When Siena offered him its head coaching job in 2010 after Fran McCaffery left for Iowa, longtime assistant Mitch Buonaguro was ecstatic at the chance to be in charge of a Division I program again for the first time in 19 years.
He didn't have long to settle into his dream job, however, before the challenges of sustaining McCaffery's success became clear.
A post on a Siena fan site read, "Welcome to the Hot Seat, Mitch" the day his team lost to city rival Albany to fall to 2-5 in his first season. Boos rained down on the Saints late in their next game, a blowout home loss to conference foe Fairfield. By the time Siena staggered to a 13-18 record in Buonaguro's inaugural year on the bench, a few fans were already begging the school to, "Ditch Mitch."
Criticism of Buonaguro rightly dissipated after last year's massively shorthanded Siena team overachieved by winning 14 games in a rebuilding year, but the third-year coach still faces pressure to keep making progress.
McCaffery's final three teams each won at least a share of the MAAC title and made the NCAA tournament. At the very least, Buonaguro wants Siena to reemerge as a contender next season.
"Hopefully, this year we start the climb back to the top of the MAAC," Buonaguro said. "When I got the job, what I always felt was the administration would give me time to build it. We never want to say we're rebuilding, but with some of the losses to graduation and some of the injuries we had, we were. Now we have a full team and we're ready to go. This year I expect to be in the hunt,"
Unlike last season when Siena competed with a six-man rotation as a result of injuries and NCAA eligibility issues, this year's Saints have the depth and talent to make that goal realistic.
Senior O.D. Anosike averaged 15.0 points and 12.5 rebounds during a dominant junior season, establishing himself as the MAAC's premier big man this year. Sophomore forwards Lionel Gomis and Imoh Silas have been freed from NCAA purgatory. And speedy 5-foot-10 sophomore Rakeem Brookins is back from a herniated disk to form what should be an undersized yet dynamic backcourt with 5-foot-8 sophomore Evan Hymes.
Siena athletic director John D'Argenio told the Albany TImes Union last month he thinks a winning season is a reasonable expectation for this year's Saints. Buonaguro, now in the third year of a four-year contract, is aiming even higher.
Mitch Buonaguro (US Presswire)
"I'd like to see us move up in the league and at least finish in the top four," Buonaguro said. "Our goal every year is to compete for a championship. If we keep this team healthy and by the end of the year we're a factor in the conference tournament, that to me would be a successful season."
Making headway in the MAAC will not be easy next season with favorites Manhattan and Loyola returning so much talent, but Buonaguro is not daunted by the challenge. His unusual career arc demonstrates his ability to achieve what others said he couldn't.
Once a hotshot assistant on Rollie Massamino's staff when Villanova won the 1985 national championship, Buonaguro appeared destined to rise to the top of his industry. He parlayed Villanova's success into an opportunity to become Fairfield's head coach in the spring of 1985, collected MAAC coach of the year honors in his debut season and made back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances in 1986 and 87.
Four straight losing seasons followed, however, leading Fairfield to fire Buonaguro in 1991. It would take 19 years and assistant coaching gigs at Texas A&M (1991-96), Cleveland State (1996-03), UNC-Greensboro (2003-05) and Siena (2005-10) before Buonaguro would have a second chance to be a head coach.
"It was a great day for me when Siena hired me, a great moment in my life," Buonaguro said. "Even though I was at an age when people said I wouldn't get another chance, I still believed I would. I think after Fran left to go to Iowa, Fran gave me his blessing and the administration was happy with the kids we brought in and the success we had. I think that's a very rewarding way to get a job. The school rewarded me for something I'd done here in elevating the program."
Since Buonaguro had played such a key role in building the program with McCaffery, he also was well aware it was arriving at a crossroads as he was taking over. MAAC player of the year Kenny Hasbrouck graduated in 2009. Standouts Alex Franklin, Edwin Ubiles and Ronald Moore left after the 2010 season. And while seniors Ryan Rossiter and Clarence Moore returned for Buonaguro's first season, the young talent in the program was not at the level it needed to be besides Anosike.
Buonaguro admits his first season was more of a struggle than he expected, but he made some changes that he believes contributed to the Saints overachieving in year two.
He spent more time trying to connect with his players on a personal level and less time trying to win over fans at alumni gatherings and functions. He also revamped his coaching staff, hiring two assistants who had been head coaches at successful lower-level programs and a new director of basketball operations.
"I really think I got a lot more help in terms of the staff last year," Buonaguro said. "I was a lot more comfortable in the job and I think I coached better. You don't want a staff of yes men. These are guys that challenge me every day and make me a better coach."
Between a stronger staff, a deeper roster and a team hungry for success, Buonaguro is confident the 2012-13 season could be a breakthrough year for the program, which is good because the stakes are high.
Win, and Buonaguro will entrench himself in the job and send the message that it won't be long before Siena is back atop the MAAC pecking order. Lose, and he'll again have to cope with a restless fan base with high expectations and little patience.