Robert Morris head men’s basketball coach Andy Toole sat in his office in late August, dotted with pictures and memories from previous seasons, tossing a worn out football in the air.
Basketball was the furthest thing from his mind at the moment. Toole and assistant athletic director, Jim Duzyk, were in a serious dialogue about the looming NFL season and breaking down, of all teams, the New York Jets’ prospects. Fresh off vacation, Robert Morris’ coach welcomed the small distraction.
Just weeks earlier, Toole and his assistants were jetting around the country, mining local AAU tournaments and showcases for new recruits. The July recruiting schedule is hectic, to say the least. Coaches have several small windows to be seen amongst the masses of golf polo shirts etched with their school’s insignia huddled around courts.
Outside Toole’s office, campus was abuzz. Wide-eyed 18- and 19-year old students were wandering from building to building, fulfilling their requirements for freshmen orientation. Summer was officially over.
“It was one that as we sit here, it seems like the summer has flown by,” Toole said. “I think from the additions to our roster during the course of the summer—obviously the July recruiting period plus the workouts and stuff we had with the current roster being on campus—there wasn’t much of a break for our staff.”
A lot has changed within the program since the Colonials’ season-ending loss to Mount St. Mary’s in early March. Leading scorer Isaiah Stills transferred to Iona, the third straight offseason Toole has lost his top scorer from the previous season. Six other players either transferred or left the program for personal reasons.
“Even though it’s difficult, it’s hard to replace certain guys that leave your program that you expect to build around,” Toole said. “But I think that’s going to be the way of the world.”
Toole admits to not being fully prepared when the first wave of transfers deserted the program, but feels the staff is now better equipped to handle unexpected departures.
“I think we look at it now and say we’ve got to be prepared to consistently recruit each and every year,” Toole said. “We have to try and recruit the most talented guys we can, and coach them the best that we can, and hopefully, they respect that and recognize it.”
There were several additions to the program, too. Danté Jackson joined the staff as an assistant coach, and Tray Woodall was hired as the Director of Basketball Operations. Jackson starred at Xavier, leading the Musketeers to four straight NCAA tournament appearances, and Woodall is only the seventh player in Pitt history to eclipse 1,000 points and 500 assists.
“Obviously, we had some staff changes as well so there’s been a lot of turnover, but a lot of energy, lot of excitement, a lot of new blood that’s come into the program and on to campus,” Toole said.
A five-man recruiting class of Jon Williams, Leondre Washington, Charles Bain, Chris Coalmon and Koby Thomas arrived on campus, participating in their first college workouts.
Transfers Taevon Ashmeade, Malik Petteway, Ronnie Gombe and Xavier Williams joined them. Josh Williams, a fifth transfer and Jon’s brother, is also new to the program, but must sit out the 2017-18 season due to NCAA transfer rules.
“I think we certainly had a positive summer,” Toole said. “I think there was a lot of strides made by guys who are experiencing Division I workouts, weightlifting, and schedules for the first time, and we’re excited to get them back and get this fall rolling.”
Toole is beginning his eighth season as head coach and ninth overall in Moon Township. Robert Morris has enjoyed its most successful stretch of basketball under him—two NEC regular season championships, four NEC tournament championship appearances, and four trips to the national postseason.
“It’s amazing that it’s the start of my eighth season to be honest,” Toole said. “It seems like just yesterday I was hired.”
By coaching standards, Toole is just a young pup. At 36-years old, the University of Pennsylvania graduate is still among the youngest coaches in NCAA Division I basketball.
“It’s exciting and at times it can be exhausting, but it’s fun,” Toole said. “Every day can be unique, and there’s always some energy and excitement going on. I don’t think of myself as old, I think I’m still on the younger side. Hopefully, I can stay on that side for a little while longer.”
Toole has elevated the program in more ways than just on the court. His team’s success combined with the rise of the women’s basketball program—five straight NCAA tournament appearances—pushed the university to build a new state-of-the-art arena to showcase its winning brand of hoops. In January, officials announced plans to break ground on the UPMC Events Center.
“It’s a point of conversation for recruiting,” Toole said. “And I think it’s something that allows our guys and takes their experience to a whole another level—whether it’s the way they can train, their access to gyms all the time, their access to state-of-the-art training facility, locker rooms, lounges.”
Toole equated the new arena to a one-stop shopping center. In previous years, players had to navigate several different buildings and facilities for practices, weightlifting, study hall, and medical treatment. It was a logistics nightmare.
“It will be nice to for the guys to come in and do all the things that’s required of them as being members of the program all in one space,” Toole said. “I think it will make their lives easier and make our program better.”
He added the university’s commitment to erect such a facility also helps in retaining current and future Colonials.
Toole and his staff are constantly assessing the state of the program, evaluating ways and measures to improve. The beauty of college basketball is that no two teams are the same. Coaches must adjust to the makeup of the team’s roster each offseason.
“I think each spring we sit down as a staff and pour over each aspect of our program to see if we are still doing it the right way,” Toole revealed. “Just because we maybe did something five years ago—just because that was successful with that group—is it going to work with this group? And can we adjust on the fly if it doesn’t?”
One fundamental will remain constant within the program: Toole’s incessant drive to build teams predicated on defense. Summer workouts are more geared towards individual development and make it difficult for coaches to construct a team’s identity. But with several new faces, the staff focused on challenging the young Colonials.
“Part of the summer workouts is trying to move guys towards our identity as a team—a hard-nosed, tough-minded defensive team,” Toole said. “So some part of the summer workouts is challenging guys to handle adversity or whatever might be thrown at them, and to rise up to that challenge.”
Junior Matty McConnell and sophomore Dachon Burke are the most experienced returners and will be expected to step into leadership roles, setting the tone for the younger players.
“If Matty and Dachon are competing hard each day in practice, that’s going to leave our other guys no real room to not compete,” Toole said. “I really think Matty and Dachon are going to have to be the guys promoting the right thing, who are holding guys to the right standard, and holding themselves to that same standard.”
Toole iterated he hopes to see more consistency from both players this season. McConnell was instrumental in the team’s NEC tournament run last year, averaging 19 points a game and will shoulder a large share of the offense with Stills gone.
As classes ramp up, players will begin conducting workouts and conditioning, and before they know it, the team’s first organized practice—October 1—will be here.
Expectations surrounding the program have changed considerably since Toole took over and this season will be no different. Until then, excuse Robert Morris’ leader for dissecting NFL teams. He’s earned it.