NJIT, the lone independent D-I team, searching for respect and a home

Wednesday February 12th, 2014

Jim Engles has more to worry about than wins and losses as the head coach of the lone independent Division I team.
Mel Evans/AP

Many newly hired college basketball coaches inherit less than ideal circumstances, but when Jim Engles took the reins at the New Jersey Institute of Technology six years ago, his were especially wanting. The Highlanders had been a Division I team for two years, during which they had won just five games. None of those had come in the previous season, when the team finished 0-29 and grew into such a laughingstock that The Late Show with David Letterman invited the team to read one of the show's signature top-10 lists on air. They declined. Engles -- a first-time head coach after 18 years as an assistant at Wagner, Rider, and Columbia -- would have loved to pick the brain of an experienced colleague who'd been dealt a similar hand. The problem was finding one.

"There weren't a lot of people for me to go to and say, 'How'd you do it?'" Engles says, seated at the desk in his spare, windowless office on the Newark campus. "What'd you do here? What'd you do there? How do you get yourself out of this stuff?"

On the shelf behind him sit a pair of reminders that he indeed got out of that stuff: plaques commemorating NJIT as the Great West Conference's 2012-13 regular season champions and Engles as the league's coach of the year. But those plaques also remind him that he's again on an island. The Great West is dead and gone, a casualty of conference realignment, and NJIT is playing this season as the lone independent team in all of Division I. To employ realignment's most common metaphor, when the music stopped, the Highlanders were left standing without a chair.

"I've never won at that game," says Engles, and winning at his job is now that much harder for it. Without the structure of a league, he must fill an entire schedule himself and get recruits to find appeal in such odd circumstances, all while keeping his team motivated without a championship to pursue or standings to climb. And, of course, he has to coach basketball. "Other teams, they don't have to keep their players up to date on how things are going with [finding a] conference," Engles says. "They have to worry about who's guarding number 45."

Yet independence was not unfamiliar for Engles and his program. When NJIT, a public polytechnic university with more than 10,000 students, began its transition from Division III to II to I, it did so without a destination conference, playing its first three D-I seasons as an independent. But in those days, with 10 to 12 independent programs each season, being without a home did not mean being alone. Teams formed a sort of scheduling alliance from January to March when the rest of the country was duking it out in conference play.

Beginning in 2009-10, the Great West offered a more traditional solution. Growing out of an existing FCS football conference, the league pulled together several independent programs - Houston Baptist, Utah Valley, Chicago State, Texas-Pan American, North and South Dakota, and yes, even NJIT - under a hodgepodge umbrella for all sports. The result was a geographic sprawl that would make even the American Athletic Conference blush, as well as one that stretched the budgets of all the non-revenue teams forced to jet two time zones west for a men's volleyball or women's tennis match. There was no automatic NCAA tournament bid, but at least there was a schedule and a championship for which to compete. "I don't think it was ever going to be the answer for us," says NJIT athletic director Lenny Kaplan. "But it was a safe harbor until we could find something."

Soon that harbor was infiltrated by college athletics reality. Without the auto bid, the Great West was ripe for poaching when automatic-qualifier conferences began looking to restock after being raided themselves. And with an NCAA moratorium stifling programs from transitioning to D-I without a conference invitation, the Great West had no pipeline of its own, shrinking to five teams last season. As three found homes in the Western Athletic Conference and another in the Southland, where they were joined by the remaining independents of Cal State-Bakersfield and New Orleans, respectively, the writing was on the wall.

And so intensified a still-ongoing series of phone calls, emails, and meetings seeking shelter - all "cordial," Kaplan says, and many sympathetic, but thus far fruitless. Some conferences are happy at their current number of programs; others want only private schools; still others are looking for football members; all would like NJIT to upgrade its on-campus arena, the Estelle and Zoom Fleisher Center, a dim den built in 1967 with 15 rows of red bleachers along one wall. "We chat as much as we can," Kaplan says. "It's a wide swath of, 'Hey, I'm here! By the way, don't forget me!'"

