Conference Called: Now in the Atlantic Sun, NJIT can focus on bigger dreams
In a decade marked by such a dizzying dance of realignment in college athletics, it is easy to dismiss the announcement of a new conference membership as yet another money grab or destruction of tradition. But in a repurposed architectural gallery on its urban Newark campus Friday afternoon, there was something more endearing about the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s commemoration of its joining the Atlantic Sun.
Maybe it was the stack of red “WE’RE READY” shirts being handed out like marathon water cups. Maybe it was the palpable pride of the city’s mayor, Ras Baraka, as he joked about how the men’s basketball team had turned him into a fan last season. Or maybe it was the way that team’s coach, Jim Engles, paused on his way to the dais next to the big yellow-and-orange A-Sun logo printed on the canvas backdrop and practically gave it a hug.
“I want this thing right here,” Engles said. “Can I make this a blanket? Can I wear this tonight?”
So ends one of college basketball’s quirky curiosities. After spending the last two seasons as the lone independent among Division I’s 351 programs, NJIT is no longer the sport’s black sheep.
“This is a game-changer,” Engles said. “You become a normal program ... All these athletes have competed with one hand behind their backs. Both hands are free now.”
For much of the country, NJIT’s now-former distinction was the source of somewhat ironic celebration in December, when the Highlanders’ shocking 72-70 win at then-No. 17 Michigan made it an early season darling. Amid the mainstream news coverage, the school’s bookstore was flooded with T-shirt orders and the school produced online videos and features introducing the Highlanders to the world.
But internally, the reality of indie life was much less fun. Without a league schedule, January and February games had to be pieced together from a pool of nearby D-II and D-III schools and the scarce free dates of other D-I programs, which might be hesitant to sacrifice what would otherwise be a resting period during the all-important conference grind. (The result was often a front-loaded, travel-intensive slate; last year the team played nine of 10 games on the road in a 35-day span.) Without a postseason tournament or realistic path to an NCAA tourney berth, seasons carried a finite expiration date in late February. There was no conference-shared revenue from March Madness—schools stand to earn six figures from each of their league brethren’s tourney appearances, and more per win—or the accompanying postseason buzz to drum up alumni donations. And for recruits, the lack of affiliation was often a nonstarter, leaving Engles a team comprised of prospects without other D-I offers or the rare kids for whom even the illusion of a trip to the NCAA tournament was not a priority.
None of this was expected eight years ago when the school first transitioned to Division I. At the time, independents were not uncommon; in 2007-08, NJIT was one of 11. In 2009-10, seven of them banded together under makeshift banner of Great West. But when realignment winds began swirling, the hodgepodge shelter was torn apart. Those with football programs were poached, as were those that fit geographically in other leagues’ footprints. As the Great West’s lone East Coast team, and as a program that offered no football team, NJIT found itself as the only independent remaining—the lone true loser in college sports’ frantic musical chairs. "I've never won at that game," Engles joked to SI.com last year.
But Engles did beat Michigan, the high point of one of college basketball’s quietest and most impressive builds. In 2007, Engles took over a program that had gone 0-29 the previous season, a dubious achievement that earned the team an invitation to The Late Show with David Letterman. (They declined.) After a 1-30 first season under Engles, the Highlanders began floating around the .500 for five years before this past season’s breakthrough. The Highlanders not only upset the Wolverines in Ann Arbor but also posted a 21-12 record that culminated in a run to the semifinals of the CollegeInsider.com postseason tournament.
Over the years there had been close calls and flirtations with conferences, namely the America East and Northeast. But there were always hangups: a lack of football or men’s lacrosse, the school’s lackluster facilities. “We’ve been begging people for 10 years,” said athletic director Lenny Kaplan. “I don’t have to stalk people at conferences anymore.”
A chair finally opened this spring when Northern Kentucky left the Atlantic Sun for the Horizon League, a move Engles and Kaplan got wind of at a Final Four weekend dinner in Indianapolis. What followed was described by those involved as a shift of NJIT’s marathon search into a sprint—phone calls, emails, logistics. Then, when the deal was seemingly done Thursday morning, it began to drag again.
“It was like the longest pregnancy,” Engles said. “We were supposed to hear at 10:30, and my wife was calling me. My daughter leaves her sixth grade class and tells the teacher, ‘I need to go down and make to a call to my mother,’ goes down to the principal’s office and calls my wife to find out if we’re in the league yet.
“If we didn’t get in this conference,” Engles added, turning to A-Sun commissioner Ted Gumbart, “there was gonna be a Jersey hit on you, dude.”
NJIT’s players spent Thursday on edge as well. Engles had called a team meeting at noon, only to find he had no news to share. He ordered them pizza and wings, then had them do their normal 1:30 workouts. Around 2:30, Engles finally got the text he’d spent years waiting for from Kaplan. When he shared it with his players, their reaction was subdued.
“It was more like a sigh of relief,” said guard Winfield Willis, a senior-to-be. “It was a long time coming.”
As the T-shirts will tell you, the Highlanders seem prepared for the company they join. Last year’s team ranked 166th nationally in overall efficiency, according to kenpom.com, which would have placed it higher than all but one Atlantic Sun team (conference champion North Florida). Coming off the program’s first-ever postseason berth, it’s an encouraging sign that it might not be long before NJIT breaks through to the Big Dance.
In his seven years as the Highlanders’ head coach, Engles had not watched the soaring “One Shining Moment” compilations CBS airs at the end of each NCAA tournament. It was something to which he was not connected, and so he refused to partake in one of the most beloved bits of college basketball culture. But during Thursday’s team meeting, he watched this year’s iteration with his entire team—a reminder of what they were now chasing.
“I’m not saying we’re gonna get there, but at least we have a chance,” Engles said Friday. “That’s what this is about.”