- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 28, 2007

A victory would have made everything happen: an NCAA tournament berth, millions in donations from untapped alumni, attention for an often-forgotten program in Northwest.

The American Eagles were 1:30 away from the first NCAA berth in school history, leading Holy Cross 51-50 in the waning minutes of the 2002 Patriot League championship game. A league-record crowd of 4,521 jammed AU’s Bender Arena, ready to erupt.

But the celebration never took place. American couldn’t hold on to what would have been the greatest victory in school history, and the Crusaders became the first team in nine seasons to win the conference title on the road.

As for the NCAA berth, the flood of money from boosters, the respect, the attention — well, the Eagles are still waiting.

“The first year we were right there in the Patriot League title game,” said Ron Vogel, a 1972 graduate of American and a courtside season-ticket holder for 12 years. “It was packed, and it was wonderful. You could see the potential.”

Potential it remains. Crowds have increased only mildly from the 2002 season — American averaged 1,808 this season — and AU still is seeking that elusive first NCAA berth. If anything, the Eagles seem further from that goal in their seventh season under coach Jeff Jones.

Conference opponents Bucknell and Lehigh made the NCAA tournament the past three seasons. American, meanwhile, finished .500 in the league for the second straight year and has lost all 13 meetings with Holy Cross, Bucknell and Lehigh since the beginning of last season.

The Eagles (15-13, 7-7 Patriot League) get another chance at an NCAA berth starting tonight when they play host to fifth-seeded Colgate in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament. If the Eagles advance, they likely will have to win two road games — probably at top seed Holy Cross and second-seeded Bucknell — to reach March Madness.

“We certainly felt that while Holy Cross and Bucknell for sure were going to be competitive, we felt the league would be better, which it has been,” said the 46-year-old Jones, who has a resume full of narrow losses. “We thought we would have a chance to be in that mix for the top spot. We have been close [in games], but close doesn’t get it.”

And the buzz of that day in Bender five years ago is long gone.

“Not much has changed since before that game,” said Vogel, who likes Jones and helps support AU athletics through his Booeymonger restaurants. “You need to win and get some press. You need to win in order to get a fan base.”

Patriot gains?

American was a charter member of the Colonial Athletic Association in 1985-86 but left in 2001 after five consecutive losing seasons in the conference and 10 straight overall. AU exited as one of the lowest-funded programs and with one of the smallest facilities in the conference.

Athletes and students protested the downward move in competition, but AU’s administration saw it as a switch to a more academic league that better fit the school. The move also seemed to drastically improve the Eagles’ chances of making the NCAA tournament.

AU also entered the Patriot with one distinct advantage: scholarships. American and Holy Cross, at the time, were the only schools among the eight in the league to offer athletic scholarships. Thus, it was no surprise American and Holy Cross met for the title in 2002 and ‘03.

That advantage faded, however. Bucknell and Lehigh soon began giving scholarships, and Colgate and Lafayette have followed suit.

In the Eagles’ last trip to the title game in 2004, American lost to host Lehigh 59-57. Bucknell built a new arena and now is the class of the league, winner of the last two championships.

“Certainly schools like Bucknell and Lehigh, in terms of scholarships and other things, have really made the commitment,” said Jones, whose team lost by two twice to Lehigh this season and in overtime to Holy Cross. “They have basically said, ‘We want to be competitive.’ ”

And they have made the league such as a result. While American generally has dominated bottom teams such as Army and Navy, it hasn’t been able to solve the league’s top trio. The Eagles finished third with an 8-6 conference mark in 2005 and have posted consecutive 7-7 records in league play the last two seasons.

“I thought the ingredients were there last year, and the year before that and the year before that,” said senior guard Andre Ingram, who averages a team-high 15 points and makes 42.8 percent of his 3-pointers. “I would never say we didn’t have the team to do it. It is just a matter of doing it.”

With four starting seniors and six on scholarship, this seems to be the season to which AU has been pointing. The team has no freshmen, is loaded with sophomores and has only one junior.

Constant transition

Athletic director Lee McElroy hired Jones, the former Virginia coach, in April 2000. McElroy left soon after Jones’ hiring and was succeeded by Tom George, Dan Radakovich and Joni Comstock, the last of whom resigned last summer to become an NCAA vice president. The school is still searching for a successor.

