Exactly 20 years ago, Bruiser Flint was in his first year as Head Coach of the Drexel Dragons. Drexel had just made the jump from America East Conference (AEC) to the more competitive Colonial Athletic Conference (CAA). Flint’s first Drexel squad was led by Robert Battle and Tim Whitworth. Both from Philadelphia, Battle was a chiseled 6’8”, 230 low post defender extraordinarie. Whitworth was a smooth sharpshooting wing. Flint also brought some intriguing freshmen guards in with him. Jeremiah King from Paterson, NJ and Danny Hinds from Allentown were highly regarded Flint recruits and Phil Goss from Maryland decided to stick with Drexel even after Steve Seymour was let go and Flint was brought on board.
The Dragons got off to a rocky start Flint’s first year. They were 2-5 heading into a game against St. Joseph’s on December 10, 2001. The Hawks were in the midst of one of the greatest runs in school history. The previous year, led by Jameer Nelson, a freshman POINT GOD from Chester and, Marvin O’Connor, a high scoring wing from South Philly that played his HS ball at Gratz, the Hawks established themselves as a force on the national basketball scene.
The Hawks were 5-1 heading into the matchup with the Dragons. Hawk Head Coach, Phil Martelli and Flint were good friends. They had gone head to head for the previous decade while Flint was a top assistant and subsequently, Head Coach at UMass. The two decided to keep the friendly, but oh so intense, rivalry going once Flint returned to Philadelphia.
That Hawks squad was very talented. O’Connor, Nelson, Na’im Crenshaw, Bill Phillips, Delonte West, Tyrone Barley, Mike Farrelly and Phil Martelli, Jr. were all my youngins. So was Jamal Nichols who was redshirting that year. I spent a lot of time around those kids.
In an attempt to inject a little levity into a fiercely competitive situation, I was talking a tremendous amount of shit, as usual… I told Crenshaw, O’Connor and the St. Joseph’s assistants that Drexel was going to come into Hagan and beat the Hawks. I will never forget the response from the St. Joseph’s assistant Monte Ross.
Speaking very slowly and self-assuredly, Ross explained, “Del… there are levels to to this shit and Drexel is not on our level.”
He was right… St. Joseph’s proceeded to spank Drexel 85-54 at Hagan Arena. A middle of the pack CAA team was no match for a solid A10 squad.
They were, indeed, on different levels… That was then, this is now…
Fast forward 20 years, last night I attended a game between CAA preseason favorite Delaware and A10 contender La Salle. While at that game, my friend Howard Hudson had the Drexel vs St. Joseph’s game playing on his phone. We watched the clash of the local CAA/A10 teams in real time.
Plainly stated, there is no longer a measurable gap between the CAA and A10 programs in the Great Philadelphia area. Zack Spiker’s Dragons have defeated Billy Lange’s Hawks two years in row and they also played in the NCAA tournament last year. Since moving on from long-time Head Coach, Phil Martelli, St. Joseph’s is 13-42 (.236) overall and 5-25 (.167) in the A10. They are also struggling over at 20th and Olney. Over the course of the last 10 games La Salle has played, they are 2-8. Over that period, the Explorers have lost to Fordham, St. Joseph’s twice, Sacred Heart and Delaware.
What gives? What da fuck is going on?
The explanatory variable usually cited when explaining sustained periods of mediocracy in college basketball is head coaching job performance. The big seat inevitably starts warming up. At both St. Joseph’s and La Salle, that horse has already escaped the confines of the barn. Many alums and season ticket holders of the local A10 programs have given up on Lange and Howard. Unfortunately, the nascent calls for replacing the head coaches will occupy the attention and energies of die-hard supporters while obfuscating deeper more problematic issues impacting the ability of these programs to compete at a high level.
In a piece written in March of 2020, titled “The Big 10’s (Successful) Attack on Philly Mid-Majors!”, I argued:
The alums, season ticket holders and athletic directors of the Philly mid-majors remain entrenched in the outdated paradigm. They have yet to fully comprehend the extent of the paradigm shift. Hence, they are striving maintain a “mid-major” status when the existence of the category itself is tenuous at best.
Collectively, they have pinned their hopes on a “Messiah Model” of intervention.
From their perspective of the “Messiah Model”, status as competitive mid-major program hinges on finding the right head coach. Operating within this model, the competitive struggles of the Philly mid-major programs on the court and on the recruiting trails are attributable to the “poor performance” of head coaches. Hence, Billy Lange replaces Phil Martelli… Ashley Howard replaces John Gianinni, Aaron McKie replaces Fran Dunphy and Zach Spiker replaces Bruiser Flint…
Just gotta get the right guy in there and we’ll be alright… So they think…
In this way, the Philly basketball community has developed a collective messiah complex. There has emerged a state of mind in which the alums, fans and athletic directors hold a belief that the “new coaches” – Lange, Howard, McKie and Spiker – are destined to become a program savior today or in the near future.
There is widespread failure to recognize the “new normal” in college basketball. College basketball fans in Philly, for the most part, haven’t accepted the fact that things are very different now. These days, there are the High Major (Power 5) programs and the there’s everyone else. The Big East teams and programs like Memphis, Gonzaga and Wichita State that pay coaches $3 million+ per year are included in the high major category. The mid-major category is rapidly shrinking.
The gap that Coach Ross referred to twenty years ago will soon disappear altogether. Pay attention to the boxscores, Wagner defeated VCU… Lipscomb whooped Dayton… We shouldn’t be surprised…
All across the country, shrewd coaches are trying to find 2 or 3 hungry 22-24 year old transfers and/or graduate students with some eligibility left. They can come in and play right away… The hope is that you can assemble a crew with something to prove that is willing to put the blunts down and focus on winning for 5 months. If so, you can make a run.
Today, Drexel and Delaware are better basketball programs than La Salle and St. Joseph’s. Them levels that used to exist don’t really mean shit these days.