April 2018 was a busy month in the Philadelphia college basketball circles… On April 8, Ashley Howard was named Head Coach of the proud La Salle Explorer men’s basketball program. Three days later and a couple miles south on Broad Street, Aaron McKie was promoted to Associate Head Coach of the Temple Owls men’s program. McKie would eventually become Head Coach of the Owls a year later, on April 3, 2019.
Black Cager Sports was elated with these developments. Howard was the Jackie Robinson of La Salle University Basketball. For the first time in the long and illustrious history of the Explorer program, a Black man was the face of the program. Temple, on the other hand, was continuing a well established pattern of giving highly qualified Blacks an opportunity to serve in leadership positions in both the university administration and within the athletic department. April 2018 was a wonderful month for those committed to diversity in local college athletics.
Fast forward to tonight… How are they doing?
Howard, now in his fourth season as Head Coach, brought his guys down Broad Street to face McKie (3rd season) and the Owls.
The ultimate local boy makes good stories, Howard and McKie both have impeccable Philly resumes. Howard started his scholastic career at St. Joseph’s Prep and finished at Bonner. He was firmly entrenched as Drexel’s point guard when health concerns ended his playing days. Howard immediately discovered his passion for learning and teaching the game of basketball. He spent a couple years as a student coach under James “Bruiser” Flint.
Howard started his professional coaching journey at La Salle after graduating from Drexel. He served as an assistant to John Giannini until 2008 when he joined the staff of Bruiser Flint at his alma mater. In 2012, he joined Chris Mack’s staff at Xavier University. After one year with Xavier, Howard spent five years as an assistant to Hall of Fame Coach Jay Wright at Villanova. The Wildcats won a pair of National Championships while Howard was on the staff.
McKie is the consummate Public League product. After a wonderful scholastic career playing for Bill Ellerbee at Simon Gratz, he enrolled at Temple to play for the late Hall of Fame Coach, John Chaney. Once he served a year in Prop 48 purgatory, McKie embarked a magnificent career at Temple. He played in the NCAA Tournament all three years and reached the Elite 8 in 1993. That same season, McKie was name A10 Player of the Year.
McKie came into coaching at the NBA level. He was a five-year assistant (2007-2013) on the Philadelphia 76ers staff and helped lead the franchise to four NBA playoff appearances. Returning to his beloved Owls, McKie served five seasons on Fran Dunphy’s. His last year he was promoted to associate head coach. In 2018-29, the Owls went 23-10, earned an NCAA Tournament berth and tied for third in the American Athletic Conference after being picked to finish sixth. Temple had three 20 win seasons in McKie’s five years on the staff. The Owls also went to the NCAA Tournament twice and to the NIT Semifinals in 2015.
Like I said, impeccable Philly resumes…
So… How are these guys performing as Head Coaches?
Since taking over, Howard is 36-56 (.391) overall and 20-33 (.377) in the A10. McKie is 23-31 (.426) overall and 10-22 (.313) in the AAC.
La Salle Coaches Winning Percentages
Speedy Morris – .540 overall and .571 in league
John Giannini – .484 overall and .431 in league
Ashley Howard – .391 overall and .377 in league
Billy Hahn – .389 overall and .333 in league
Temple Coaches Winning Percentages
John Chaney – .671 overall and .747 in league
Fran Dunphy .625 overall and .632 in league
Aaron McKie .426 overall and .313 in league
Howard has a lower winning percentage than Speedy Morris and John Giannini. His overall winning percentage is virtually the same as that of Billy Hahn. Over the course of 15 seasons, Coach Morris won 238 games. A closer look reveals the fact that 100 of those wins came in his first four seasons with Lionel Simmons wearing an Explorer uniform, The other 138 came over 11 seasons without Lionel Simmons.
The take away?
It’s hard as shit to win at La Salle if you don’t have Lionel Simmons.
While La Salle plays in a multi-bid A10 Conference, it’s facilities are obsolete. Think about this… Monmouth, Coppin State, Towson, Bucknell, Delaware and JMU all have basketball arenas and modern practice facilities that are much more attractive than Tom Gola Arena and TruMark Financial Center.
La Salle’s campus is also less than idyllic. Located a stone’s throw away from the bustling Olney Transportation Center, La Salle’s students and faculties are definitely “hood” adjacent, if not squarely in the hood.
