Mike Lonergan left Vermont’s Patrick Gymnasium with a memento of a championship season earlier this year.
It just happened to be earned by his wife, Maggie, an assistant coach for the Rice Memorial High School girls team.
“In our gym, she cut the net down and threw me a piece,” Mike Lonergan said. “Everybody was watching it because we didn’t cut the nets down this year.”
Two months later, Lonergan agreed to take over George Washington’s program. In the process, the Colonials got two coaches for the price of one.
Lonergan’s D.C. roots are well-established. He played at Archbishop Carroll and Catholic University, later coached Catholic to the 2001 Division III national title and spent a year as an assistant at Maryland. Yet his partnership with his wife is an especially strong facet in his success.
Maggie Lonergan was a college coach herself and piloted the Catholic women’s program while her husband was still at the Division III school. The two had a deal: If one received a Division I head coaching job, the other would pause their own career. In 2005, Mike took over at Vermont.
Maggie Lonergan left Catholic, but she never stepped away from basketball. She was the director of Mike’s basketball camp at Vermont and coached their son’s AAU team. On game days, she was a presence in the stands.
“During the game, I can hear her,” Lonergan said. “She’ll say ‘Hey, they’ve got five team fouls, get the ball inside.’ She’s very good with things like that because when you’re on the bench everybody’s going crazy, but she sees a lot of stuff. My hope is she can unofficially help [at George Washington] in a lot of ways. She definitely knows basketball. She’s probably better a coach than I am.”
“Absolutely not,” Maggie Lonergan said. “He’s correct.”
Mike Lonergan, though, is an accomplished hire for the Colonials, who have not won an Atlantic 10 tournament game since 2007. George Washington was 17-14 a season ago but defeated only three teams that finished with winning records.
Lonergan, meanwhile, has 377 wins in 18 seasons as a college coach and averaged 21 wins in six years at Vermont. It wasn’t the easiest job. Lonergan took over after graduation wiped out much of the roster of a team that made three straight NCAA tournament appearances. Plus, Vermont wasn’t especially close to a large collection of talent.
There were frustrations. But there also was another coach at home to keep Lonergan grounded.
“When we didn’t play up to expectations and we didn’t win, I think he was always very good,” said GW assistant Hajj Turner, who also worked with Lonergan at Vermont. “She lets him vent and then calms him down and reminds him that we’re coaching great kids and they’re playing hard and it’s not the end of the world.”
There’s more than simply maintaining perspective at work. When Lonergan came home while at Vermont, he’d often start analyzing film. Maggie would join him, ensuring two sets of eyes were scouring practice and game tape in a shared experience that was fun rather than a chore.
“I think they’re both junkies,” said Robert Morris assistant Matt Hahn, a former Vermont assistant. “I’ve never seen anything like it. A lot of folks, myself included, when we get home, we try to separate the basketball. But coach gets a double dose. I think that they’ve been like that for a while, and I think they really help each other. They have a unique relationship that’s really special.”
Now they’ve boomeranged back to the District. Mike had long appreciated the potential of George Washington. The school is a member of the Atlantic 10, a league that routinely sends two or three teams to the NCAA tournament, and is in an area where productive players are easily accessible.
Lonergan only interviewed for one other job (Seton Hall) while he was at Vermont, and it was starting to seem as if he might remain in New England. Then new George Washington athletic director Patrick Nero fired Karl Hobbs less than a week after taking over in Foggy Bottom, creating an opportunity for both Lonergans to return.
“She really wanted to take this job almost more than I did,” Lonergan said. “She knows basketball well and she felt Vermont, we had done great things but it was a really difficult job. She just felt ‘How much longer can you win 25 games a year?’ “
The new challenge is to do so at George Washington, beginning with Friday’s opener at the Smith Center against Maryland-Eastern Shore.
“Vermont was a great place, but this is home for him,” Maggie Lonergan said. “It’s been really neat to see the excitement back. I hate to say this, but it just seemed to get a little stale at Vermont and I worried he’d lost that hunger, and it was back when we went through the process of the interview. It’s great just see him energized again.”
That excitement could one day lead Lonergan to cut down a net as the Colonials’ coach. If so, it’s safe to say that moment will be a family affair like so many others in his career.