NEW BRITAIN, Conn. – We all know that “nice guys finish last”, and the nicest guy in the NEC will likely finish his career at the bottom of the conference standings, although with three games to go, Howie Dickenman’s squad is playing its best basketball. Thursday night, his Central Connecticut squad led the entire second half in a 76-72 win over Mount St. Mary’s at Detrick Gym.
Dickenman made official Thursday following the game what was already common knowledge thanks to sources and social media, his 20th season in charge of CCSU basketball would be the 69-year-old’s final one. It was typical Dickenman that he was slightly annoyed that word of his retirement leaked out before he could make it official, technology and social media are not really his thing.
“They probably knew with all the social media,” Dickenman said. “I didn’t want it to leak out because I didn’t want it to leak out and be a distraction, but maybe I should have done it earlier and we’d have more wins.”
His thing is basketball, since he was a player for CCSU a half-century ago. He started as a JV coach at New Britain High upon graduation before making his way into the college ranks and getting his big break when Dom Perno put him on his staff at UConn, and perhaps a bigger break when Jim Calhoun kept him there when he was hired. As you probably know, the nice guy wasn’t finishing last much at UConn under Calhoun.
And when he got the chance to be a head coach at his alma mater in 1996, he didn’t finish last much, either. His 2000 and 2002 squads (in 2002, Central once had the nation’s longest win streak at 19 and finished with 27 victories) were some of the most dominant the NEC has ever seen, CCSU was tied with Iowa State late in the 2000 NCAA Tournament and gave Pitt a good run two years later before falling. Dickenman also led the Blue Devils to the NEC title in 2007 and is a four-time conference Coach of the Year.
“I’ve been blessed to coach 20 years at my alma mater,” Dickenman said. “October 28, 2011, I signed a contract, and I said, no matter what happened, I didn’t want an extension. Probably three weeks ago, they gave me the opportunity to sign a new contract, and I really appreciate that, but I wanted to stick to what I said five years ago.”
In a way, it’s a shame that his final act and therefore the one that will most be remembered is that of lovable loser as CCSU misses the NEC Tournament for the second straight season after qualifying for 15 straight years (another sign of Dickenman’s consistency). I’m sure Dickenman wonders what might have been had Kyle Vinales – the 2011-12 NEC Rookie of the Year and for much of his CCSU career one of the nation’s top scorers – hadn’t been hurt for much of his sophomore season and then dismissed from the school before last season (in which Central was picked second in the preseason NEC poll) due to a domestic violence charge. The 2013-14 campaign was also derailed by JUCO transfer Matt Hunter – who once scored 40 points at Indiana – leaving CCSU for academic reasons.
— Northeast Conference (@NECsports) February 19, 2016
It’s been a struggle from then on for Dickenman and CCSU, and the Vinales situation has likely stung Dickenman more than he lets on. Although the charges against Vinales were eventually dropped, domestic violence is one of the areas he and his players volunteer in the offseason. He had also called Vinales on several occasions the hardest worker he’d ever coached, which had to make his dismissal (and the circumstances surrounding it) heartbreaking.
“The last couple of years have been challenging and the record indicates that, but I have a lot of good things that are going to happen here,” Dickenman said. “It may take a year or two, but what you saw tonight is a team that had toughness and poise to win.”
Many coaches preach family and togetherness, but it was clear Dickenman did his best to live that motto. In his postgame press conference officially announcing his retirement Thursday, he beamed when he talked about an annual summer alumni reunion when all former CCSU players return and tell stories of their time with the program. He makes a point to attend every CCSU graduation in May.
— Ron Ratner (@NECHoopsRon) February 19, 2016
“I’m proud of a lot of things here,” Dickenman said. “One of the things I’m proud of is that anyone who played and stayed for four years graduated, except one person. I went to every graduation and got a little emotional at all of them because you recruit these young men in high school, and then you see them grow up and develop into young men. I’m proud of the coaching tree that was developed here. We have four head coaches and six assistants that have been here and I keep in contact with all of them.”
It was fitting that the player brought in to talk after Dickenman Thursday was Brandon Peel, who has seen plenty of losses in his four-year CCSU career, and was still able to post solid numbers (and one memorable game-winner). But Peel’s biggest accolades have come off the court where he seems to have a very bright future when he graduates in May.
“He got the absolute best out of all of us, and taught me to be the best I could be and the same with everyone else,” Peel said. “Ten years from now, I want to look back and say Coach D made me who I am today, not just in basketball but off the court, too.”
Howie Dickenman will finish his 20-year head coaching career with more losses than wins, and just one mark over .500 since his last NCAA Tournament team (2007). But the outpouring of gratitude from rival coaches, former players, and everyone involved with college basketball show that there still might be some hope for college athletics yet. From a selfish standpoint, every time I saw Dickenman at a game – and being a fellow basketball junkie, there were many occasions – he always took the time to come over and say hello, even in the last couple of campaigns with his team struggling as much as it was.
It remains to be seen what Dickenman will do in retirement. He says he’ll be “on call like a doctor” for CCSU should the next coach want or need some help in the transition. He mentioned fulfilling a dream of playing Santa Claus next Christmas in the area (“I’m not kidding”, he added). The chances of him staying away from basketball completely seem remote, so it’s likely he’ll pop up at a gym near you when you least expect it.
But there is one place Dickenman is guaranteed to be: at the graduation of Peel and his final senior class in May, likely getting a little teary-eyed for the final time. Dickenman was able to accomplish a rare feat as a Division I college basketball coach: retiring on his terms (he swears he could have continued if he wanted and would have retired regardless of the team’s record with his contract expiring). Only Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim has been at his alma mater longer and only 14 other Division I coaches have a longer current tenure.
There are three words that have hung prominently for the last two decades in the CCSU locker room, spelling out the acronym HAT: Humble, Appreciative, and Thankful. They were meant, of course, for his players. Many teams and coaches have them, but Dickenman has led by example, and that’s a big reason why Dickenman will go into a well-earned retirement with his head held high.
— CCSU Blue Devils (@CCSUBlueDevils) February 19, 2016