By Bill Wolcott
Niagara Gazette — Joe Mihalich came to Niagara University 15 years ago from La Salle College in Philadelphia where he was an assistant coach for 17 years. At 41, he was labeled a “career assistant” and his selection was questioned and criticized.
By university standards, it was a transparent process to replace Jack Armstrong and Mihalich was the third of three candidates. The Buffalo media insisted on a fourth candidate and Niagara officials acquiesced. Rob Lanier, who had been an assistant coach at Niagara, St. Bonaventure, Rutgers and Texas, made it a quartet of candidates.
All four had decent credentials, but Mihalich was the dark horse in the race. What impressed me the most in the interviews was his knowledge of the Purple Eagles’ tradition and respect for the “Little Three.” He not only knew about Calvin Murphy, but about Ed Fleming, Larry Costello and Taps Gallagher. Who thought Joe would become the second only to Gallagher with 265 games won?
Mihalich brought a different game to the Gallagher Center. Armstrong was bent on getting the Eagles to play a patterned game and installed an offense that an NBA coach would admire. Niagara didn’t have NBA players however, and, as often as not, Armstrong was 10-feet onto the court directing players. That slowed down the game and eventually calls for Armstrong to sit down.
Mihalich let his recruits play to their strengths and, for the most part, let them do what they did best. It wasn’t defense, but it was fun to watch and NU won almost all of its games at home.
While watching Niagara play basketball, we saw Joe and Mary’s sons grow. Joe, Tony and Matt went from chasing down loose balls during practice to becoming coaches after college. Joe Jr., 24, is an assistant coach at Scranton University. Twins Matt and Tony became assistant coaches in basketball and track, respectively.
I was pleased to get to know the Mihalichs a little bit, Joe, who made the Sign of the Cross with his thumb on his forehead while his player was on the foul line, was faithful at Mass. Sometimes we would bump into each other at the Kiernan Center. He worked on his bad hip and I had a gentleman’s work out — sauna and swim.
He complained about my University of Buffalo jacket, which my daughter’ brought for me at Steve & Barry’s. He was borderline serious. Joe didn’t like UB for some reason, but the big state school and the little Vincentian School, less than 20 miles up the road, had some intense games. In my mind, the rivalry was good for both teams. Joe didn’t seem to buy into that and offered to go off the record as to why he didn’t like my alma mater. I declined the offer.
Mihalich earned the reputation as a quality coach who ran a clean program. St. Bona had some problems and offered him the basketball job a decade ago but he declined. St. Bonaventure, while it played in a stronger conference, was not special, he said.
Niagara was, very special.
I was surprised when Mihalich took the Hofstra job last week. I had to look up the Long Island school on Yahoo and found the big private school had more than 7,000 undergraduates and is twice as big as Niagara, It’s 25 miles from New York City while Niagara is 25 miles from Buffalo. They used to be called the “Flying Dutchmen” but now the teams are called “Pride.”
Part of me is happy for Joe. He picked his spot and found a good place to retire. Moreover, he left Monteagle Ridge a proud basketball program.Bill Wolcott is a Lockport Union-Sun reporter.