March 12, 2010

He certainly became right guy for the job

MIKE LOWE

— By

20090223_Storm
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20090223_Storm

Gordon Chibroski

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Jason Mulligan has led the UNE men to the NCAA tourney in his second year.

Courtesy University of New England

Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD — If ever anyone had reason to walk away from a job interview, it was Jason Mulligan.

He was scheduled to fly to Portland from Indiana in July 2007 to interview at the University of New England for the men's basketball head-coaching job.

His flight was delayed and he arrived at 2 a.m. the day of his interview. His luggage, including personal grooming accessories, were somewhere in New York, along with his playbook and a description of his basketball philosophy.

''I thought to myself, 'Why bother?''' said Mulligan, who had been a finalist for two other head-coaching jobs that summer. ''There was no way I would get the job.''

But he went anyway and, well, impressed them.

''You just knew he was a winner,'' said UNE Athletic Director Kim Allen. And, ''We wanted someone here who knew how to win.''

So Mulligan, whose goal as a student at Olivet Nazarene in Bourbonnais, Ill., was to become a sports writer, was UNE's pick. And the Nor'easters, previously an afterthought in The Commonwealth Coast Conference, became a winner.

The UNE men will play in their first NCAA Division III tournament Friday after winning the conference championship and the automatic bid.

It is an amazing turnaround. The year before Mulligan arrived, UNE won five games. Last year the Nor'easters won 15. This year 24 and counting.

''I have never seen a coach take a program and that quickly turn it around,'' said Allen.

That's probably because Mulligan didn't exactly do this in textbook style. He took some chances, both in recruiting and in strategy.

When Mulligan, 31, arrived at UNE, he had a roster of eight. It was August, well past the recruiting period. But he worked his connections and somehow convinced three players from Texas to come to Maine -- sight unseen -- to play for him.

That worked out so well he convinced Allen he needed to go back to Texas for more recruits. He got eight more.

''If Kim, our athletic director, didn't have the vision and didn't have the support and wasn't making the commitment to us, it wouldn't happen,'' said Mulligan. ''How many coaches can say, 'I'm going to Texas for a week to recruit?'''

Allen said supporting Mulligan's recruiting will lead to greater success in the entire athletic program.

''We have to give him great support in recruiting,'' said Allen. ''We know, with the success of the men's basketball program, we will draw more student-athletes across the board. Success breeds success.''

The other interesting thing is the type of player he recruited -- all guard types.

John Jefferson, a senior forward from Dallas and one of Mulligan's first recruits, said that was by design.

''Coming into this year, Coach told me that he didn't want to get any big men,'' said Jefferson, who at 6-4 qualifies as UNE's big man. ''He just wanted five guards, with us pressing and running the whole game.''

Somewhere it dawned on Mulligan that, in order to win the conference, he had to play a different game. All the other teams ran set plays and games were usually decided by who executed best.

His plan was to run and run and run. Trap the ball on defense. Hit 3-point shots.

''You know, everyone loves the 6-8 guys,'' said Mulligan. ''But 6-4 is our tallest.

''The only way we can be successful is to play the way we do. We definitely have the depth to press the whole game. No one plays more than three or four minutes at a time.''

He had to do some convincing at first. His players asked how a 6-4 center would be able to guard a 6-8 center.

Easy, he said, play in front of him and pressure the ball so they can't get it to him. And if they do get it to him, the weak-side help better be there.

Offensively, said Jefferson, it's ''three or key,'' meaning, hit the 3-pointers or drive to the basket.

The style, which Jefferson calls ''controlled freelance,'' is perfect for a small team trying to wear down a bigger team.

''I've been playing the running offense and pressing defense my whole life,'' said freshman guard Anthony Johnson.

That style, and team, has won over the campus. After playing in front of maybe 100 fans during the season, 1,100 showed up for Saturday's conference championship game.

''They started believing in us more and more each game,'' said Johnson.

And the players and the coach believe they have something special.

''We're going from a school that athletically for years was irrelevant to really being a player in Division III,'' said Mulligan. ''It's the right place at the right time, and I'm just glad I'm here.''

Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at:

mlowe@pressherald.com

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