To prepare for the tip-off of another great year of college basketball, CHD is reaching out to coaches and players around the country to get the inside scoop on what we can expect this time around. Jon Teitel continues our season preview series by chatting with NJIT coach Jim Engles about being an Independent in an era of conference realignment.
You are one of the few remaining Independents in college basketball. Can we expect your school to join a conference anytime soon? Our expectation is to be in a league at this time next year and we are doing everything possible to make that happen. Our school is going to add lacrosse and we are getting bids from architects about building a new facility to make us more attractive. Our location/academics make us attractive to conferences.
You lost your top three scorers from last year and you only have one senior on your current roster. Is this team built to win now or do you think this is going to be a rebuilding year? The reality is that it is probably a rebuilding year. We have eight new guys and our lone senior just got hurt and will be out for the year. I really like the team but it will come down to how quickly the younger guys can get used to the physicality of the college game.
Your non-conference road schedule includes trips to Seton Hall, Butler, and Penn. Which of these three games do you feel will present your biggest test? It is an interesting schedule because our main goal is to get into a league. We also play Tulane and Hofstra, which I consider “up” games because they are guarantee games. I got to go to the Palestra when I was at Columbia and it will be fun to go back there. My guys get up for playing teams like Butler and Seton Hall because they see those teams on TV.
What are your expectations for the upcoming season? It is the same as everyone else. We want to win all our games and watch our guys improve. We traveled to Europe this summer which gave us a great head-start. I like our positivity and enthusiasm and we have the makings of a good team.
You played basketball at Dickinson College. How good a player were you back in the day, and how did you get into coaching? I fancied myself as a player and had a great experience at Dickinson, but growing up I always thought I wanted to become a coach. I sent out my resume to most of the schools in the Northeast and would get rejection letters from all the great coaches like Denny Crum and Lou Carnesecca. I grew up in Staten Island and got a job offer from Tim Capstraw to be a graduate assistant. It happened so quickly that I did not appreciate how hard it is to get a coaching job.
In the 2002 MAAC tourney, as an assistant at Rider under Coach Don Harnum, Jerry Johnson scored a career-high 36 points, including eight of 10 from behind the arc, but missed a free throw with 6.8 seconds left. That miss allowed Hodari Mallory to grab the rebound and drive the length of the court and make a bank shot with 0.3 seconds left that resulted in a one point loss to Canisius. Where does that rank among the most devastating losses of your career? It is up there, but when I was at Wagner we made the title game and took the lead with four seconds left before Rider beat us at the buzzer, which was the most devastating. Jerry was a freshman and we had a really good team but it was just one of those games. I can vividly remember the ball rolling free in front of our bench until Mallory picked it up.
You were named head coach at NJIT in 2008. Why did you take the job? There is a finite number of jobs available at the Division I level, and I played NJIT when I was an assistant at Columbia so I knew what they were going through. The job opened up in the middle of the season so I did not give it much thought at the time, but I sent my stuff in after the season and felt comfortable with their situation. I knew it was not a quick fix but I liked the academics of the school. It also made sense for me from a location standpoint.
You went 1-30 in your first year but two years later you had a .500 record. How were you able to turn things around so quickly? It did not feel like a quick fix. We had to change the expectations and culture and recruit some kids to fit your style of play. I have gotten a tremendous amount of support from our administration and they allowed me and my staff to do our jobs.
In January 2009, you had a 10 point win over Bryant to snap your Division I record 51-game losing streak. What was the reaction like in your locker room after such a monumental victory? I have never been on a national championship team but I imagine it was a similar feeling. There was a huge sense of joy and accomplishment because we put in a lot of time and commitment to getting a win. I will never forget the sense of relief that was evident. It allowed the program to move on and get past the mental roadblock of having a long losing streak.
Your grandfather Ken was a player and coach at Georgetown and your uncle John was a star at Penn. Who is the best player in the family and do you credit at least some of your success to genetics? We do have a basketball family. We played at Georgetown a couple of years ago and it was a fun experience. I believe I am the best coach in the family.