MOON TOWNSHIP, Pa. – The Robert Morris men’s basketball program is set to officially move into the UPMC Events Center in May, marking the days of the Colonials taking their home floor in a student recreation center – the past two seasons at the North Athletic Complex – and the outdated Charles L. Sewall Center beforehand are finally over.
The beautiful new state-of-the-art, $50 million dollar project is gauged to place the program on a path toward sustainable success through increased player retention, elevated recruiting and perhaps even a jump to a higher conference. Andy Toole, whose been with the program since 2007 and head coach of it since 2010, has remained at the forefront of the Moon Township makeover since its inception.
However, he’s just as surprised as anybody to see it now come to fruition.
“I was telling somebody just the other day when we were walking through that the dream of this thing probably started in May 2013,” he said in a 1-on-1 interview with Pittsburgh Sports Now. “It’s been six years in the making. There were a lot of times where we weren’t even sure if it was going to actually happen.”
But why? Well, funding, for one, was a complex hurdle for the school to clear.
“There aren’t too many universities (of similar size) that can take on and execute a project like this, said Toole. “Just to be able to generate all the dollars through corporate sponsorships, state development funding and private donations; not putting university dollars into the building. That’s something not too many people realize. Everything has been paid for from outside of the university, which is really incredible.”
The move will become officially official on November 12 when Colonials take on Pitt in the UPMC Events Center’s inaugural contest, marking the first time the pair of Pittsburgh programs will meet since 2011. Attracting a regional Power 5 program for Game No. 1 was always the plan – a similar buzz-creating methodology that UNC-Asheville and Elon pulled off by welcoming North Carolina to their respective new arenas. A Power 5 program hasn’t played on Robert Morris’ campus since the NIT upset over Kentucky in 2013.
“We looked at the usual suspects: Pitt, West Virginia, Penn State and Ohio State,” said Toole. “We wanted (a program) where, them coming to play us would be a unique opportunity for us.”
Robert Morris reached out to Pitt coach Jeff Capel, and the wheels started turning. Capel told Toole he open to the discussion, and then the conversations elevated to the administrative level. People associated with the UPMC corporate sponsorships – supporters of both programs – were able to plant the seed, said Toole, and Pitt athletic director Heather Lyke was a supporter of it from the start.
“She thought it would be a great neighborly thing to do,” Toole said. “You know, great for the Pittsburgh college basketball scene and great for the area. She helped it gain momentum, and then (Jeff) Capel was kind enough to agree to it.”
Under Toole’s lead, Robert Morris has posted a record of 169-140 (.547) in his nine years as coach, including a mark of 102-58 (.638) in the Northeast Conference. The Colonials earned an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament in 2015, have twice played in the NIT (2013, 2014) and twice in the CIT (2012, 2019).
Next season, the Colonials will likely return 11 of the 13 members from their 2018-19 roster, and potentially 12 if the NCAA grants the program’s request for forward Malik Petteway to receive a fifth year. Petteway missed significant time during the 2017-18 season with blood clots in his leg, so he could be eligible for a medical redshirt year if the NCAA determines he did not play in 30 percent or more of his team’s games. The Colonials will also welcome a recruiting class highlighted by promising JUCO forward DJ Russell. So, figuratively speaking, they’ll have the firepower to once again contend for an NEC title, and even give Pitt a run for its money on November 12. The program has never beaten the Panthers since joining Division I in 1976 – holding an 0-30 mark.
Regardless, it’s difficult not to wonder what the state of the Robert Morris program will materialize into over the next five, 10 or even 15 years from now. Growth is clearly on the horizon, albeit how rapid it’ll come still remains to be seen. For now, though, it’s solidified that the next phase is underway.
There’s surely a lot to be excited about.