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Bryant Wins Over NJIT In NEC Membership Due To FCS Football
Filip Bondy of the New York Daily News talks about NJIT’s struggles in basketball - but also talks about Bryant, and how they leapfrogged NJIT in membership to the NEC. That’s right: Bryant had a football team that was ready for FCS.
Lenny Kaplan says the e-applications already are popping onto his computer screen, and that the queries are accumulating on his voicemail. Apparently there are plenty of coaches out there who want to take over the program with the very worst record in the history of college basketball.
“The bottom line is, I’m a Division I program, I’m in the New York market, and we have the Prudential Center as a place to play,” Kaplan said Monday. “It’s something of a mystery about who is going to apply in the end, but I like to talk to everybody.”
Kaplan is the athletic director at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, a fine academic college in Newark that transitioned to Division I athletics status two years ago and has been slapped down ever since.
File this under, “Be careful what you wish for.” A new president, Robert Altenkirch, came to the school in 2002 and wanted to make a splash with top-level sports teams. The end result - or, more hopefully, the intermediary step - was an 0-29 men’s basketball season that began in November with a 42-point loss to Manhattan and ended over the weekend with a 24-point defeat at Utah Valley State.
There wasn’t a single game decided by fewer than nine points. The Highlanders had five freshmen in the eight-man rotation, and clearly weren’t ready for this level of competition.
Only a couple of players, senior guard Kraig Peters and junior forward Nesho Milosevic, were readier for these tough matchups. The kids tried very hard and felt bad about failing. The coach, Jim Casciano, resigned before the last game, after taking a brief medical leave during the season.
“I can be a patient person,” Kaplan said. “But last year we won five and this year none. That’s going backwards.”
The team is not only lacking a coach. The school can’t seem to find a conference that will embrace it, and remains an independent. In October, the Northeast Conference chose Bryant University of Rhode Island instead of NJIT as a member, in part because Bryant has a football team.
Being homeless only makes things that much harder.
“The conferences look at academics and geography, which is great for us,” said Kaplan, a former assistant at Manhattan. “But they want you to be competitive first, which is the tail wagging the dog. It’s hard being competitive without being in a conference. We’d be more competitive quickly if I was in a conference.”
NJIT’s athletics programs have ascended through the divisions at a rapid rate, perhaps too quickly for the school to realistically prepare for such ambitions. The school’s teams have had mixed success in recent years, while men’s basketball clearly has bottomed out.
The Highlanders played in Division III until the 1997 season, with solid success. NJIT played in Division II from 1997-2006, enjoying its best season under Casciano in 2002-2003, winning the Central Atlantic collegiate Conference with an 18-11 mark.
But NJIT was competing against teams such as Bloomfield, Caldwell and Nyack back then, a far cry from Rutgers, Army and Fordham.
So why does a respected academic school make such an unnecessarily strong commitment to high-profile sports? When he arrived in 2002, Altenkirch described his aim this way: “Strengthening the athletics program through the transition to Division I will allow us to align the university athletically with our academic peers.”
Kaplan says it is not a financial decision, because the mid-major programs all lose money with their athletic programs. Instead, he says NJIT just wants to fit in with its own kind, and promote the school at the same time.
“Division II are mostly private liberal arts colleges, smaller and not research-based,” Kaplan said. “Our goal is to be a nationally recognized research college. You’ve got to get your name out there, and the most cost effective way is through athletics. You look at Bucknell, which had runs to the NCAA Tournament. How many had heard of Bucknell west of the Mississippi outside of athletics? Or George Mason?”
Kaplan will sift through the coaching applicants now. He expects many from high school programs, along with an assortment of college assistants. Maybe there will be a “rebound” applicant, he says - a head coach who didn’t succeed at the top level and wants another shot.
“We just have to find a niche,” he said.
The Highlanders found that niche in Division III, then Division II. At these heights, it gets harder to find a foothold, or a safety net.
Winless NJIT seeks coach, justification
Filip Bondy, NY Daily News