As NCAAs beckon, Andy Toole, Robert Morris grow in lock step
Mar. 16, 2015
MOON TOWNSHIP, Pa. (AP) — The face still seems impossibly young.
Look closer, though. A half decade into fighting the good fight — and winning with alarming regularity — at Robert Morris has left Andy Toole with the trademark frayed edges that belie the effortless vitality of a guy still not eligible to run for president.
There's the slightest hint of lightening at the roots of 34-year-old head coach's immaculately styled hair. There's the rumor of hard-earned wrinkles below the eyes. Maybe it's being the father of two young boys. Maybe it's running one of the best programs you might not have heard of (at least, not yet). Maybe it's both.
Either way, the age thing stopped being a thing for Toole long ago. Promoted in 2010 after Mike Rice left for Rutgers, the Ivy League-educated and relentlessly level-headed Toole has evolved from curiosity to one of the best young basketball minds in the country.
Yet of all the victories Toole has orchestrated — 109 and counting, including a nationally televised, "is this really happening" takedown of defending national champion Kentucky in the NIT two years ago and an even more decisive romp over St. John's in the same tournament last spring — perhaps the biggest upset of Toole's blossoming career is that he's still around to lead the Colonials into the NCAA Tournament on Wednesday against North Florida.
Even his players can't quite believe it Toole is still around. That's not how this is supposed to work. Coaches who pile up Ws in off-the-map leagues like the Northeastern Conference are supposed to immediately jump at the first big paycheck thrown their way. And yet Toole has remained at the rapidly growing campus 15 minutes west of downtown Pittsburgh playing in a brown-bleachered gym whose fans have affectionately given the Colonials the uniquely counterculture nickname "Bobby Mo."
"Yeah, I'm a little surprised," senior swingman Lucky Jones said. "But I know his heart is with Robert Morris. He'll do anything to help make Robert Morris is successful."
And the school remains intent on doing what it can to keep it that way as long as it can.
Funny, the people who used to ask athletic director Craig Coleman what he was thinking hiring a guy not yet out of his 20s to take over a program that made consecutive NCAA appearances in 2009 and 2010 now ask him what they can do to help make sure Toole doesn't get too itchy.
Coleman is proud but pragmatic. He understands athletics is "the front porch" to the rest of the university. Having a remarkable telegenic 30-something hold the door as the school undergoes an aggressive transformation from commuter-based safety school to first-choice destination— look no further than the skyrocketing need for on-campus housing as proof — is a pretty good place to start.
"Our goal is to make as many splashes as we can," Coleman said. "Athletics is what brings people in. This run (under Toole) has been a big bonus for us."
One that now includes talk of replacing occasionally throbbing but logistically outdated Sewall Center with a new arena. Capacity might not grow much beyond 3,500, but it would give the Colonials a serious boost in the never ending arms race to attract recruits.
Not that Toole is getting greedy. This is the same man who rejoiced when a Dunkin Donuts opened a couple of 3-pointers from campus. While Kentucky coach — and Moon Township native — John Calipari welcomed the national media into his home on Selection Sunday, Toole and his wife, Brooke, gathered with their two young sons, some players and a few dozen supporters at a crowded sports bar. Fans wore "Mo Madness" T-shirts while the Tooles did their best to keep their boys from getting into the celebratory cake that looked as if it were borrowed from an office birthday party.
Toole shook hands, kept one eye on the TV and the kids and dispatched his assistants to begin prep the moment the Colonials found out their first-round destination. He deflected any praise, pouring it instead on his mish-mashed roster for pulling themselves together after a rocky start that included nonconference losses to the likes of North Carolina, Clemson, Georgetown, Buffalo and Lafayette.
Robert Morris responded by winning its last six games after Toole took the unusual step of demoting Jones from starter to reserve following a two-game suspension for a violation of team rules. Jones recovered from the initial shock to spearhead a sprint through the NEC tournament that culminated in a 66-63 win over St. Francis (Brooklyn) for the NEC's automatic bid, the first for the Colonials since 2010.
Toole was the lead assistant under Rice back then, putting together a game plan that saw Robert Morris nearly stun second-seed Villanova in the opening round before falling in overtime. Rice split for Rutgers in the aftermath and Coleman didn't look far and wide for a replacement. There was no need.
"Mike Rice was the heart, but Andy Toole was the brain," Coleman said. "I didn't care how old he was. He just gets it."
And now Toole will almost certainly get another wave of suitors whenever the season ends, be it on Wednesday or Friday against No. 1 Duke or — hey, who knows? — somewhere beyond that.
Toole is too polite to talk about it the future. Last he checked, he had a job. Yet Coleman knows the turf well.
"I'm a psychiatrist and if the right offer came along and he didn't take it, I'd send him to a psychiatrist," Coleman said. "He's OK with being here awhile. He's going to keep his options open. He's got time."