The Road Less Traveled

by Mike Gillian (Longwood)
The Road Less Traveled

It has been quite a journey, but at last we have a conference affiliation.

Longwood’s path to the Big South Conference has certainly gone down the road less traveled. I didn’t realize when I took over as head coach in 2003 that it would take nine years to get here, but it was well worth it.

After spending one season with Coach Jim Larranaga at Bowling Green, I followed him to George Mason. In just our second season we won the CAA Tournament and earned a trip to the NCAA Tournament. Two years later we returned and nearly upset Maryland in the first round. 

I learned a lot during my time with Coach Larranaga.   One of the things that he liked to do was to have every coach on his staff involved in all aspects of the program. I was involved in everything and thought that I could handle the duties and responsibilities of being a head coach. So following the 2002-03 season I accepted the head coaching position at Longwood.

 A lot of people asked me why I didn’t wait for a better job. The answer was simple I had the job I wanted.  As an assistant I wasn’t interested in a non-division head coaching job and I wasn’t interested in pursuing a high-level assistant spot. I wanted to be a head coach and Longwood offered me that opportunity. 

In my first season we played a Division II Independent schedule. The five-year DI reclassification wasn’t going to be easy, but we had a great plan in place and I was confident that we would succeed.  Plans are only great if you stay the course and that’s what we did. We weren’t looking for any quick fixes. We were looking to make progress.

And we did.

We only won one game during that first season of reclassification, but the following season Longwood was among the most improved teams in America. We won 10 games that year, which may not seem all that impressive to a lot of people, but a double-digit win total at a Division I Independent was a great accomplishment for our program.

Over the next seven seasons we averaged about 11 wins per, including a 17-win season. Eleven wins a season won’t get a lot of national attention, but it was something we felt very good about. The players we had recruited were committed. They played hard and we had some success and over the next few seasons we have won about 70% of our home games heading into the 2012-13 campaign.

It wasn’t ideal to not have a conference affiliation, but it also wasn’t a crutch. We always needed it, but we never complained that we didn’t have it. When I took the job I knew it was a top priority of the administration to get Longwood into a league.  Without a conference success is limited because a league brings rivalries, all-league accolades, conference tournament with a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament and much more.

Playing in a league also brings with it a sense of stability. As an Independent your team has to travel all over country to play games. That can be hard on your team. In February, while many teams are playing games for a chance to win a league title, our players weren’t able to experience that. And players watch ESPN so they can see everybody else playing for a league title or a spot in the conference tournament.

The past nine seasons were difficult on everyone associated with the program, but nobody panicked and nobody ever complained. That’s what makes our entry into the Big South all the more special. There were a lot of things that could have derailed us over the past nine years, but instead our program moved forward.

Today Longwood is a far cry from what it was when I first stepped on campus. We have a new recreational center, great dorms, pedestrian walkway through campus and many other things. The growth in less than a decade has been tremendous.

We know that we still have some growing pains ahead. Entering the Big South is exciting, but it will also be challenging. We took the road less traveled to get here and it was certainly well worth it.