Around the Nation
Coaches who can be counted on to turn things around
|These coaches – Mary Washington's Marcus Kahn, Swarthmore's Candice Signor-Brown and Berry's Mitch Cole – have found success at multiple Division III programs which were in need of a retooling.
Marcus Kahn by Dan Hunter, d3photography.com; Swarthmore athletics; Berry athletics
By Ryan Scott
Division III has a lot of coaches with long tenures. Some have recently retired, some have announced it’s coming, and others are thinking carefully about how and when. These are coaches who have built successful programs – however one defines success – and thrive in maintaining them.
Others, though, relish building programs.
While Swarthmore’s unanimous No. 1 men’s basketball team has been getting lots of press, the relatively unheralded hiring of Candice Signor-Brown as the Swarthmore women’s coach this summer was perhaps the most notable offseason move.
I don’t know if it’s a role or title she’s sought out, but Signor-Brown has become a bit of a turnaround specialist. She took Manhattanville from single-digit wins to postseason play in just three years before moving to Vassar, which had not had a winning season in almost a decade prior to her arrival, but became a perennial conference contender under her leadership.
Her hiring was a statement both ways: that Swarthmore went out and got a successful, hard-driving coach for their women’s program, which has struggled of late; and that Signor-Brown saw enough in Swarthmore’s program to leave a great situation and start rebuilding again.
“Some of it was personal,” says Signor-Brown. “This is three hours closer to my hometown, but you see what the men’s program is doing and you know what the possibilities are here.”
Already this season, Swarthmore women’s basketball has more than doubled the win total from 2018-19. The Garnet are 7-5 (4-3 in conference) with 13 games left to play. “We’re ahead of schedule,” says Signor-Brown, “We had a three-year plan: this year being more competitive, next year being [.500 or so], and then, in the third year, hopefully going to the conference playoffs.”
What Signor-Brown has brought to campus is an expectation that her program will be run like a national contender. Adam Hertz, Swarthmore’s athletic director, saw the difference immediately:
“Candice brings a level of credibility that, for one reason or another, had been lost. There is some enthusiasm among the roster. Candice is very organized, very focused, and holds the players very accountable – and that’s something they were craving.”
It’s very easy for an elite academic institution, like Swarthmore, to excuse non-competitive athletics. It’s hard to get into Swarthmore, limiting the player pool, and the demands of the classroom could potentially (and are) too much for some. Hertz has been AD for nearly 20 years and talks about the struggle to build a community of coaches committed to each other and to bringing in the kind of student who can excel in the classroom and on the court.
“Our players are front row students, they ask questions,” he says, “Swarthmore is unique. It’s not for everyone, but it’s a great place if you’re the right fit for it.”
That elite academic reputation and its location adjacent to Philadelphia (the train literally runs through campus) were also draws for Signor-Brown, who is determined to match the success of the men’s program.
“We’re going to recruit All-Americans,” says Signor-Brown, a two-time D3hoops.com All-America herself as a player at Marymount. “We’re the No. 3-rated liberal arts school in the country. I can go to players considering Lehigh or Penn and they know they won’t sacrifice a bit of their education coming here.”
Competing with Division I schools for recruits is not something we’ve long associated with Swarthmore, but the athletic department has achieved great success in recent years across a number of sports. Context, commitment, and support from the institution are essential, no matter how good the coaching.
Mitch Cole built Birmingham-Southern into a contender last decade and then spent a number of years on Division I benches as an assistant. In his return to head coaching, he chose Berry, where his two years have seen record success for the small Georgia school.
“You have all the personal draws,” says Cole, “I was familiar with the conference and the geography. The overall makeup of the school and what it stands for give us the ability to recruit kids from the region, the South, which I’m familiar with. But really you need a school that will provide resources and support to be equal with your conference.”
Cole also mentioned good relationships with faculty and admissions, saying “we all need to be rolling in the same direction.” Hertz spoke about how intentional Swarthmore has been at cultivating connections with the larger campus to ensure everyone knows the athletic department is fully on board with the overall expectations of academic excellence.
Marcus Kahn made it to the very edge of a national championship while coaching men’s basketball at Cabrini, a job he took on after building up the Pitt-Greensburg program, and left to tackle the challenge of restoring Mary Washington, where his young team just knocked off No. 4 Randolph-Macon this week.