The best immediate benefit of a conference would be a defined schedule. Even scheduling men's basketball games in November and December is a careful dance, as coaches weigh factors like RPI and try to avoid losses that would tarnish a tourney resume. Doing so in January and February when the rest of the country is locked into its league slates can seem impossible. Engles had a breakthrough when he discovered the MEAC had an odd number of teams, often leaving one team's schedule open when the rest of the league plays. He called in a favor from Duquesne coach Jim Ferry, an old friend and a former neighbor of Kaplan's on Long Island, and got the Dukes to visit in late January. He brought in two D-III schools and two from the NAIA. He lost a lot of sleep.

The result is as unbalanced a schedule as you're likely to ever find. With teams willing to play them early thanks to their youth - they rank 347th among 351 D-I teams in weighted experience, per KenPom.com - the Highlanders opened with six-straight away games, including three in five days. After spending late November and early December mostly at home, they were nomads once again: Between Dec. 23 and Jan. 27, coinciding with the school's winter break, eight of their nine games were on the road. There were highlights, like playing at Butler's Hinkle Fieldhouse (even though three-quarters of the team had never seen Hoosiers), but also plenty of fatigue. Engles returned to one hotel and forgot what room he was in. Sophomore guard Ky Howard found himself waking up early, getting dressed, and heading to practice on off days between trips. "You don't know where you're at," says Nigel Sydnor, another sophomore guard. "You don't know what day of the week it is. You just know it's game day."

Sydnor and Howard say that travel is a net positive - that getting to see, say, the Rocky Mountains in Utah or the Eiffel Tower on this year's preseason European tour for free while playing basketball on a scholarship more than outweighs the rigors. But not everyone sees it that way. Where Engles' biggest recruiting hurdle was once the search-engine ignominy of the team's 51-game losing streak from '08 to '09, their current status as D-I black sheep can now be a nonstarter. "When we call somebody and their first question is, 'What league are you in?'" says the coach, "and they don't return your calls anymore, then you know."

The implication is that with a foreseeable path to the postseason, league members hold a trump card over NJIT. Engles, who in nearly two decades as a small-conference assistant never experienced March Madness, doesn't buy it. "Every kid may walk into next season thinking, 'We've got a chance to go to the NCAA tournament,'" he says. "Yeah, you do. But the reality is: Nah, not really."

Current Highlanders have instead adopted goals both more subtle and grandiose than the usual championship and tourney chases. On the one hand is respect -- to have those teams that go through lackadaisical pregame layup lines and ask "who are y'all?" look them in the eye and mean it when they say "good game" after the buzzer. On the other is for their play to catch the eyes of ADs and conference administrators as well, catalyzing a move into a league that will change the course of the fledgling program. Says Sydnor, "We're playing for more this year than we've ever played for: the history of NJIT."

Several of NJIT's other sports have been accepted as associate members of other leagues - men's volleyball in the EIVA and women's tennis in the America East. Two likely suitors have emerged for full membership, including basketball: the Northeast Conference (currently at nine members) and America East (10). NJIT has undertaken steps to meet each league's requirements. Next spring it will launch a men's lacrosse program. This month it is commissioning quotes from architectural firms for what is expected to be a $70 to $80 million facility built atop the Fleisher Center's skeleton, for use not only by varsity teams but also intramurals and events like freshman convocation for a student body expected to grow roughly 40 percent by 2020. The school is formulating funding plans including bonds, fundraising, and debt. "This university," says Dr. Joel S. Bloom, NJIT's president, "needs this events center regardless."

Unburdened by exit fees or league ties to sever, a conference home for next season could come as early as this spring or as late as September. For now, the Highlanders -- 10-15 through Wednesday -- will play out the string, which ends early and unceremoniously against North Carolina Central at home on Feb. 25. Next year's schedule remains a mishmash in progress. Several of this season's opponents have agreed to games a year from now, but in the cutthroat, complex world of college basketball schedule-making, such promises don't always hold. "If somebody doesn't wanna play us next year on the reciprocal date, we're sort of screwed," says Engles.

But should a conference come calling and fill the second half of his schedule, he would happily turn the tables. "I hope in a few months," he adds, "I can call up all these guys I've got scheduled and say, 'Hey, we can't play you.'" He smiles. It may be somewhat cruel to leave teams scrambling to find games that time of year. But Engles knows that all too well.

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