- The Washington Times - Monday, May 9, 2011

In its search for a men’s basketball coach, George Washington scoured the nation - looked under every rock and discarded game program - before finally settling on a guy from … Bowie. OK, so Mike Lonergan was running things at Vermont when GW came calling; but he grew up just off Route 50 (at 2908 Traymore Lane, to be exact), played at Archbishop Carroll and Catholic University, where he later coached, and even spent a season as one of Gary Williams’ assistants at Maryland.

His six years in Burlington, Vt., aside, Lonergan couldn’t be more of a local. He also couldn’t be a better fit for the Colonials, who are trying to recapture the lost grandeur of the Mike Jarvis era. Unlike most new coaches, Lonergan won’t need any time to adjust or get acclimated. He’ll hit the ground running - figuratively speaking, at least. (Literally speaking, he’s still getting around on crutches after having the cartilage in his left knee attended to.)

Some hires just feel right. This one certainly does. At his introductory news conference Monday at the Smith Center, Lonergan reminisced about hopping on Metro when he was a student at Catholic, taking the Red Line to the Blue Line to Foggy Bottom, and going to GW games.

His coach at CU, Jack Bruen, “was friends with [then-Colonials coach] Gerry Gimelstob,” he said, “and he’d leave me tickets. What I most remember is watching my childhood hero, coach Red Auerbach [the school’s most famous basketball alum], up in the stands watching the games. I grew up a Celtics fan because my parents were both from New England. I probably watched him more than the games.” Later, he confided: “I probably shouldn’t say this, but sometimes he nodded off.”

Lonergan didn’t, though. He studied the game like the self-described “gym rat” he’s always been. As a kid, he dreamed of playing in the NBA, as all young players do, but Bruen knew his point guard’s future lay elsewhere.

“Jack called me up one time and said, ‘I got a guy,’ ” said Jack Kvancz, GW’s outgoing athletic director. “‘He thinks he’s going to be a [pro] player, and he’s not. But he’s going to be a heck of a coach.’ “

Bruen was right. Of course, Lonergan had been tutored from the cradle by his mother, Maureen, “my first coach” - and also a coach and AD at Bladensburg’s Elizabeth Seton High School, where a playing field is named after her. That was about the only thing that wasn’t perfect about Monday’s festivities, that his mom and Bruen, his mentor, weren’t alive to share the moment with him.

Lonergan figures he’s known since he was “in eighth grade” that he wanted, at some point, to be a coach. It was then “my godmother gave me a book, ‘From Orphans to Champions,’ by [DeMatha legend] Morgan Wootten, who I talked to yesterday and is one of my mentors. … My goal has always been to coach in Division I at, really, the highest level, and at a school where I believe in the product. To me, the product has to include high-level academics, and that is definitely the case here.”

Still, Hollywood endings like this - landing your “dream job,” and going home to boot - are rare in coaching. Indeed, after Lonergan took over the Catholic program at 26 and led the Cardinals to a Division III title and national prominence in the next 12 seasons, he worried that he might be permanently “labeled a Division III head coach.” So he apprenticed himself to Williams for a year, and that changed everything. That led to Vermont, to 126 wins in six seasons, and now to George Washington, which has been an NCAA tournament team in the past but has stumbled in recent seasons under Karl Hobbs.

When you hire Lonergan, by the way, it’s a package deal. You also get his wife/confidant/”co-coach” Maggie, the erstwhile Catholic women’s coach. They met at Wootten’s basketball camp, where they were both working, and Mike, I’m guessing, threw his very best behind-the-back pass at her. He called her “probably the best coach in our household,” and the two of them watch game tapes together and exchange ideas.

“He gets a lot of advice from me,” she said with a smile. “He doesn’t always take it, but he listens to it.”

Some of Lonergan’s friends wondered, after he became successful at Vermont, if he might have been “too choosy” about the jobs that came his way, he said. Before GW called, he interviewed for only one - Seton Hall a year ago. (Kevin Willard beat him out.) But he knew what he was looking for, and he found it with the Colonials. In Washington, after all, he knows the turf, every square inch of it, and feels confident he can make GW relevant again in the Atlantic 10.

His dad, Jack, still lives in Bowie, three of his four sisters live there - almost all of his family, along with many lifelong friends, are in the immediate area. As for his own housing plans, “I’m tryin’ to fight for Bowie,” he said. “But my wife, I don’t know …”

So ends our story, the story of a university that went looking for a basketball coach and found one in its backyard. Or rather, it’s the end of one story and the beginning of another.

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