By Chris McManes
WASHINGTON – Catholic University Men's Basketball Coach Steve Howes enters the 2010-11 season – the Cardinals' 100th on the hardwood – tied with Jack Bruen for fourth place on the school's all-time victories list with 110. He finds it difficult to believe he is going to pass the man who built the foundation upon which today's program thrives.
"It gives me chills to hear that," Howes said. "Just to be mentioned in the same breath with him is very humbling."
Howes will get his first chance to surpass Bruen this weekend when the Cards play in the Allegheny Invitational in Meadville, Pa., on Saturday and Sunday. Their first home game is against Frostburg (Md.) State on Tuesday Nov. 23.
Bruen began coaching at CUA in 1982, the school's second year in Division III, and led the team to its first winning season in 12 years. He started the tournament that is now known as the CUA/Residence Inn Classic, began discussions that led to the formation of the Capital Athletic Conference (CAC), and instilled a pride in Cardinal basketball that is still present.
The winning philosophy in basketball and life that Bruen brought to CUA 28 years ago passed to Mike Lonergan and continues under Howes.
"Not just in terms of X's and O's, but in terms of the general philosophy of how to treat young men," Howes said. "We want high-character young men, we want good students, and we want athletes who have some very high goals and dreams. Much of what we run today is what Jack ran and what Mike ran. Of course each coach adds their own tweaks, but this is still Jack Bruen's program.
"He's the one who got this started."
Bruen left his alma mater in 1989 to become head coach at then-doormat Colgate, which he eventually led to two NCAA Tournaments. His life was tragically cut short in 1997 by pancreatic cancer at age 48.
"Jack Bruen is a legendary coaching icon in the D.C. area, and he so positively impacted the lives of so many coaches and players," Howes said. "Nationally, he didn't get the credit he deserved."
Lonergan played for Bruen from 1984-88 and coached under him for three years at Colgate (1989-92). Lonergan guided the Cardinals from 1992 to 2004 and became the winningest coach in CUA history with 251 victories, including the 2001 National Championship. He began his sixth year at Vermont last week by ending Siena's 38-game home winning streak.
Howes played for Lonergan for two years (1993-95) and was on his staff for five seasons before succeeding him.
Lonergan, who last year led Vermont to the America East championship and the first round of the NCAA Tournament, said Bruen would be proud of the program today.
"Steve has kept the winning up and also continued the great tradition of having the student athletes enjoy special experiences off the court," Lonergan said. "I think of playing in Madison Square Garden, practicing at UCLA, winning a tournament in Las Vegas and playing [Division I] schools each season.
"Steve has done a great job continuing Catholic University's legacy as a Division III power, a tradition he helped establish as a player and then assistant coach."
Trying to Live Up to His Mentor
The success that Lonergan enjoyed with the Cardinals is both a blessing and a bane. On the one hand, he put the Cards on the map nationally and has made recruiting easier. By the same token, he set the bar at a skyscraper height. Howes likened it to every head basketball coach who has worked at UCLA since iconic and 10-time-national-championship-winning John Wooden retired in 1975.
"Ask anybody that's coached at UCLA and they'll tell you how tough it is to follow a legend. I think my challenge is no different," Howes said. "Coach Lonergan obviously raised the bar to an unprecedented level here. I'm certainly honored to take over for him and assume that challenge. We know every day when we walk in the gym what the standard is, and we're working hard to uphold that tradition. I'd be less than honest if I said it was anything but a very tall order.
"But I like the challenge, our guys like the challenge, and I wouldn't want it any other way."
Howes, 37, said he feels the pressure every day to duplicate Lonergan's stint, which included seven consecutive CAC regular-season titles (1997-2004) and NCAA Tournament appearances. He was the only college coach in the nation – at any level – that could make that claim. Nine of CUA's NCAA postseason appearances came under Lonergan.
Howes is reminded of the Cardinals' basketball pedigree whenever he walks into DuFour Center for a game or practice.
"When you see 13 NCAA appearances and a National Championship banner, you want to be that good," he said. "You want your teams to enjoy that kind of success."
After taking the reins from Lonergan, Howes recorded three consecutive 20-win seasons. He won CAC championships in 2006 and 2007, qualified for the NCAA Tournament both years and won a game in the '07 playoffs to finish 23-6. But when stars Patrick Dwyer, Stephen Wheeler and three other seniors graduated, the following year was a different story.
