Mike Lonergan was stuck with a label seven years ago. The risk to get rid of it paid off in the last week.
The temptation, of course, is to focus solely on the where. Lonergan grew up in Bowie, played at Catholic and was the coach there for a dozen seasons. He was a natural target for new Colonials athletic director Patrick Nero, who fired Karl Hobbs last month.
Yet the roots of this move ultimately date to 2004, when Lonergan grew weary of limited interest from Division I programs. Sure, he’d won 251 games and the 2001 national title at Catholic. For career advancement purposes, it meant little.
So he left to become an assistant at Maryland when a job with the Terrapins became available. Within a year, Vermont scooped him up. The lower-division tag was gone.
“I thought it was a little bit of a gamble,” Lonergan said. “My fear was I’d go over there and coach [Gary] Williams would retire in the next couple years and then what would I do then? But I knew it would change my resume. I don’t think it’s right the way things are, that you get labeled a Division III coach. All the sudden what I did at Catholic meant more when I had a Maryland assistant title to my name.”
Indirectly, it also eventually opened the door to taking over at George Washington.
Lonergan was 126-68 at Vermont and reached the NCAA tournament in 2010. Combined with his work at Catholic and his local ties, the success at the America East school made him appealing to a George Washington program hardly in need of massive rebuilding.
“I’ve always talked about this as being my dream job, being in the nation’s capital, my favorite city in the world,” Lonergan said.
“With all the serious candidates we looked at, that was key to me - that they understood what GW represented as a university and shared with me that it was something we could sell recruits on and we would respect,” Nero said.
Perhaps Lonergan’s initial recruits are the ones already in the program. Forward Dwayne Smith and swingman Aaron Ware said they would be back next season, and Ware said he believed “everyone will be back.”
George Washington was 17-14 a season ago, tying for fourth in the Atlantic 10 despite a season-ending injury to Lasan Kromah during practice in October. But the Colonials averaged just 1,788 fans in 16 home games and have not made the NCAA tournament since 2007. Nero opted for a change less than a week after his hire.
It created a wild two weeks for GW’s players, who have gone from stunned their old coach was gone to welcoming a new one in a span of less than two weeks.
“Almost in a blink of an eye,” said Ware, a rising senior. “As you know, this is a business. Of course, it was difficult letting coach Hobbs go, but at the same time it is a business. I think change sometimes can be great, and coach Lonergan is a tough, hard-nosed coach. He comes from a great background.”
The significance of the former is obvious. The value of the latter only grew once he made perhaps his biggest professional gamble.
And now, it’s helped bring him home, too.