Right at Wright

Dan Wetzel

Traveling Violations: As good as it gets

FAIRBORN, Ohio – Had Brad Brownell chosen to take a moment atop the Horizon League championship ladder to take in all the Wright State fans chanting his name below and, rather than clipped the net, shaken a how-do-you-like-me-now fist back towards Wilmington, N.C., well, who could have blamed him?

For anyone who’s every felt underappreciated by their new boss and just desperate to tell him "to take-this-job-and-shove-it," to issue a "you’ll-miss-me-when-I’m-gone" walk out the door, you just got yourself a team and a coach in the NCAA Tournament.

Brownell went to the NCAAs last year too, leading UNC Wilmington to its second bid in four seasons. But the school had a new athletic director, Mike Capaccio, a former junior college national championship coach and one-time UNCW assistant.

The details remain sketchy, but the broad picture is clear, an AD/coach relationship that was so strained not even a 25-win season could ease it. Despite the on-court success, the work environment was poison and Wilmington wasn’t making much of a commitment to Brownell.

Brownell decided he had had enough. Generally, when you are 38-years-old and on your second NCAA tourney out of the Colonial Athletic Association your next job is going to be in the ACC or SEC. But there wasn’t such an opportunity for Brownell.

So he did the unheard of and took a job here at Wright State in suburban Dayton, at a school that hadn’t had a winning season since 2002, hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1993 and plays second fiddle locally not just to Ohio State, but to the University of Dayton as well.

To call it a lateral move is to be kind. This was a good coach fleeing a bad situation with just about no where else to run.

But there was Brownell, and two of his assistants who went with him, having the last laugh Tuesday. The Raiders (23-9) delivered a 60-55 victory over No. 17 Butler to set off quite possibly the greatest celebration in school history.

Oh, and back in Wilmington, the Seahawks went 7-22.

“I don’t have any redemption or anything like that,” said Brownell after. “I still think (Wilmington) is a great place, a great job. Unfortunately some circumstances forced me to leave. But that was still a great situation for me.”

For Brownell, Wilmington remains personal. He spent 12 years there from lowest coach in the office to the guy in charge. He was there when the program was built, when it first got into the NCAAs and when he turned it into a consistent mid-major power.

“Wilmington, North Carolina is my home,” said Brownell, an Evansville, Ind. native. “That’s where my children were born. I spent 12 years there. So I view that period with the fondest of memories. Those were great times for me and I think of those as some of the happiest times of my life.”

He wouldn’t bash the place. He really wouldn’t say a negative word. But as committed as he is to Wright State and as much as he enjoyed watching these long suffering fans and this under-the-radar school enjoy a big day in the sun, you had to wonder if he still wondered about Wilmington?

One of his former players, Todd Hendley, attended the game. (“It was wonderful, he’s a great kid,” said Brownell). Meanwhile his phone kept ringing and text messages kept landing with wishes from back in Carolina. Throughout the season Brownell has remained close with so many UNCW fans he had grown close with.

Many of them were infuriated when Capaccio and Wilmington seemingly did nothing to keep him. It would be one thing if it was the SEC that took him away, but Wright State?

And then they watched him deliver magic the way he used to in Wilmington. Brownell is a demanding coach, and a skilled teacher. There were predictable struggles early as the players learned their new coach’s system and adapted to his no-nonsense ways. At one point the Raiders were 3-5.

“We (had to) put everything in the right order,” DaShaun Wood, the star guard who had 27 points Tuesday, said. “Right before Christmas everyone figured out what he wanted done and we put it together.”

Since then Wright State has been almost unstoppable. It won 15 of its last 16 games and captured the Horizon League regular season title, which allowed them to host the title game here. The Raiders enter the NCAA tournament more than capable of winning just one game.

“You don’t want to just go there and play, you want to win,” Brownell said.

It was a phrase he said a year ago too, back at the school he didn’t think he’d leave unless a big-time program made it impossible to stay.

“It was a very difficult decision,” said Brownell. “It was probably one of the hardest decisions I’ve made in my lifetime.

“I loved my time at Wilmington, but because (his Wright State players) haven’t been (to the NCAAs), the school hadn’t been to the NCAAs in a long time, to see people light up in the community, people proud of Wright State is gratifying.”

That’s about all he’d say, the coach who’s looking forward now, pushing ahead. He isn’t wasting any time, any energy on feuds gone by; on pointing out that in the end he was right.

Of course, he doesn’t need to. Wright State on Selection Sunday pretty much says it all.