Rebuilding the Program
Because his hiring was so late in the recruiting process – July 19, 2004 – Howes was unable to assemble a freshman class his first season. So three years later, his team had no seniors. That club, playing in the newly formed Landmark Conference, slumped to 10-15. It was the first time the program didn't win at least 20 games since Lonergan went 12-13 in 1996-97.
"I knew that gap in class was going to catch up with us at some point," Howes said.
Howes and his assistants had to hit the recruiting trail hard to restock the Cardinals with high-caliber players. Five of the young men that as freshmen won just 10 games, have won 18 each of the past two seasons. But losses in the semifinals of the four-team Landmark Tournament have prevented them from playing for the right to advance to the NCAA playoffs.
This year's Cardinals feature five seniors, two of which are starters: two-time honorable mention All-American Jason Banzhaf and first-team All-Landmark selection R.J. Dixon.
"We've gotten good fits academically, athletically and character-wise, and the payoff is the group that we have now," Howes said. "They came in and we started four freshmen and we've just gradually worked up. I'm real proud of their progress, and I think they have really begun to reach a point in their career where they understand what it takes to not only be good in a program, but to help lead in the program."
The other three starters this season are sophomores: Chris Kearney, Shawn Holmes and Dan DiVietri.
"Each year we've just chipped away, and I'm really pleased with the depth in all four of our classes now," Howes said.
Howes' six-member freshman class includes Billy Donovan, whose father – also Billy – led Florida to consecutive National Championships (2006-07). The younger Donovan is a sharpshooting guard who is expected to play a key role in the Cards' fortunes the next four years.
Howes and the Donovan family have gotten to know each other well.
"He's a very good coach and a great guy, and he just happens to coach my son," Coach Donovan said. "I've been able to develop a relationship with a really good guy who's built a really good program, and who's got a very strong affection toward Catholic [University] himself with his ties to the school. It's been a great relationship with him, and I told him I understand when you're talking about a Division III program and the challenge and the battles and the things they've got to do.
"If there's anything I can do to help him and the program, just because I believe and feel good about it, I would do it. They have great kids there, and I got the chance to meet them when we dropped our son off."
Leaving His Own Legacy
Although Howes has yet to enjoy the ultimate success Lonergan did, he has left a positive mark on the program. He's taken the Cardinals to five postseason tournaments; has former coaches and players coaching in Division I; has built strong relationships with CUA basketball alumni; has expanded and upgraded the Cardinals' media guide; and has an agreement with Nike to supply the team with shoes, gear and uniforms.
One of his crowning achievements was scheduling an exhibition game at Notre Dame on Nov. 6 to tip-off the Cards' 100th anniversary season.
"The trip to Notre Dame was a special moment in the program's history and among the experiences and lifelong friendships the players will cherish forever," Lonergan said. "The Catholic University basketball program is special and elite in many ways."
Fighting Irish Coach Mike Brey thinks highly of Howes, a former religion teacher who lives in Olney, Md., with his wife, Melanie, and their children, Michael and Sarah.
"I've known Steve for a long time, when he was a high school coach," said Brey, who was twice named Big East Coach of the Year. "I just told him he's done a great job. Look at his record, how prepared his kids are, how kids improve in his program. You know, at the end of the day at a place like Catholic U. and a place like Notre Dame, you're a teacher and the style of the teacher is important.
"I'd say this about Steve: I'd want my son to play for him – a positive guy who's enthusiastic every day, who's in it for the right reasons. So I think Catholic U. has a gem in their head coach."
Howes said he began to feel comfortable in 2006 when he won his first CAC Tournament championship and qualified for the NCAAs.
"I felt I was doing my part and could become my own coach," he said. "But certainly I think all the time about the things [Lonergan] did here and how he would handle certain situations. He's a very good coach, but I do think I've put my own positive stamp on the program. I'm looking to try to equal what he did here, but I think I've left a pretty good legacy here to date.
"While we haven't gone to the NCAA Tournament the last couple of years, we've still managed to win 18 games and have postseason play. And there are a lot of programs that would like to do that on a yearly basis. This year we'd like to take that next bigger step again."
Chris McManes is a former CUA sports information director.