“We really felt we’d reach the top of what we could do at Cabrini,” says Kahn, “We were a very small school competing with giant public institutions. We were allowed to host the first weekend [of the NCAA Tournament] but we were never going to host the second, which makes it much harder to advance. Seeing the facilities at Mary Washington, which is a public school that operates like a private, it feels like the best of both worlds.”
It’s not that Kahn is strictly out for career advancement, but he has a different kind of personality and is driven by different motivations than the coach who will spend decades in one place.
“I get a lot of ‘why would you leave’ from other coaches,” says Kahn. “I wasn’t looking to get out of Cabrini, but I love the challenge of taking a team that has been bottom of the barrel and building that up to conference championships. I’m always looking for the next challenge: Sometimes that is right where you are and other times it’s somewhere else.”
Both Kahn and Signor-Brown talked about how different each experience is, even as they try to instill their personal and unique methods into a new program. Kahn said, “each school is such a different context. You have to learn the culture and figure out what makes sense here. It’s taken us a year longer than I’d hoped to get where we are [at Mary Washington] largely because it took time to find our niche and fit everything together.”
Kahn’s driving philosophy remains unchanged, though: “self-importance is our greatest enemy,” which he applies to himself as much as the players, noting that at times his own ego has gotten in the way and having strong relationships with players and staff help to keep everyone focused.
“We’re in this together,” says Kahn. “It’s hard for a player to hear me says ‘I don’t care if you score; I care if we score.’ Not everyone gets that, but those who understand and respond make everyone better.”
Every coach I spoke with talked about playing the best competition possible, with Kahn citing Cabrini’s first NCAA Tournament appearance: “We got crushed by Randolph-Macon and I knew we had to schedule better. [My teams] will play anyone, anywhere, anytime if it will make us better.”
Mary Washington struggled through three tough games in the Pacific Northwest this year. They played well, for the most part, but didn’t see the wins they were hoping for (part of the reason beating Randolph-Macon this week was so important). “The trip did give a young team a chance to bond and experience things together we couldn’t do otherwise.”
That connection also seems key to success. Signor-Brown emphasized the importance of listening, noting she made dorm visits to her players this fall with no intention of talking basketball, but getting to know them – their lives and interests – on their own turf.
She credits the culture Bill Finney built at Marymount with inspiring the culture she seeks to build in her own program. “He built a sisterhood,” says Signor-Brown. “Whether my teammate was my best friend or just a teammate I know, even today, I can still call them and they’ll be supportive and loyal. I have that relationship even with some players who were in school long after I graduated. Coach Finney still calls all of us and keeps us connected to each other.”
Signor-Brown’s programs have continued in success after she’s left, which she credits to the players themselves. “If you recruit good players who buy into the culture, they pass that down to the next ones that come along.”
Cole recognizes the importance of athletics in building community, especially at a place like Berry, which is a small school in a small town. “People want to come out to support winning teams. It helps with recruitment and not just athletic recruitment. Sports, the arts, whatever performance events you have, bring people together and that’s good for everyone.”
Swarthmore is not a place most of us outside observers would identify as an athletic hotbed, but even that campus community has embraced the success of their athlete peers. The men’s game against Rochester over winter break boasted attendance nearly as high as conference tournament games, with a pretty impressive contingent of students.
“What really sold me [on Swarthmore],” says Signor-Brown, “was when I went for the interview, you could get a sense that the administration truly wanted this program to be successful and would put you in a position to be most successful. Lots of schools want to win, but if they’re not going to put you in a position to do that, you will struggle.”
Excellence means different things at different places. Some school want national titles, others are ecstatic to win the conference, still others prioritize the off-court success and development of student-athletes. Regardless of the goals, though, it takes a special talent to build a successful basketball program and it takes a different kind of special talent to do it over and over again.
“We just have to keep getting after it,” says Signor-Brown. “I believe that’s how you effect a quick turnaround: You can’t change personnel, but you can change how hard you work.”
Ryan Scott serves as the lead columnist for D3hoops.com and previously wrote the Mid-Atlantic Around the Region column in 2015 and 2016. He's a long-time D-III basketball supporter and former player currently residing in Middletown, Del., where he serves as a work-at-home dad, doing freelance writing and editing projects. He has written for multiple publications across a wide spectrum of topics. Ryan is a graduate of Eastern Nazarene College.
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