NJIT men’s basketball coach Jim Engles was honored Friday afternoon as the 2015 John McLendon National Coach of the Year at the annual CollegeInsider.com Awards Banquet, held at the Hyatt Regency Hotel.
CollegeInsider.com bestows the annual McLendon Award to one men’s basketball coach across the full spectrum of college basketball competition—NCAA Division I, II, and III; NAIA; and junior college.
Named in honor of trailblazing Hall of Fame coach John McLendon, the award is one of 17, mostly for coaching, sponsored annually by the website CollegeInsider.com.
The website is known to NJIT basketball fans as sponsor of the recently-completed national postseason tournament, the CIT. The Highlanders, who earned their first-ever Division I postseason tournament berth with a spot in the 2015 CIT, advanced all the way to the tournament semifinals before falling at Northern Arizona, 68-61, in Flagstaff Tuesday night.
Born in Kansas in 1915, McLendon attended the University of Kansas, where he was not allowed to play in intercollegiate games because he was African-American. However, the Kansas Director of Athletics was Dr. James Naismith, inventor of basketball. McLendon learned the intricacies of the game from Dr, Naismith and took the knowledge into a long coaching career.
Working in the segregated South, Coach McLendon led championship teams at four different historically black colleges. Then, in 1962, he became the first African-American head coach in major professional basketball for the old Cleveland Pipers, who were owned by a 32-year old named George Steinbrenner.
In 1966, McLendon returned to college coaching at Cleveland State, where he was the first African-American head coach at a predominantly white NCAA member college or university.
McLendon is credited as a pioneer in developing the full-court press and zone press on defense and the “four -corners” offense, among other innovations. He died in 1999.
For Engles and his Highlanders, 2014-15 was a breakthrough season, as NJIT and its men’s basketball team became part of an ongoing that made the Highlanders a national story, and for all the right reasons.
Having shaken off the stigma of 51 consecutive losses while the program was in the reclassification process from Division II to Division I during late 2007 and continuing to mid-January 2009, the Highlanders came into this season with a reputation as a team that certainly could hold its own against opponents from the regional mid-level Division I conferences.
However, despite some close calls in 2012-13 at Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall, and Villanova, NJIT had never beaten a team from a power conference. And despite playing “name” programs like the aforementioned four, Maryland, and Georgetown, the Highlanders had never faced a team in the National Top 25 (when that team was actually in the Top 25)
Everything changed on December 6, 2014, when Engles and the Highlanders went into Ann Arbor and stunned one of college basketball’s enduring elite programs, Michigan, 72-70 when the Wolverines were ranked #17 in the AP national poll and #16 in the USA Today national poll.
Suddenly, the giant-slayer Highlanders were national news for pulling off what many experts called an all-time upset.
As great as that signature win was, NJIT still needed to prove it wasn’t a one-off fluke. The Highlanders did exactly that, winning 21 games, five more than any previous NJIT Division I team had ever achieved, and the most in 20 years, going back to when the program competed in NCAA Division III.
The 21 wins came against teams from nine different Division I conferences, including Northeast Conference regular season champion St. Francis Brooklyn, Ivy League co-champion Yale, and Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference champion Hampton, which would win a First Four game in the NCAA Tournament.
The Highlanders were a program-record 15-2 at home, including three consecutive wins in sold-out Fleisher Athletic Center in the CIT to reach the semifinals at Northern Arizona. From December 30 to the end of the season, NJIT’s record was 16-3.
Along the way, the Highlanders gained fans from all over the country, both for their compelling story of persevering as the nation’s only Division I Independent, but also as a group that played true team basketball on both ends of the court.
On the surface, given his team’s stunning rise from relative obscurity, Engles was an overnight sensation. Except “overnight” was really 25 years of following a college coaching path blazed by many ahead of him.
In a system structured in a manner not unlike apprenticeship in the building trades, Engles started coaching immediately after graduating from college (Dickinson, Carisle, PA, 1990).
He became a graduate assistant at Division I Wagner on his native Staten Island in 1991 and moved up to a full-time spot on the staff headed by Tim Capstraw. After helping boost Wagner’s fortunes, he joined the staff at Rider in Lawrenceville, NJ, in 1997 and the Broncs won the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference regular season crown in 2001-02.
From Rider, Engles headed to Columbia, where he was the lead assistant from 2002 until taking over at NJIT in April 2008.
As if more than a decade-and-a-half in the often-thankless role as an assistant coach wasn’t enough, things actually got harder for Engles once he finally acquired his long-sought head coaching post with NJIT.
He inherited a team that had achieved notoriety for going winless in 29 games the season before and the top scorer and rebounder, who could have returned, decided to transfer rather than go through the building process with a new coach. The second-leading scorer on the winless team graduated.
That first Highlander team under Engles in 2008-09 went just 1-30, but snapped the losing streak in late January, finally allowing the program to focus on the future.
His first full recruiting class helped the 2009-10 Highlanders win 10 games, a modest amount by most standards, but a big step considering the first three Division I schedules had yielded a combination of just six wins.
The 2010-11 season ushered in a four-year stretch of records that were around break-even: 15-15, 15-17, 16-13 (Great West Conference regular season champs), and 13-16 (2013-14 with a roster consisting of two juniors and the rest freshmen and sophomores, with no seniors).
That young 2013-14 squad would form the core of the record-setting 2014-15 Highlanders.
NJIT Director of Athletics Lenny Kaplan, who hired Engles as the second men’s basketball coach in NJIT’s Division I era on April 28, 2010, said: “Jim is a great coach and person and we are fortunate to have him represent our University and athletic program. I am glad he is getting some well-deserved national recognition for what he has done; he has earned it.”
The CollegeInsider.com awards banquet, given the website’s emphasis on its relationship with the college coaching community, is held annually at the NCAA Men’s Final Four in the headquarters hotel of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, even though there is no formal tie between the 5,000-member NABC and the popular website.
NJIT’s Coach Engles was also among 16 finalists for three other CollegeInsider.com awards given at Friday’s banquet. They were: Hugh Durham Award, Jim Phelan Award, and Skip Prosser Man of the Year Award.
Update: Bob Huggins (West Virginia) won the Jim Phelan Award (Division I National Coach of the Year); Brian Katz (Sacramento State) won the Hugh Durham Award (National “Mid-Major” Coach of the Year); and, Keno Davis (Central Michigan) won the Skip Prosser Man of the Year Award (Division I coach achieving success on the court and displaying moral integrity off the court; NJIT’s Engles has been a finalist 3 times in the last 5 years).
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