 seasons of eligibility remaining in other places. Juan’ya Green and Ameen Tanksley will be starting their careers at Hofstra. T.J. Cline will be starting his first of three remaining seasons at Richmond. Plus Antoine Mason, the nation’s leading returning scorer, went to Auburn as a graduate transfer in May.

The man who hired Casey from Division II LIU Post, Crowley, never saw his choice coach a game at Niagara. He was quietly let go from the school in September and replaced by an interim AD until this May when Simon Gray was hired as the new athletic director. While the change in bosses didn’t seem to impact Casey, it is yet another obstacle in the way of success.

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Chris Casey has been dealing with challenges ever since he landed at Niagara. (photo courtesy: Stockton Photo)

In his first season, Casey’s Purple Eagles finished 3-17 in conference play, moving from first to worst in one season. The last time a first-year head coach saw his team drop from regular season champion to out of contention was Siena’s Mitch Buoaguro in 2011.

The last two unsuccessful head coaches in the MAAC were let go a month before Casey joined and they barely dealt with the type of upheaval of the kind that the second-year Niagara coach has seen.

The rosters at Siena and Marist were gutted too when their new coaches took the helm, but not in these terms. The MAAC Player of the Year for the two schools graduated and the runs from Buonaguro and Chuck Martin failed to reproduce their predecessors’ success. They both failed to turn their rosters into contenders and bring in the type of players that fit their style.

It’s hard to tell if Casey saw the transfer exodus coming. As one source said, when Mihalich left for Hofstra, there was an understanding that others may leave and join him.

When Green and Tanksley transferred out of the program last May, I asked Casey whether there was any frustration with the process.

“The only disappointment is I don’t get to coach those guys,” Casey said. “I’m not disappointed in them. They’re all good kids and they’ve all made major contributions to this program and to Niagara University and the community.”

“The only disappointment on my end is I know they were good players and good people and that I don’t get an opportunity to coach them, but no disappointment in them.”

The moves did not appear to shake Casey or incite any cynicism on the state transfers. However when Mason, who under Casey ranked near the top in the nation in scoring, decided to transfer in the middle of May, it seemed that might change.

Casey said he received a phone call from Mason’s father after the season informing him that his son would look elsewhere for his final season. His transfer and Joe Thomas’ fifth-year transfer to Miami completed the overhaul of the roster. Even then Casey admitted that his relationship with the Mason family was strong – he had coached Antoine’s brother Anthony Jr. at St. John’s – and that Antoine wanted to see what higher levels offered. Casey admitted when he was told that he “had no reaction.”

No player who was recruited and played one season for Mihalich is at the school anymore. Yet that hasn’t changed Casey’s perspective on the system, where upwards of 500 players have transferred in each of the last two offseasons and many of them happened to wear purple and black.

“Building a team is a process and we came in and there were five guys on the roster,” Casey said. “That’s the situation and that’s the job and we’ll just keep building the roster.”

“I like the guys we have on the roster right now a lot and we’re going to continue to try to build it with more new guys. That’s the process of a team, particularly when you have that many open scholarships at the start, so it really doesn’t change your perspective. What you do is you put your head down, you keep going and get to a point where you have the roster exactly where you want it.”

The type of challenges that Casey has had to deal with since taking over in April 2013 are inescapable and almost unprecedented. Niagara has seen the greatest roster turnover of any school in the league by far. The Purple Eagles are the only school to terminate their athletic director in that time, a man who welcomed Casey to the campus and introduced him to the community. None of this has appeared to change his perspective, that the roster needs time, and that building a winner will take hard work.

In 2013-14 the roster will be young again and competitive. If last season is the standard, they will find the right time to knock off a team as they did against Marist in the MAAC tournament before losing 89-80 to Quinnipiac.

Yet Casey doesn’t want to be shaped by all of these external events. By getting all of this out of the way now, being allowed to build a system with young core, he might prove to be successful and survive longer than any other MAAC head coach who has had to start at the bottom.

His team did finish at the bottom of the standings last season, so there is no other place to go but up for the Purple Eagles. It appears Casey is determined, despite all of the obstacles thrown in his way, to get them there.

Ryan Restivo covers the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, the America East conference and Hofstra for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanarestivo or contact Ryan at rrestivo[at]nycbuckets.com.

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