- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Anthony Solomon was presented with a brick after St. Bonaventure won its basketball season opener last month.

The well-weathered block was from a building constructed at the small Catholic university in 1930. It now sits on Solomon’s desk, a daily reminder that he is charged with laying the foundation for a basketball program he found in rubble.

“And that’s where we are,” said Solomon, in his first season as coach of the Bonnies. “We are putting the pieces back together brick by brick. But excited about doing it.”

It has been eight tough months since St. Bonaventure was rocked by a cheating scandal involving a junior-college transfer who was admitted and allowed to play with a welding certificate rather than an associate’s degree.

The team’s season ended prematurely and under immense scrutiny: St. Bonaventure was forced to forfeit six Atlantic 10 Conference victories, was banned from the conference tournament and decided on its own not to play its final two regular-season games.

The scandal cost the university’s president, athletic director and basketball coach their jobs. It turned tragic in August, when the chairman of the university’s Board of Trustees, Bill Swan, hanged himself in his basement.

The program was decimated, the coaching staff was gone. Two players transferred and two recruits rescinded their commitments. The tightly knit community in Olean, N.Y., was shattered. The changes in administration and the passage of time hasn’t healed the wounds.

“The offseason was real long,” said senior guard Marques Green, one of six returning scholarship players.

Last month the Bonnies played their first game since the scandal and beat Robert Morris 78-76 at home before a packed house of 5,311. The win was relevant but in many ways insignificant. The horrors of last season were officially, if not emotionally, over after the cathartic moment of getting back on the basketball court.

“The first game was needed by everyone,” said Solomon, an energetic 38-year-old. “It allowed everyone to finally let it out — the cheers, the screams. It was needed. It was time. We needed that first game because the memories from the past season were not good memories. To have that first game out of the way was really a big step in our marching forward into the future.”

However, St. Bonaventure won’t be able to fully move ahead until next month when the NCAA is expected to deliver sanctions. The penalties are expected to be minor because the school was proactive in cleaning up the situation, including the dismissal of president Robert Wickenheiser, who approved the use of the ineligible player.

St. Bonaventure brings a 4-4 record into tonight’s game at George Mason. There have been some bright spots for the Bonnies this season. They were within four points of defending national champion Syracuse in the second half before eventually falling by nine. There was an overtime loss to Niagara in which 5-foot-7 dynamo Marques Green had 43 points, the most by a Bonnies’ player in a quarter century.

But all in all it’s been a long road since last winter.

The school, located 70 miles south of Buffalo, became a national punchline after Jamil Terrell was deemed ineligible because he held a welding certificate instead of the requisite associate’s degree. Then came the six forfeited conference wins in which Terrell participated, two more forfeited games when the players decided not to play and a ban from the A-10 tournament.

The Bonnies were vilified in the national press for what was seen as a self-serving decision. The move cost the league television money and gate receipts and put St. Bonaventure’s A-10 membership in jeopardy. League officials decided against such a radical punishment, but the school did reimburse the league and the University of Massachusetts, which lost a home game, for lost revenue.

Athletic director Gothard Lane and coach Jan van Breda Kolff were dismissed along with assistant coach Kort Wickenheiser, the president’s son. Solomon, who spent the past three seasons as an assistant at Notre Dame, was brought in to restore order.

“I did my research,” Solomon said. “I had some very good advisers that talked to me about the positives of the job and then some concerns of the job. But I felt like the positives outweighed everything else.”

One of those offering guidance was George Mason coach Jim Larranaga, who gave Solomon his first full-time assistant’s job at Bowling Green in 1989. The Patriots coach also was an assistant at Virginia when Solomon played there for three seasons. Solomon walked onto the 1983-84 Cavaliers’ Final Four team and eventually earned a scholarship.

“You can’t look at it like other people do,” said Larranaga, who feels Solomon’s attitude and work ethic make him the perfect fit to turn around the Bonnies. “Eventually those issues will be resolved. It is still an Atlantic 10 coaching job. … He has already given them a vision for the future, instilled some discipline and hired a good staff.”

Solomon’s first role as crisis manager was to restock a depleted roster. He inherited only six scholarships players (the NCAA limit is 13). He added three players over the summer and now fields a team with 10 players, including one walk-on. It has been a challenge, particularly with a flu epidemic and several injuries. In one practice, three managers and an assistant coach were needed to run 5-on-5 drills.

“We have probably done more 3-on-3 and 4-on-4 drills than anybody in the country,” Solomon said. “We may be the best 3-on-3 team in the country. Except when the lights come on, we have to play 5-on-5.”

The new coach has gone out of his way to talk with alumni groups and other supporters who may have felt alienated. He has provided stability and signed two recruits for next season.

St. Bonaventure’s miseries — as well as the countless welding jokes — may have finally subsided. It has been an exceptionally long offseason in Olean, but now there appears to be hope.

“There is not time to dwell on the past,” said Solomon, who sees restoring trust within the program as a priority. “The things from the past, if we learn from those situations, can help us in the future. I have always had to work for everything I have been able to accomplish in my life. Here we are now beating the bushes and trying to take steps in the right direction. I have never shied away from challenges.”

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