Thursday night, Penn (2-13) heads north to Newark, N.J., to take on NJIT (9-8) for the first time since the 2009-10 season (see preview). Former Highlanders and current Quakers assistant coach Ira Bowman will return to face the program for which he spent the previous four years coaching under Jim Engles (see story).
In this segment of Behind Enemy Lines, we spoke with Engles about turning around the program at NJIT, which set an all-time NCAA Division I worst record of 0-29 the season before he took over. In his first year, the Highlanders posted a 1-30 record but reached the 15-win threshold in his third and fourth seasons. Engles also has a connection to Penn — his uncle John Engles played for Penn from 1973-76 and landed in the Big 5 Hall of Fame in 1995.
What was it like to step into an environment as the head coach where the team had been 0-29 the season before?
I think the one thing that really helped me to understand the environment was when I went to Columbia, we took over a program that was very similar in a lot of different ways -- really good academic school, was 0-14 in the Ivy League at the time, I think was last in the RPI, the worst team in the country. And just seeing and working for Joe Jones, working with him for five years like I did, seeing how he was able to -- in college it's a process because you have to bring in players and they have to develop and it's not like you can go out and, especially in a place like ours and in the Ivy League, you can't go out and recruit anyone. There isn't a quick fix to it.
So I was able to do all the things around the program -- change the culture, get the guys to buy in, get the administration to buy in to what we were doing and all that stuff helps. And even though we only won one game our first year, I thought it really laid the ground work for us to continue to improve, and so I think my experience at Columbia was invaluable.
From no wins the year before you took over to one in your first season, your program reached 15 in your third and fourth seasons. What was the biggest contributing factor?
I think what it comes down to is when I took over the program we had no juniors or seniors in the program. We inherited a team and I thought it was fair to the guys in the program to give them a shot, because they had had such a bad year the year before, so we just needed some time to bring in new players.
And when you bring in new players at our level, I don't think you're recruiting the finished product. So they need some time to develop in the weight room, they need some time to develop on the court. And we're now in year five and I think all the guys on the roster right now have been through the program, and I have a good mix of seniors right now who have been through it and play a lot of quality minutes, and I've also got some freshmen now that'll learn how to play from them.
So I just think it's the natural progression of how the program's worked. I think we've been able to recruit a little bit better caliber a player every year, which has obviously helped. I'm excited where the program is going. I don't think we're at all close to where we need to be, but I think we've done a good job with what we've had and with the situation that we were presented with, and it's a day-to-day, game-to-game type of thing for us, but I'm really happy with how the program's progressed to this point.
Great West Conference has no automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Is that something that may change in the future? It obviously would help with recruiting if the school could qualify.
The next step for us is actually a lot of stuff outside the gym and the locker room. I think we need to get hopefully in the America East or Northeast Conference or a local conference, or any league with an automatic bid because that will help us with recruiting and allow us to continue our competitiveness and give us like opponents to compete against.
Our league is breaking up next year, so most of the teams in our league are going to the WAC. So there is a little bit of uncertainty right now from a league standpoint for us, but I know that we're doing everything we can to put us in a position to get into a league.
Haven't played Penn since your first season. Obviously they're having a down year but historically are a very good program. How big of a win would it be for NJIT to beat Penn?
Penn's tradition is one of the top 10 tradition-wise. Any time you can beat a program like that -- I know this sounds cliche, but we don't talk about winning. I really don't, because if you lose, what happens next? So I really talk about competing. If we can beat Penn that would be great. But we still have to continue to play our next game, so we have to minimize that.
Penn's a great program -- I know their record is a little bit down, and I haven't been able to watch them much yet since we play [Fairleigh Dickinson] on Monday, so I haven't been able to catch up on what they've done. But I know Penn is a good program and they'll be right up there in the Ivy League once it's all said and done. So I really don't go off their record.