Steve Pikiell cannot stop smiling on Media Day.
In the ninth year of his Stony Brook career, Pikiell has a lot to be happy about. The head men’s basketball coach has overseen the program as it rose from “just hoping to not play the 8/9 game” to contending for a berth in the NCAA tournament. The Seawolves now have the support of the community, the administration and the student body. They have season ticket holders, sold-out games and a new arena coming next fall. It is a complete turnaround from what things were like when Pikiell joined the program back in 2005.
“It’s a whole different mindset,” he said. “When I took the job, there was a ton of different obstacles to overcome.”
Those obstacles encompassed all areas of the program. After becoming a Division I team in 1999, Stony Brook’s basketball program floundered, with the few supporters they had considering it a good game if the team did not get blown out.
When Pikiell arrived, the team was on probation and had the lowest Academic Progress Rate (APR) in the America East, which put scholarship limitations on the program due to a lack of academic success. Kids were there for a good time, not to get an education.
“A lot of those guys were here to have fun,” he said. “These guys here now are here to graduate and to play basketball.”
Pikiell is the cause of that changed mindset. He pushed his athletes to get better grades and, his first time speaking as head coach, he made the program’s goal a trip to the NCAA tournament.
“You set a goal like that and our first few years, my god it seemed like it would take forever to reach,” he said. “It’s a difficult job to do.”
But Pikiell felt he could take that job on. He started by selling the vision of the future. On one of the first tours he did with recruits, the roof was leaking.
“We’re showing recruits around with buckets of water dripping through the ceiling,” he recalled. “It’s difficult, but you need to get those guys to believe in the vision to get these players now to come play for you.”
And get players he did. Pikiell recruited stars like Muhammad El-Amin and Bryan Dougher, players who he calls “very good basketball players who believed in our vision.”
“These guys believed in us before the new arena, before we had a new locker room, before we had a new weight room,” he said.
With stars to build a roster around, Pikiell’s next job was to get the community involved. This, he thinks, was his biggest challenge.
“The culture that was here, how people looked at our program and thought of our program,” he said. “The community – it took ‘em time.”
He wanted the community’s help, however, to spread the word about how great a university Stony Brook is. To do so, he needed to get them out to games. Pikiell’s strategy was to invite one person to a game, and make sure that person enjoyed themselves.
“We educate one at a time,” he said. “Invite one person to a game; if they came, they liked it and then they were supposed to bring a friend with them.”
“That’s how we’ve kind of built this – when they come they like it,” Pikiell said.
So many people come these days that Stony Brook decided to build a new arena. After several years of construction, the brand new, state-of-the-art, 4008-seat arena will be open for the 2014-2015 basketball season.
A graduate of the University of Connecticut, Pikiell is not new to playing in front of a crowd. He served as the assistant coach at UConn, Yale, Central Connecticut State and George Washington before coming to Stony Brook. In 1990 as a Husky, he played on UConn’s first-ever Big East championship team under Jim Calhoun.
Pikiell claims that, like at UConn back in the day, what makes his program great is his staff and the support they receive.
“It’s not just the basketball coach, it’s everybody,” he said. “We’ve got the support of a great President [Stanley], a great athletic director, the band…you need a lot of people to help you build a basketball program.”
The staff, which includes assistant coaches Jay Young, Lamar Chapman and Dan Rickard, and athletic director Jim Fiore have been consistent with their support of Pikiell since he started at SBU.
“I’ve got a great staff that I trust and they understand what we need to do here,” he said.
What they needed to do was “change 100 percent.” In his nine seasons at Stony Brook, Pikiell has accrued three America East regular season titles and three NIT bids with a winning percentage of .488, all while sending nine of his players on to the professional leagues, including the entire 2012 senior class. SBU has posted back-to-back-to-back APRs of 1000, and saw Andrew Goba become the program’s first America East Men’s Basketball Scholar-Athlete in 2010.
“We’ve done it with great kids, kids that graduate and kids that represent the school the right way,” he said. “And I’m proud of that.”
Pikiell continued: “It’s difficult, it’s a difficult job to do and all those other things need to be in place in order to do it – kids have to be eligible, kids have to be graduating, you have to have enough scholarships, you have to do those kind of things to compete for league titles to stay at that level.”
With high expectations for the 2013-2014 season – the Seawolves were picked to finish second in the America East pre-season coaches poll – Pikiell is excited at the prospect of maybe finally making the NCAA tournament come March.
“I feel like we’ve accomplished 99 of things and we just have one more,” he said. “We’re right there and we’re knocking on the door.”
Since he became a Seawolf in 2005, expectations have changed “1000 percent,” and Pikiell could not be happier.
“We’re a pretty respected basketball program, we’ve really done what we’re supposed to do with the program and put high expectations on where we’re supposed to be,” he said.
“It’s a great university, it’s a great great place,” he said. “I’m proud to be the head coach.”