By JONAH BRONSTEIN
Niagara Gazette — "If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that's a full day." — Jim Valvano
Joe Mihalich did Jim Valvano proud on Wednesday.
Upon being introduced as the new men's basketball coach at Hofstra University, Mihalich made jokes about his wife's spending habits and the Buffalo weather.
When questioned by reporters about the challenges he faces at Hofstra and what he was leaving behind at Niagara, Mihalich gave thoughtful answers
And on the phone with the Niagara Gazette later in the day, Mihalich broke down in tears.
"I'm sorry," Mihalich said after a few seconds of silence, "it's hard to talk about leaving that place."
Fifteen years after Niagara gave him his first head coaching opportunity, Mihalich made the difficult decision to move on to greener pastures.
"It was the best 15 years of my life," Mihalich said, still choked up. "I was lucky to be there. You pinch yourself every day for being able to be there with great, great people. It's a really hard place to leave."
Having won 265 games, the most in Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference history and second-most at Niagara, and played in two NCAA tournaments and three NITs, Mihalich has had opportunities to leave before. Among the schools he turned down in the past was his alma mater, LaSalle.
So what changed this time around?
"It's hard to put a quantifier on it," Mihalich said. "It's more about a gut feeling. It's a time in my life where this challenge presents itself. It was the right time for me.
"It's like I told the kids last night. They should have dreams and goals and for me, this is place where maybe we can reach our dreams and goals. It's a challenge that excites me. I'm leaving a team that finished first and coming to a team that finished last."
As he continued to talk about his new job at Hofstra, Mihalich's mood changed.
"As sad as I am to leave Niagara, I'm just as excited to be here," Mihalich said. "My family and I, walking around here today, we were all giddy."
In the past, Mihalich turned down jobs because he didn't want to move his family out of Lewiston.
Now, with his oldest son, Joe Jr., coaching in Scranton, Pa., and his other two sons, twins Matt and Tony, coaching in the Washington, D.C. area, Mihalich and his wife, Mary, no longer felt rooted in Western New York.
And with a higher salary, more resources, better facilities, a bigger market and a new challenge awaiting him at Hofstra, Mihalich decided the timing was right to make a move.
Jack Armstrong, the coach Mihalich replaced 15 year ago, shared the bittersweet feeling with the successor he grew close with over the years.
"I am thrilled for Joe and sad for Niagara," Armstrong said. "I spent 10 years at Niagara as a coach. It's a wonderful place but it's a place that, in today's day and age, it's tough to have sustained success. When you reflect on the 15-year run Joe had at one place, it's almost unheard of today, particularly at a mid-major school. It was a remarkable run.
"I'm sad for Niagara because they are losing a guy who was a wonderful representative of what Niagara was about. He did it the right way. There was no scandal. No cheating. That is the thing to be celebrated. More so than the won loss record, its the totality, the perspective, of the entire thing he did. When the good guys get ahead, you stand up and applaud."Contact Jonah at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @lebronstein