“Anytime you get stability you can start to build,” said Jones, who liked the direction, particularly in fundraising, with Comstock.

The department eliminated men’s and women’s tennis and men’s golf the past few years, moves expected to save some $520,000 annually. Some believed that if the basketball team — which has a budget of more than $1 million — had more success and generated more revenue, the cuts might have been avoided.

Jones’ hefty contract further hindered a financially strapped department.

George gave Jones a lucrative contract that pays him $250,000 a year, according to sources close to the program. George felt it was shrewd investment in a successful and money-making future.

The deal, however, is considered exceptionally high for a low-major program that had never reached the NCAA tournament. Most low mid-major coaches make between $110,000 and $150,000. Chris Knoche made $53,000 in 1996-97, his final season as coach.

“That’s amazing to me,” said a Division I coach at a similar mid-major program who asked not to be identified. “Jeff Jones did a great job of turning [three] straight trips to the conference championship game into a lucrative contract. But I don’t know what happened to them since.”

The constant fluctuation also alienated many former AU athletes, who feel little connection to the athletic department. Kermit Washington is the best-known athlete in school history, a player who in 1973 became the program’s only first-team All-American selection by averaging 21 points and 21 rebounds a game.

“I don’t go back much,” said Washington, who played at AU for Washington Wizards assistant coach Tom Young. “I don’t know anybody. I haven’t had much contact with Jeff Jones. I hope they do well, but I couldn’t name one guy on the team. I live in a different world. I see my number up there [in the rafters], but it’s not me anymore. It’s just my number.”

Change in recruiting

Jones began with players left to him by coach Art Perry, players recruited for CAA competition. Some, like center Patrick Doctor, thrived in the new league. Many, however, were in academic danger. Now, while the basketball program struggles, its players excel in the classroom.

Once settled, the new coach fully utilized a connection to Eastern Europe: AU now has three seniors from Lithuania in starting point guard Linas Lekavicius, starting center Paulius Joneliunas and top reserve guard Arvydas Eitutavicius. The other international player on the roster is 6-foot-9 center Cornelio Guibunda, a Georgetown transfer and native of Mozambique.

However, they might be among the last overseas players at AU.

“We found a niche recruiting-wise with international students, because it fit our school,” Jones said. “The school decided to do away with [English as a Second Language]. In conjunction with that and the restrictions from 9-11 on student visas, they have really heightened and upgraded requirements.”

The ESL program allowed students to become proficient in English while working toward degrees.

The foreign names are not the only thing that stick out on the roster. The team only boasts two local players: top reserve Travis Lay, a 6-foot-5 junior who played at Bullis School in Potomac, and DeMatha product Jordan Nichols, a 6-5 sophomore who sees little action.

“We would like to crack the local market,” said Jones, who has as many players from Washington state as he does the D.C. area. “Those kids, particularly from the Catholic league, get recruited all over the country. When you are talking about the kind of students we are looking for, you are talking about not only top basketball programs, [but] you are also competing with top academic institutions.

“The Ivy League recruits very hard down here. It is very competitive. It is something we would like to and probably should do better. I’m not sure if that’s the right word. We would like more of those kids.”

Moving forward

The sparse crowds at Bender likely will continue as the program tries to find its spot in a busy basketball town in the shadow of Maryland, Georgetown, George Washington and even George Mason.

American now is a moderately successful program that is run well, graduates its players and competes in anonymity. Jones said he was not necessarily brought in to take the program to the NCAA tournament.

“Yes and no,” Jones said. “I was brought here ultimately to build the program. I think we have taken some very successful steps to doing that. Not just in terms of winning games, but in the big picture. Is it frustrating that we haven’t? Is it disappointing? Yeah. I would be a bald-face liar if I said otherwise.”

The few diehard fans still long to hear the school’s name called on Selection Sunday. The university downgraded leagues, hired a big-name coach and gave him a sizable contract in an effort to fulfill that wish.

But recent results suggest that moment is getting further away, not closer.

“I have to stay optimistic,” Vogel said. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t keep going. One day before I [die], they have to make it.”

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