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Chris Mooney's Graceful Toughness Rebuilds Richmond into Threat

Oct 4, 2010 – 5:30 PM
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Michael Litos

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It was in a dimly-lit, post-Katrina French Quarter alley late one night in 2005 when the fortunes of the Richmond basketball program turned. The plan was scribbled on the back of a discarded pizza box by a man some call Dr. Sweats.

Richmond earned an at-large bid to last year's NCAA tournament and is a consensus top four team in this season's Atlantic 10 preseason picks. But getting to a point where the program has these lofty expectations has been a rugged path for head coach Chris Mooney.

The Spiders, recognized as college basketball's original Cinderella, were in the throes of a precipitous decline when Mooney was hired in the spring of 2005. Richmond had achieved national acclaim by making the 1988 Sweet 16 as a 13-seed, and became the first 15-seed to beat a two-seed in the NCAA tournament when the Spiders defeated Syracuse in 1991. Richmond remains the only college basketball program to win an NCAA tournament game as a 12, 13, 14 and 15 seed.

However, the team slipped to 14-15 in 2004-05, and the program had fallen farther. Head coach Jerry Wainwright departed for DePaul and three players were dismissed from the team. What's more, two incoming freshmen were not admitted to school. Mooney, with all of one season's worth of college head coaching experience at Air Force, inherited the tough task of rebuilding the program.

So even though Richmond's record stood at 5-5 that December 2005 night, Mooney knew the problems were deeper than a mediocre six weeks on the court. As if on cue, Richmond lost 64-41 to a Tulane team that had lost to non-D1 St. Edwards in its previous game. Mooney can recall that game and his coaches meeting afterward now without a hint of a furrow in his brow.

"We practiced horrible and played worse," said Mooney, telling the story as if he's reading a Phillies box score: intent yet without concern. "We as coaches went out back (of a restaurant) and drew plays and made strategy notes on whatever we could find. We were grasping, wondering what we could do to move this thing forward."

"We as coaches went out back (of a restaurant) and drew plays and made strategy notes on whatever we could find. We were grasping, wondering what we could do to move this thing forward."
-- Richmond coach Chris Mooney
The turnaround wouldn't happen quickly. In fact, it got worse. Richmond lost eight of its final 10 games in 2005-06, including back-to-back embarrassments of 69-30 to Temple and 70-39 to St. Joseph's. Richmond won its first three games the next year but went into a 1-15 skid, finishing 8-22.

Things appeared grim, but Mooney and his staff had that plan written on that pizza box, and they were steadfast. Three freshman -- Ryan Butler, David Gonzalvez and Dan Geriot -- were a part of that plan and all played significant minutes on that 8-22 team. In order to succeed, Mooney needed to block out vociferous alumni detractors, waning attendance and an increasingly successful football program.

Everything seemed to be going the wrong way, but Mooney pressed forward.

Mooney's toughness is a special brand of toughness. After all, he played for the toughest of coaches, Pete Carril, at Princeton -- "the most demanding coach and person I will ever know," sai Mooney. "You needed to be tough."

Mooney's ability to persevere the rough times and steady the Richmond program, with uncommon grace, is far deeper than lessons gleaned from a demanding college coach. His upbringing blows away the stereotype of a spoiled Ivy League kid.

Mooney didn't come with a trust fund and BMW. He didn't own even a junkyard car. "Even if I could afford the car, I couldn't afford the insurance," he said.

His father drove a Greyhound bus for a living, and his neighbors growing up were firemen and policemen. Mooney earned his nickname Dr. Sweats because that's all he wore his freshman year -- he didn't have enough money to buy a pair of jeans. He even worked in the Princeton cafeteria as a student to help pay bills.

The most significant event in his life was when his mother lost her battle with breast cancer when Mooney was 13 years old.

"It was the summer after eighth grade," he said. "My mom was impressive. She drove a school bus, was a secretary, and (after being diagnosed with breast cancer) she became a spokesperson for a company that made breast prostheses for women."

Said Carril: "He promised her he was going to live by the virtues she had for him, and he's lived them out. He's a serious guy and smart, and he doesn't have an ego or some kind of fake vanity."

Mooney's life of lessons from powerful role models began to pay dividends in his coaching career long before Richmond. Unlike some in the famed coaching tree circuit, Mooney took a more difficult path.

At 22 years old, he was named to the top job at Lansdale Catholic, coaching kids four years his junior. Mooney knew he wanted to coach at the college level, so he jumped at the chance to coach at Division III Beaver College in Pennsylvania. Interestingly, the job of basketball coach at Beaver College was not a full-time position, so Mooney was also named the school's conference services manager.

Every day began early and ended late, with conference room bookings and wedding planning activity occurring along with the usual rigor of coaching practices, games and handling academics (and without a support staff).

"It was taxing, and very emotionally challenging," Mooney said. He nearly gave up after two uncompetitive losses his second year, but that rare quality inside him wouldn't let him quit.

Carril sees it. "Guys that give the most of what they have I call light bulbs and he was a light bulb," said the legendary coach. "I used to call him moonbeam. I looked forward to seeing him every day. He might be 10 minutes late because of a class and you'd miss him, and he'd walk into the gym and you loved it. I'm not surprised he's become a very good coach."

Dan Geriot (pictured right) is a senior and will start at center this year for Mooney. Geriot missed his junior season with a knee injury and redshirted, making him the only holdover from the 8-22 team. He was one of seven freshmen on the team and remembers his first year clearly.

"It was not my idea of the college basketball experience," Geriot said, shaking his head side-to-side with the half-grin of someone in a very good place remembering a very bad time. "It was tough to deal with and transferring was brought up. We all ventured into it in our own way, but the guys that ultimately contributed to our success stayed."

Mooney knew something, too. He knew his style had to change. Mooney's first two seasons at Richmond were more bombastic than intense. He ran afoul of officials and picked up his share of technical fouls. Mooney's introspective nature ultimately allowed him to mellow, and it was obvious to his players. These days Mooney doesn't resort to hokey motivational ploys and treats his players as adults.

"It wasn't anything he said, but it was his actions as a person and as a coach," said Geriot of changing the mindset. "He developed as a person and he talked to us about it. He said to us 'I've changed' and he admitted it. It's cool to have a coach that can look at you eye-to-eye and talk with you about those things."

Geriot also remembers the turning point, a 52-49 victory over Virginia Tech during his sophomore year. Ironically, that Virginia Tech team featured A.D. Vassallo, one of the players denied entry into Richmond when things began to turn sour.

"That win was it," Geriot said. "We finished 9-7 in conference and, by the end of the year, we knew we could be good."

Could indeed. The 8-22 debacle became 16-15, 20-16, and then last year's 26-9 and NCAA tournament at-large berth. Expectations this year are higher.

The Spiders feature returning A10 player of the year Kevin Anderson and budding NBA draft prospect Justin Harper. Geriot, a big man who can pass from high post, is a key cog in Mooney's attack. However Geriot's experience may be more important. He has seen it all, including the building of the program. There's nuance in that experience that cannot be underestimated.

"We want to win an A10 championship," he said. "We'd like to win (the A10 tournament) in Atlantic City, but the regular season would be (better) because it represents more of a body of work."

Geriot's experience brings it full circle. He recalls last March, when Richmond was one of the schools chosen to appear on CBS during the tournament selection show. Geriot remembers sitting in a chair and thinking: "This is my idea of college basketball."
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