- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 14, 2001

Mike Lonergan exercised considerable restraint after the Catholic University basketball team defeated the University of Albany in the second game of the season.

Lonergan did not gloat. He did not celebrate. He reminded himself to be professional as he went to shake the hand of Albany coach Scott Beeten after the game.

Deep down, though, Lonergan was dancing in the aisles, letting it rip. This one was too much, almost overwhelming. This was a moment to squeeze for all it was worth. He wanted to say, "Take that, Albany." But no, that wouldn't be right, so he tried to put on his best poker face. Maybe a small smile creased his face. He cannot recall. He acted as if he had expected his Division III team to beat the Division I independent, although it really wasn't about that.

It was personal with Lonergan. That could have been his basketball program after he was interviewed for the Albany coaching job last July. In hindsight, even if he had been offered the job, maybe he wouldn't have left Catholic anyway. Who knows what he would have done?

He has built something special in his nine seasons at Catholic, one of the jewels of Division III basketball, and no matter what, it would not have been easy to leave the place. Catholic defines who he is in large part. He was the star point guard there in the '80s under the late Jack Bruen. His local roots are deep. He was born in Silver Spring and played at Archbishop Carroll High School.

He married a girl from Mount St. Mary's College. Maggie Meagher was a pretty good basketball player herself in college. They dated seven years before exchanging marital vows in Honesdale, Pa., three years ago. Mount St. Mary's College is another messy story. He'll get to that later.

Lonergan is not certain he would have taken the Albany job. He could make the argument either way. It was a Division I job, with the full complement of 13 athletic scholarships. The six-figure salary was appealing as well, no question.

But a coach can die professionally in a Division I program like Albany's. One night, in a tournament in New Britain, Conn., a coach at Albany can find himself being humbled by a nonscholarship outfit from the nation's capital.

Maybe the Albany job was about being validated. Maybe it was about the athletic director there inspecting the impeccable record of this up-and-coming hot shot and saying, "We've got to have this guy. We don't need another assistant hack from a Division I program. We need a proven leader, a guy who already has done it."

Lonergan did not mention any of this to the Albany Times Union reporter who was at the game. He did not tell the reporter that he was fighting to maintain his dignity and composure. He did not tell the reporter that he burst into tears after leaving the gym.

Instead, Lonergan told the reporter this: "I don't want to call it poetic justice, because coach Beeten's a great coach. But I'd like to show the people at Albany that, hey, we have a great program here. It would have taken a lot of courage to hire a Division III guy. I feel bad for [Beeten], but I know he's going to do a good job."

The Albany Great Danes went 5-21 this season, and Lonergan is readying the Cardinals to play in the Final Four in Salem, Va., this weekend.

The Cardinals are 26-5, their fourth consecutive 20-win season, and the 35-year-old Lonergan is measuring where he is now against where he could have been. Life is funny like that.

No, he was not offered the Albany job, but look how it has turned out. He is still working amid the sound of bouncing basketballs at the Raymond DuFour Center off Michigan Avenue. He is thinking about what this weekend could be. This is not his most talented team. But this team gosh, he loves this team has found that undefinable quality, that beautiful thing.

As a coach, you're not always sure what it is. You just know it when you see it. You just know, when you sift through the 26 victories, that you have won nine games by five or fewer points. That is no accident. Flop those games the other way and the record is 17-14.

Really, though, what does Lonergan know? He is a Division III coach, only a Division III coach. Never mind his 175-74 career record and six tournament appearances. Never mind this season, the best in the program's 90-season history. Never mind that basketball, away from the hype, is a 94-foot floor with two hoops at opposite ends. He has the stigma of Division III attached to his name.

Lonergan didn't get the job at American University, either. It went to Jeff Jones instead. The Colgate job could have been his after Bruen passed away in 1997. But you needed to be a miracle-worker in Hamilton, N.Y. The Patriot League schools were moving to athletic scholarships, while Colgate remained resistant to the change, thinking it could continue to attract quality student-athletes on the basis of its Ivy League-like reputation. Lonergan recognized the folly of that. He wanted some semblance of a level playing field, not just the cachet of Division I, and as it turns out, Colgate has been nowhere since Bruen passed away.

Lonergan envisioned a different jump to Division I anyway. In his mind, he was leading the Mount St. Mary's College basketball program in Emmitsburg, Md., building a powerhouse in that vast stretch of nothingness on Route 15 between Frederick and Gettysburg, Pa. In his mind, when he filled in the blanks, he was the successor to Jim Phelan and his wife, the former Maggie Meagher, was the coach of the women's program.

That is where they met, in Emmitsburg 10 years ago, one night at the Ott House after a day of working the summer basketball camps. She beat him in pool. No, he beat her in pool. Well, it depends on who's telling the story.

Meagher was next in line to be the coach of the women's basketball team in 1998, or so she was led to believe by Bill Sheahan, who was retiring as coach. She had her master's degree by then and three seasons on the bench as an assistant coach. She had no real competition for the job, except for the team's inexperienced second assistant, Vanessa Blair.

This was a done deal, a no-brainer in the parlance of basketballspeak, but athletic departments do not always function in the prism of hard logic, and they particularly don't in women's basketball.

Meagher did not learn she was not the chosen one until the day of the press conference to announce the new coach, and it was then that she realized athletic director Chappy Menninger was not only wrong with his decision but gutless as well.

The school bought out Meagher's contract, and she bounced over to American for a season, and three years and two children later, she and her husband remain somewhat astonished by the convuluted thought process in evidence at the Division I level.

"I guess in anything there are politics," Lonergan says. "I don't know if she was the wrong complexion or if it was because she was four months' pregnant, but I know the decision was a joke and it did not reflect the thinking of the Mount St. Mary's community overall."

Mount St. Mary's was the dream a few years ago. Now it is just another low Division I school that has put up its basketballs for the season and has received no return from opting to live with the convicted 72-stitch slasher, Melvin Whitaker.

They are still playing basketball at Catholic University.

Albany, American, Mount St. Mary's. They are done, finished, in the throes of a premature offseason, spinning their disappointments however is necessary.

Let them spin. Lonergan and the Cardinals are practicing one last time today before making the 244-mile trip to Salem. Their next game is Friday, the biggest in school history, and Lonergan is soaking it up.

It is just too good, too sweet on so many levels.

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