La Salle is a tough sell… It’s hard to win college games… sustained winning at La Salle seems damn near impossible. Over the past 30 seasons, La Salle has made two (2) NCAA Tournament appearances and two (2) NIT appearances.
Coach Morris finished below .500 in each of his last 8 seasons. Coach Hahn never got above .500 in 3 seasons. Giannini didn’t make his first post-season appearance until his 8th season and his lone NCAA tournament came in his 9th year at La Salle.
The expectation was that some of that magic Nova dust was gonna be sprinkled at 20th and Olney. The uptick has yet to begin. Now, in the fourth year of the Howard regime, some fans and alums are becoming vocal in expressing their dissatisfaction.
The Temple tradition is much different.
From the early 1980s all the way through the early 2000’s Temple was widely considered one of the top 15-20 college basketball programs in the nation. Under Coach Chaney, the Owls made 5 Elite 8 appearances. Temple made 17 NCAA Tournament appearances in 18 years spanning 1983-2001. Coach Chaney had a (barely) losing record (14-15) his first year. He then had a winning record for 23 straight seasons after that.
Over course of his 13 year run as Head Coach, Dunphy had 2 losing seasons. He won over 20 games 9 times and over 25 on 3 occasions. Dunphy led the Owls to 8 NCAA Tournament appearances and 2 NIT appearances.
Unlike La Salle, Temple has a modern on campus arena and a state-of-the-art practice facility. Temple’s campus is minutes away from Center City and has undergone a massive transformation in recent years.
On the downside, Temple’s affiliation with the American Athletic Conference is not a strong selling point for the basketball program. Games against North Texas and UAB are not exciting to Philly, North Jersey and PG County kids. But, perhaps, the largest impediment to attracting top flight talent to North Broad Street is the growing perception that the campus is unsafe. Temple is proximate to low income/high crime residential districts. Over the past week or so, two brutal murders have gained national media attention.
But… Temple has always been in “Norf” Philly…
It’s location has never stopped the winning on the court. Temple fans expect to win and make the NCAA tournament every year. These are reasonable expectations for the 5th winningest program in the history of college basketball.
As it stands, Howard and McKie are underperforming. They are not meeting nor are they exceeding the lofty expectations that were bandied about in the heady days of April 2018.
It’s still early in this current season. Howard has the Explorers off to an inauspicious 2-4 start. They have lost to Sacred Heart at home, Delaware in Newark, Villanova at the Palestra and Temple on North Broad. They won two home games against Albany and Army.
The Explorers have 5 non-conference games before they begin the tough A10 regular season. Holy Cross, Fairleigh Dickinson, Penn, Bucknell and Drexel represent challenging but winnable games for La Salle. If they can find a way to go 5-0 or 4-1 over this stretch, Howard will go a long toward reassuring increasingly restless fans and alums.
In order to stop the bleeding, the Explorers have to start making baskets. As Philly Basketball impresario Sam Rines is fond of saying, “the objective of the game is to put the ball in the hole.” La Salle put on a woeful shooting display at the Liacouris Center. Clifton Moore (2-10), Josh Nickleberry (0-7), Khalil Brantley (1-12) and Jack Clark (2-11) combined to shoot 5 for 40 from the field. Fuck you gonna do with that? Impossible… Can’t beat anyone shooting at that clip… Howard has to figure out a way to put these guys in position to have some success, the kids have to start knocking down some shots… sooner rather than later.
Sitting at 4-3, McKie and the Owls are set to play Penn at home, at Vanderbilt, at St. Joseph’s, UCF at home, Drexel at home, Delaware State at home and then at Villanova. A 6-1 or 5-2 stretch would reinvigorate fans and alums that seem to be taking a wait and see approach to this years version of the Owls.
The matchup with Penn is intriguing. Steve Donahue has more than held his own since taking over the Quaker program. Temple will be a solid favorite against a struggling St. Joe’s squad. The game with Drexel is looking like the Battle for 2nd place in the City 6. Temple should take care of Delaware State and then they will have a chance to get measure themselves against Big Bro from the Main Line. Howard’s hill is a much steeper climb than McKie’s. Everyone is watching and gauging their progress. Been doing so since April 2018.