John Mateyko enjoyed his day job as a financial adviser for 30 years, but his ambition was to be a full-time college basketball coach. He spent 13 years part-time at Division III St. Joseph's, always hoping for a full-time opportunity.
That arrived last summer when Steve Hayn left Dowling for the job at USMMA.
Now Mateyko and the Golden Lions are two victories away from making the NCAA Division II Tournament for the first time since 1997.
Dowling beat NYIT, 82-74, late Wednesday in an ECC quarterfinal and will face second-seeded Bridgeport (22-6) Saturday at LIU Post. A victory would put sixth-seeded Dowling (13-15) into the championship game Sunday against the winner of the game between No. 4 Post and No. 1 St. Thomas Aquinas.
"In our league [at St. Joseph's] in the Skyline, we always had five or six, maybe seven wins, where we think we were better than the program we were going against," Mateyko said. "Every night in our league, you don't know what's going to happen. With the scholarship player [at D-II], it brings it to a new level where almost every team has one or two outstanding players that can beat you."
Mateyko, 56, said he was not treated like a rookie coach by his peers.
"I don't think there's been one coach who looked at me like, 'Do you know what you're doing?' I think they know what we're doing here. I know all the referees because they all moved up from Division III to Division II. The nice thing about it when we see them, they come over and say congratulations."
Mateyko, who lives in Long Beach, had no idea what to expect when he applied at Dowling.
"I knew from the grapevine there may be an opening, so I expressed interest and sent in a resume," Mateyko said. "It was kind of bang, bang; Steve left so late. It was tough because we had a great recruiting class at St. Joe's. After all those years, it's kind of tough leaving any place. I thought it was just the next thing to do.''
Mateyko had a good feeling after his interview with vice president for athletics Melody Cope, saying, "I hit it off with her right away. I knew it was going to be a great place to work. My dream and my passion was always to be a full-time coach, whether it was Division III, II or I. Unfortunately, with St. Joe's, it was always part-time. Dowling was a full-time gig. So far, I think they're happy with me. I think it's working out. I feel like I died and went to heaven. The people are nice and it's a good spot."
Cope said she knew Mateyko would be a good fit.
"Our philosophy is building champions and academics and athletics within the community and then preparing them for life after athletics," she said. "John came in and impressed me that he bought into the philosophy. He really was committed to having the student-athlete succeed in all areas of their lives.
"I thought from a recruiting standpoint that his work in Division III would be an asset. He was out recruiting great players to come in with no money, just with the money the college could give him. From that standpoint, he knew the area, had a knowledge of recruiting in an area that's been very successful for us, and he was able to do it without a lot of money. So for me, I felt like that was a strength."
At St. Joseph's, Mateyko was the program's all-time winningest coach with a career record of 190-129. He also led the team to two appearances in the NCAA Tournament.
"It's a different world when you get to the NCAAs," Mateyko said. "You get emails and you speak to people you haven't spoken to in years. There's a lot of buzz.
"I want these kids to feel that. I hope we get there. The kids have been great. They've given me a chance to be part of them. It could have gone the other way where the kids don't listen to you, you're the new guy. I didn't recruit any of them."
Mateyko was quickly accepted by the team. Hayn's departure was a shock to many players, said guard Ryan Hickey, a graduate of Smithtown West.
"At the end of the day, we just had to come together, talk about our team goals and just work as hard as we possibly could no matter who was going to be in charge. [Mateyko] came in the first practice, we were running like crazy, we were all pumped up about this new intensity he was bringing. We knew where he was coming from. St. Joe's is just down the road. We were very familiar with his former success and what he had to bring to the table."
All five Dowling starters are averaging in double figures in scoring: Darien Davis (21.8), Evan Maxwell (13.7), Donte Adams (10.9), Hickey (11.3) and Tristan Brown (10.0).
Mateyko also incorporated elements from his former job in the financial services industry.
"I always teach my kids on the team about investing," he said. "Some days they are going to have money and jobs, so they're going to have to know what to do with it.
"We always talk about what debt is, what a stock is, some will talk about Nike or Under Armour or Apple as a stock. If we can get one or two kids involved where it sparks their interest, I think it's worth it. Some of them are business majors, so they pick up on it."
Said Hickey, a finance major: "We'll talk to Coach about the financial world and stocks. What he really taught us is there is a life after this; we have to be prepared for that. He's always telling us when there are job fairs on campus. He is a great guy with great insight."
Mateyko has some friends in high places. Next year, Dowling will open the season at Miami against coach Jim Larranaga, a fellow graduate of Archbishop Molloy High School in Queens.
Dowling beat NYIT three times this season. Its latest victory came on the road and was achieved despite 28 points from NYIT's Darian Hooker, the nation's leading scorer in D-II.
Mateyko said he thought Dowling's star player, Davis, did a good job on Hooker, who was 7-for-30 from the floor and 3-for-13 from three-point range. "Darien was standing in front of him all night," Mateyko said.
Bridgeport will be a big obstacle. Dowling lost twice to the Purple Knights during the regular season by scores of 102-89 and 105-71.
"I think our first two games, maybe out of the four halves we only really competed in about 10 minutes of it, so we have a lot of work to do to figure out how to compete with them," Mateyko said. "I'm hoping Post being a neutral site will help us."
Dowling was 22-7 last season but did not get an at-large bid after losing to St. Thomas Aquinas in an ECC Tournament semifinal.
That's been a source of motivation this season.
"The success we want is that ECC championship," Hickey said. "In terms of looking back and seeing if it's a success, we're going to do that the end of the year. But right now our eyes are on the prize."
In the other men's quarterfinal, Post (17-12) defeated Molloy, 68-60, as P.J. Torres scored 18 points.
In the women's quarterfinals, NYIT beat Post, 76-71. Freshman Nina Vukosavljevic scored 20 points for NYIT (19-10), which faces top-seeded District of Columbia (25-3) Saturday at Post in a semifinal. Queens (20-7) meets St. Thomas Aquinas (14-16) in the other semifinal.