Tom Parrotta took the microphone at the men’s basketball “Meet & Greet” last Friday night and walked over to the bleachers, where roughly 100 students were sitting.
The men’s basketball coach, who earns one of the highest salaries on campus, spent the next 10 minutes teaching students what to scream when a player goes to the free-throw line.
Every time an opposing player bounces the ball, fans in the student section are to yell “Boo!” as loud as they can. Parrotta called junior transfer Jordan Heath from the stands to act as a visiting player.
The 6-foot-10 Heath, who hurt his ankle earlier during practice, bounced the ball five times before putting up a shot. “Boo! Boo! Boo! Boo! Boo!” Parrotta yelled into the mic. The ball clanked off the rim and fell to the floor.
They reset the drill. Five more bounces and five more screams gave way to another missed free throw before Heath limped off the court, making sure to be seen favoring the ankle.
The night was a near-perfect representation of the program. The event was loose and fun with an intimate feel to it that you wouldn’t normally expect form a Division I team.
Basketball players made it look easy going against students picked out of the stands last Friday, and the player introductions may have even lent a bit of optimism to a program at a crossroads.
As C-Block members played out tournament scenarios in their heads and started to envision a George Mason-like run through the NCAA tournament, one of the dance teams lined up for a performance. Right before they were set to begin, there was a holdup – one of the coaches’ sons ran all the way across the court.
And with that, perspective returned to the Koessler Athletic Center. This isn’t Duke or Syracuse or Kansas. More than 200 D-I schools – about 65 percent – spend more money on their men’s basketball programs than Canisius, according to numbers from bbstate.com. The team doesn’t exist to make money or break records or contend for national titles. In a town that doesn’t go overboard for college athletics or the sport of basketball, there are other motives.
A quick glance at recent standings shows Canisius has been a below-average team in a mid-major conference. The Griffs haven’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1996. They haven’t beaten a nationally-ranked opponent since 1994 and haven’t finished in the top half of the conference in this millennium.
But it’s getting better. Parrotta has been at Canisius since April 2006 and his teams have improved in each of the last four years, going from six wins to 11 to 15 in both the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons. Last year’s team went 9-9 in conference, becoming the first Canisius squad to finish .500 or better in MAAC play in a decade and the first team to earn a bye in the opening round of the conference tournament in 12 years.
The Griffs were third in the league in scoring offense last year at 68.1 points per game and fourth in scoring defense (67.5 ppg). Even the fact that Canisius scored more points than it allowed is improvement – that hadn’t happened since the 20-win season of 2001.
But a toddler would never run across Bo Ryan or Frank Martin’s court; the boy would lock himself in a closet out of fear. That homelike feeling doesn’t exist at big programs that win at any cost. The Griffs do things differently, and it starts with coaching.
“It’s easy to try to cheat, bring in questionable students, but [Canisius] hasn’t,” former on-campus sports promotions grad assistant and C-Block co-founder Mike Kochczynski said over the phone. “I take a lot of comfort in the way [Canisius] is building. The biggest success for Parrotta and his staff thus far is molding good basketball players into great students and making team, service and school the highest priorities.”
There was once a reason the word “student” came first in the term “student-athlete,” but Tom Parrotta might be the only coach in the country who could say that now with a straight face.
While other colleges are facing NCAA investigations by the truckload, the Griffs are getting ahead in their professional careers. All five of last year’s seniors earned their undergraduate degrees in their first three years at Canisius and began working on their master’s degrees last season. Rokas Gricius, set to be a senior this season, opted instead to graduate early and take a job opportunity.
While schools like Kentucky – which spends more on men’s basketball than Canisius spends on its entire athletic program, according to the same data from Basketball State – competed in the Final Four, Canisius made an appearance at the event in the game program, with a picture and an essay detailing the team’s success in the classroom. A small-school basketball program like Canisius’ may never again play its way into the Final Four given the state of big-money collegiate athletics. But the Griffs were there in another sense, and that’s something few, if any, similar schools can claim.
Parrotta was quoted last year about the scores of people who have reached out to congratulate him on the graduation achievements of his program. Realistically, he’s probably received more praise for his players’ performance in-class than on-court. And that’s okay. Remember, it has to be about more than just winning with Canisius; the school doesn’t have the resources for that to be the only concern.
When Parrotta signed an extension in May 2010 to keep him at Canisius through next season, athletic director Bill Maher didn’t say “Look how much we’re winning under Tom” or “I think we’re going to be the team to beat in the MAAC.” He noted the team’s “steady progress” and said that Parrotta “has done a great job of recruiting and developing the young men.” That’s the essence of the program.
Near the end of the Meet & Greet, raffle tickets – which were given out for free to every student in attendance – were pulled for various Canisius-related prizes. At the start, there some cool prizes: gifts cards, lunch with the captains anywhere on campus and an autographed team basketball.
But the last two prizes were really something. One student won the opportunity to sit on the team bench during a home game. Hundreds of thousands of kids go off to school every summer to a college with D-I basketball, but how many of them ever get to sit on the bench for a game?
If you’re thinking “Only at Canisius,” wait until you hear the last prize – and it’s one Coach P. is rumored to have suggested all by himself: A home-cooked meal for the winner and five friends at Parrotta’s house.
Surely he is the only coach in the country who would volunteer to invite six strangers into his home, all in the name of promoting his program. Parrotta may have a hard exterior with his imposing stature and slicked-back hair, but you know his heart is overflowing with Blue and Gold love.
Canisius was picked to finish second-to-last in the MAAC’s preseason poll and early predictions have the team winning 10-12 games. Winning is never a sure thing with the Griffs, but they’re not as far off as some people think. In the words of Kochczynski, “it’s a matter of turning [improvements] into tangible victories.” It’s possible the Griffs could go on a tear through the MAAC and end up as a top-four team, but it’s also possible the team struggles early and mails it in for next year, when Heath, Freddy Asprilla and Isaac Sosa become eligible after sitting out this season.
Whenever the wins start coming, you can bet they’ll be earned the right way.
“I think sometimes Canisius debates trading wins for ethics, but then that tenacious character of the school kicks in and we end up coming to our senses,” Kochczynski said. “As an alumnus, I’m proud the school develops, recruits and coaches student-athletes the right way.”
The Griffs don’t have the country’s top recruits or the league’s nicest facilities, but that’s okay. Canisius measures success by more than just wins and losses.