By Andrew Kahn
Joe Mihalich’s Niagara Purple Eagles have just eliminated Siena in the quarterfinals of the MAAC basketball tournament. Siena senior O.D. Anosike has played his last collegiate game. On his way to the post-game press conference, he couldn’t pass Mihalich in the hall without smiling and giving the opposing coach a hug.
“My man,” Mihalich says. “You’re the best.”
“I’m going to be calling you in about 10 years for a coaching job,” says Anosike.
“Come on, man, let’s do it.” The two may have been half-joking, but it’s hard to imagine the 56-year-old Mihalich anywhere but the Niagara sideline.
Since Mihalich took over as head coach in 1998, after 17 years as an assistant at La Salle, the other nine MAAC schools have gone through a total of 30 head coaches. Some have been fired. Others have moved on to higher-profile schools. Mihalich collected his third MAAC Coach of the Year Award last week after guiding one of the youngest teams in the country to a first place finish. His 265 wins are the most in MAAC history and he’s gone to the NCAA Tournament twice. So why hasn’t Mihalich moved on?
“I’ve had a couple offers,” he said this past weekend in Springfield, MA, where Niagara was eliminated in the tournament semifinals. “But it’s not just about money for me. (Former Niagara coach) Frank Layden told me, ‘Don’t forget, money can’t love you back.’ I’m a lucky guy to be doing what I love at a place I love. The people here mean so much to me. That’s who I work for. I’m not saying I wouldn’t leave. I would leave, but it would have to be a special place. It would have to be a place that has all the things I’m describing now.”
Niagara University is a Catholic school in Lewiston, N.Y., 25 miles north of Buffalo. There’s no football; Niagara’s basketball team, which competes in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, is the big sport on campus for the 3,300 undergrads. For the past 15 years, Joe Mihalich has been the team’s head coach. His longevity is a testament to his love for the school but also the school’s love for him. In fact, ask around the MAAC—players, coaches, media, administrators—and you’d find it difficult (impossible, perhaps) to hear a negative word about the man.
“He’s a terrific coach,” said Siena head coach Mitch Buonaguro. “Obviously when you’re at a place that long he’s found his niche. His teams play really hard. Over the years he’s had excellent talents. He’s one of the stalwarts of the league and he should be commended for that. He got into the business when I did. He’s a guy who’s coached a long time, and I’ve got a great deal of respect for him.”
Climbing the ladder in coaching usually means multiple moves which can take you and your family all over the country. Mihalich is married and has three sons. Joe Jr., 25, an assistant coach at Division III University of Scranton, is grateful he had a stable childhood.
“He probably could have moved (on to a different school),” Joe Jr. says. “But he did it for my family. When we moved to Niagara Falls I was in sixth grade. He could have moved after two or three years but he wanted us to stay and have a foundation. Lewiston was a really nice town. We went to a great high school. My mom really loved living there. From that standpoint, I appreciate what he did, his longevity. Plenty of coaches’ kids have moved every few years and they don’t know where their dad is going to be next. I was very lucky, my dad was rock solid.”
Mihalich’s two other sons, 24-year-old twins Matt and Tony, are also coaches. Matt teaches and coaches basketball at Bishop O’Connell High School in Virginia; Tony is a track coach at George Mason. Papa Mihalich beams with pride when he talks about his kids, and it’s evident they have learned a great deal from their dad.
Joe Jr. says he calls or texts his dad every day to ask for advice. “He’s always got the right answer, which is very convenient for me.” He recalls an instance earlier this season when he was watching a Niagara game and saw the Purple Eagles run a well-designed play. He put it into Scranton’s offense and named it “Eagle.” “If we run it right we get lay-up,” Joe says. “We’ve ran it a lot.”
Mihalich’s generosity extends well beyond his family. Before Kyle Neptune joined the Niagara coaching staff, he received nothing but positive feedback about Mihalich. Now in his third season as an assistant, he can’t imagine a better boss. Neptune says that Mihalich gives his assistants the freedom to gain valuable experience, while still providing guidance and motivation.
“We’ve had a completely different team every year and we switch our stuff up. It’s never the same,” Neptune says. “A lot of coaches say, ‘This is what we do’ and stick to that. He says, ‘I’ve got these players: What plays are going to be good for these guys? What do they need to hear from us to be successful?’”
The Niagara staff is relatively young, with the assistants in their upper-20s to low-30s. And yet, “we struggle to keep up with him,” says Neptune. “Most head coaches, five years in, don’t recruit as much, don’t take long drives. He’s 15 years in and he’ll easily get in the car and drive seven hours to recruit and drive back the same day. He’ll be the first one in the office and he’ll still be there at 9:30. As a young guy, he’s the perfect guy to learn from because he shows you that working hard really pays off.”
Niagara’s hopes of reaching the NCAA Tournament ended on Sunday, when the Purple Eagles ran into a hot-shooting and far more experienced Iona team in the semifinals and lost 79-73. “I’m disappointed, but I’m proud,” Mihalich said after the game. “We’re going to a special postseason tournament. The dream this weekend was to cut down the nets, but the NIT is a great thing to be a part of.” As regular season champions, Niagara, with a 19-13 record, is guaranteed a spot in the NIT.
It’s another winning season, one recognized by awards for Mihalich and his players. Niagara placed two sophomores on the All-MAAC First Team and another player on the All-Rookie Team. Most believe the Purple Eagles will be a force in the league for the foreseeable future.
It’s hard to picture that future without Mihalich. Tom Crowley, in his first year as Niagara’s athletic director, knew Mihalich from their college playings days (Crowley at Penn and Mihalich at La Salle). “As is the case with anything, it always comes down to trust,” Crowley says about his relationship with Mihalich. “And I trust Joe. Because of that trust, I sleep very comfortably at night. That’s a nice feeling to have, especially as a new A.D.”
Asked if he can imagine the day he might have to replace Joe Mihalich, Crowley laughs. “It’s a horrible thought.”