PITTSBURGH, Pa. — After Robert Morris officially announced its move to the Horizon League on June 15, Pittsburgh Sports Now’s Chris Mueller caught up with Robert Morris men’s basketball coach Andy Toole to discuss the university’s departure from the Northeast Conference, as well as the challenging transition that lies ahead.
Leaving the NEC will be an unprecedented change for Toole and RMU. For a quick history lesson, Robert Morris was one of six NEC charter institutions who are still active members of the conference, and the university’s 39-year affiliation with the NEC dates back to the league’s inception in 1981 as a single-sport basketball conference under the ECAC-Metro Conference moniker.
Since then, the Colonials appeared in the NEC postseason tournament 36 out of a possible 39 times, totaling a league-high 45 tournament wins and nine championships. The program went 128-67 in NEC play over Toole’s 10-year head coaching tenure and ultimately finished with a 385-289 conference record (.572) spanning 39 seasons.
As a new era now looms on the Horizon, the steward of the Robert Morris program’s golden age holds both an appreciation of the past and eagerness for the future. The following Q&A is from a 1-on-1 interview with Toole on June 17.
PSN: Looking back on your time in the NEC, what will you miss the most about coaching in the conference? It was a wild ride over the last 10 years — and 13 years from when you were an assistant.
Andy Toole: It’s the only league that I’ve ever known as a head coach. We had some incredible rivalries, memories and championship runs. Just awesome experiences as a program, as individuals, as teams — that’s the part you’ll miss. You know, going down to Mount St. Mary’s, or going to play in Brooklyn, or going to play at St. Francis Pa.. Different memories come back every time you step inside those gyms. It’s certainly an experience we’ll miss. We had great camaraderie between all our coaches in the NEC, which was terrific. So those will be the things that we miss about the league, but obviously now we’re on to a new chapter. It’s definitely an exciting time.
PSN: If you had to pick one NEC memory or marquee win that stands out above the rest, what would it be?
AT: I would say a semifinal game at Quinnipiac during my first year as head coach (2009-10). Velton Jones hits a game-winning shot to send us to the finals against LIU Brooklyn. To me, that’s one of my favorites just because as a coach, when you’re going through the first year, your emotions are all over the place. That win was symbolic of my own confidence in being able to say ‘Hey, I can do this. I can help lead these guys and get these guys to respond.’ For me, it was one of the first times I learned to trust myself and it ended up working out. It was one of the most important wins we had in a big moment on the road.
PSN: And then fast forwarding to 2020, it’s only fitting that your final NEC game ends with a conference title. Do you consider it the ultimate finishing touch, or the final exclamation point, on the program’s successful run in the conference?
AT: Yeah man, I think it’s a pretty sweet way to do it. You’re so focused on winning a championship and getting an opportunity to reach an NCAA tournament. So as we came down over the last couple weeks of the season, the players just took it to another level. Just to witness that whole (championship) game unfold, and to see how well we played in the championship and the semifinal — those entire 80 minutes — you can’t really play any better than that. I consider it one of the greatest memories about our time in the NEC. The environment that night at the UPMC Events Center was electric. Everything came together in a storybook way. First year in the building, hosting the NEC championship, being able to win it during championship week — and it ultimately being one of the last NCAA games because of the pandemic. It’s just pretty symbolic of the way our last 13 years in the conference have unfolded.
PSN: Can you speak on what went into the decision to join the Horizon League? Were there other conferences considered? Some rumors surfaced about the MAAC being another potential suitor.
AT: I can’t really speak on that. Chris King (RMU athletic director) picked this ball up when he came here last year and ran with it; having the important conversations and discussing things with Dr. Howard (RMU president). Chris would be the guy to answer that question.
PSN: Do you feel the move to the Horizon League will improve your ability to not only recruit talented players, but also retain those who might otherwise transfer to a higher program? Transfers have been an issue in the past. Can this help?
AT: Well, we know we’ve got to continue to recruit good players in order to compete in this league. It’s a legitimate mid-major league. Over their last five years, their KenPom scores were impressive in terms of rankings. So we’ll need to get good players who fit our culture and are willing to work. We’ve gotten over the idea of worrying about a particular player transferring. We just need to coach them right, provide them with the right opportunities and the right resources, and hope they see that and understand we can get them to where they want to get in the game. For a while, we tried to do some things that would deter people from leaving — and it didn’t matter. If players are gonna go, they’re gonna go. And if players are gonna stay, they’re going to stay because they understand what’s in front of them. We’ve got to keep coaching them right, keep pushing them, keep holding them accountable, and keep providing the right resources to create the right experiences for them. But some aspects are just out of our control.
PSN: In particular, how did you try to deter players from leaving?
AT: I don’t know, that’s for a longer conversation. But maybe just being more hesitant in how you would communicate with them at times. If I let this guy show up two minutes late, he’s not going to feel some sort of way about being talked to about punctuality. Eventually, as a coach, you can only stomach that for so long. However, this group of guys over the last few years — with Jon (Williams), Josh (Williams) and Charles Bain — they were so low-maintenance and so coachable. They wanted to be here, which made it so enjoyable. I think that’s the kind of kid we’re going to look for. The talent needs to be there, but also the coachability factor is something important.
PSN: Now that you’ll be playing in a new region with the Horizon League, do you foresee adjusting your recruiting pipeline in terms of its location? Traditionally, you’ve found success recruiting on the East Coast — New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia. Could your areas of focus change, grow or be altered to fit a new conference?
AT: I wouldn’t say we’re going to alter it, but I think playing in new areas exposes your program to a new audience. Sometimes it’s nice to play in a certain city where you haven’t been before. You get to communicate with a new high school coach or two, or someone gets to see your game because they are there to watch your opponent play. Now, they become familiar with your program. I think the Horizon League certainly can expand our reputation, brand and footprint. A lot of people on the East Coast respect our program, so we’ll continue to recruit in those areas. But even if you look at our incoming class this year, a lot of them were outside of the traditional NEC footprint. In today’s age of social media, players are more inclined and more exposed to different programs across the country. We’ll continue to track down the right guys for us; the players who can come in and help us compete.
PSN: In the past, you’ve talked about the pride you have in being a steward of the program and driving its growth for now the last 10 years. You’ve also mentioned your family’s affinity for the Pittsburgh area. You enjoy raising your two sons here. However, as a young coaching commodity, there’s always speculation that you could be on the move to a larger program in a Power 5 conference. Does this move to the Horizon League signify your intent to stay at Robert Morris long term?
AT: Everybody keeps telling me I’m not that young anymore (laughing).
PSN: Well, you do have some grey hairs starting to grow in…
AT: Yeah, more than I’d like, actually. But I’ve always said that as long as we’re continuing to move the program forward and we’re all moving in the same direction, that’s what exciting for me. This is a new challenge and a unique opportunity for myself and my staff to go into a league and try to figure out how to compete and hopefully put ourselves in a position to win. It’s never been — and I don’t think ever will be — where I’m on the hunt for any and every opportunity. It’s a situation where as long as we’re continuing to move our program forward and continuing to build, that’s what excites me. Obviously this move to the Horizon League signifies us doing that.
Toole declined to comment on the potential of a contract extension coming in the near future. His current deal with Robert Morris runs through the 2024 season.