DES MOINES, Iowa
There was a time, as Stony Brook’s losing streak in America East Tournament title games climbed to four, when fans and even some in the school administration wondered if it was the coaching.
The answer: Yes, it was Steve Pikiell’s coaching that put the Seawolves in place again and again with a shot to win the title, and when his players, and especially Jameel Warney, put the ball in the basket enough times, they finally made it to the NCAA Tournament this season on the fifth try.
Now everyone who wondered if Pikiell was to blame for falling short must have their heads in their hands wondering what the Seawolves will do without him. Early Saturday morning, several well-placed college athletic sources confirmed, Pikiell accepted the head-coaching job offered by Rutgers. It is expected to become official at a Tuesday news conference.
Pikiell reportedly was the third choice behind Rhode Island coach Dan Hurley and George Washington coach Mike Lonergan, a former America East rival when he was at Vermont. The reported offer to Hurley was $9 million over six years, the going rate for Big Ten coaches. Pikiell reportedly will get a five-year deal worth $8 million, a shorter term but higher annual average.
It was the offer he couldn’t refuse, and it came at a time when conditions were most ripe to make the jump from Stony Brook. Pikiell received several offers in the past from mid-major schools, but he never wanted to make a lateral move, citing the support he enjoyed at Stony Brook and his family’s roots in the community.
You can be sure that Stony Brook athletic director Shawn Heilbron would have done everything within the parameters of his budget constraints to keep Pikiell as the architect of a model program that produced at least 22 wins in six of the past seven seasons, five appearances in the conference championship game, one NCAA berth and a 1.000 APR.
But with the impending departure of seniors Warney, Carson Puriefoy III and Rayshaun McGrew, Pikiell made the decision that, if he was going to rebuild, he would do it at the Big Ten level. Stony Brook University and Seawolves fans only can be grateful that they had him for 11 seasons and wish him success in what ranks as possibly the worst job in the Big Ten.
Now Heilbron must turn to the task of finding Pikiell’s replacement. Sometimes the best answer is the simplest. From this vantage point, Stony Brook assistant Jay Young, Pikiell’s right-hand man throughout his 11-season tenure, is best-equipped to take over the job. He has played a vital role in recruiting and in running things on the practice floor.
Young foolishly was passed over twice in recent years by Marist, his alma mater, but he has the desire to run his own program and has continued to prospect for opportunities. At the same time, his roots in the Stony Brook community and passion for what has been achieved equal Pikiell’s.
More importantly, it was Young who forged the relationship with Warney, who chose Stony Brook over the major schools that were recruiting him. As Warney recently told Newsday, “I love Coach Young. He showed me how charismatic he is and how fun-loving . . . I thought he was funny. Then I came here, and he started yelling at me.
“But he wants the best for me. Sometimes he gets mad at me and we argue, but he knows I’m going to listen to him. I value his opinion more than anything in the world, and I’m going to do what he asks of me. It’s a great relationship.”
Sounds like an endorsement for Pikiell’s successor. But that call belongs to Heilbron now, and it’s a big one.