By Lenn Robbins
HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. – There were about three and one-half minutes left in Hofstra’s game against North Carolina-Wilmington Saturday night and Pride coach Joe Mihalich was bellowing at the officials.
They had blown a seemingly meaningless call in a game Hofstra was leading by 15. After a solid 30 seconds of getting tongue lashed, the lead official, both arms extended and palms down, implored Mihalich to settle down.
If you wonder how a coach can win 400 games when none of his 21-plus years is in the first chair has been at ‘power school,’ here’s the answer:
There are no meaningless calls. There no meaningless practices. No meaningless games. Most of all, there no meaningless players. Because that would mean disrespecting the game. As long as a Mihalich is coaching, the game will never be disrespected.
“It’s a team game, right,’’ said Mihalich, after win No. 400. “Things like this happen. More importantly, way more importantly, [guard] Elijah [Pemberton] became the ninth all-time leading scorer in Hofstra basketball. It’s an incredible thing.
“He had exactly eighteen hundred coming in. Eighteen hundred and 23 now, right behind the guy, I forget his name, Speedy Claxton? I had explicit orders from Speedy, ‘When he gets close, take him out.’’’
Claxton is an assistant coach at his alma mater and a link to Hofstra’s glory years during the Jay Wright/Tom Pecora eras. Claxton donated money to the construction of the 5,203-seat David S. Mack Sports and Entertainment Complex, which is a terrific homecourt and begs the question why an announced crowd of only 2,506 attended The Pride’s sixth straight win, a 78-64 win.
Hofstra is the metropolitan area’s best kept basketball secret and Mahalich one of the college game’s best guardians of the game.
The Pride (20-7 overall, 11-3 and 1st in the Colonial Athletic Conference) took control early behind center Isaac Kante’s career-high 23 points and 13 rebounds. In the Pride’s last game, Pemberton matched his career-high with 28.
“The culture we built here over the past few years, guys just buy in,’’ said Pemberton, who had 23. “It’s a brotherhood from the last player on the bench to the coaching staff. I think we’re all comfortable with each other.
“It’s fun to win for a coach like this. And it’s fun to play for him when he lets you play your game.”
This has been the story of Mihalich’s career. He took Niagara to two NCAA tournaments and two NITs by pushing the ball and pushing guys with tough love. He won the Skip Prosser Man of the Year Award in 2013, given to the coach who exhibits strong moral character.
Consider this: Mihalich, 63, spent 17 years as an assistant at his alma mater, LaSalle – 17 years as an assistant! He stayed at Niagara for 15 seasons.
You know those coaches that always have one eye on the next job? Mihalich vests his one soul in working with the players he has.
“It’s from the heart,” said Mihalich. “We just got some T-shirts that say, ‘More Than a Team.’ It’s more than a team. As corny as that might seem, it’s a brotherhood in there. There’s a great brotherhood in there. There’s a love for each other.
“We have our tough times. I mean, I’ve gotten on this guy [Kante] and I’ve questioned his manhood, insulted him, but it’s because – it goes back to guys like [former Temple coach] John Chaney, who talked about tough love. It’s because I love you guys so much.”
Mihalich looks for six attributes in a player:
- Is he a good person?
- Is he a good player?
- Is he a good student?
- Does he love the game?
- Does he hate to lose?
- Does he work hard?
Call it what you will – corny, old school, cliché’ – the results speak for themselves. This is Mihalich’s eighth, 20-win season. His overall record is 381-287 (.570) in 21-plus season, the last six-plus at Hofstra, where he’s 116-84 (.580).
But really, he’s from the school of tough love. Mihalich was a walk-on guard who played for coach Paul Westhead at LaSalle. Joe Bryant, father of the late Kobe Bryant, was the star of that team which, which ran an up-tempo offense, a style Mihalich embraced.
Mihalich’s father, Joe, was a pitcher in the Yankees system, rooming with Whitey Ford. When arm trouble ended his baseball career, he became a professor of sports philosophy at LaSalle, which became the family’s second home. Mihalich’s son, Joe, is the coach at Penn.
They should have a box truck that reads – Mihalich and Sons, Respect the Game.
“He believes in you, he tells you he believes in you, it’s fun,” Kante said. “We love you too coach.”
Hofstra led by as much as 28 before Mihalich started running clock. The Seahawks (8-20, 3-12) are reeling, having fired their head coach last month. This was a bit of a trap game for The Pride. They were coming off a 76-63 win over a gritty College of Charlestown team and about to begin their last road trip of the regular season.
Mihalich hopes to take Hofstra to its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2001 and the second of his career.
“Climbing up that ladder, cutting those nets down, there’s nothing like it,” said Mihalich.
The Pride doesn’t know that feeling. They lost in the conference finals last season. Getting the No.1 seed in this year’s tourney means a first-round bye. Then every game becomes a trap game meaning Saturday’s win was worth remembering.
“I’m, just really proud of the guys for how they handled the day,’’ said Mihalich.
“They treated the game the right way. That’s been a battle cry of ours. ‘Respect the game. Respect yourself. Respect the opponent.’ Our guys did that.”
That’s how you win 400 games.