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May 3, 2013

Toole, RMU recommit to elevating program

At every press conference announcing a new coach or the successful retention of an old one, there are inevitably a handful of buzzwords that start to circle the event.

As Robert Morris announced a three-year contract extension for Andy Toole Friday, the frequent phrases uttered by Toole, athletic director Craig Coleman, and university president Gregory Dell'Omo centered on commitment and support. Whether it was the administration's commitment to more resources or Toole's commitment to keep trying to elevate the basketball program on the court, all involved detailed a shared vision for Robert Morris basketball that involves more than just a brief dalliance in the spotlight after a win over Kentucky in the NIT.

"Expectations are high here, and I think that's a good thing. When I first got here six years ago, expectations were in the middle of the road," Toole said. "We have not accomplished everything that we want to accomplish as a coaching staff or a program."

Coleman offered a number of statistics that illustrated Robert Morris' success during Toole's time as an assistant and head coach, then issued a statement that indicated why the extension's importance centered around more than on the court wins and losses.

"This contract extension is perhaps RMU's biggest win to date," Coleman said.

For the last few years, Robert Morris has envisioned its basketball program following the model of similar sized private institutions like Gonzaga and Butler. Those programs used extended, consistent success to elevate the university's standing on a national scale while bucking the trend of mid-majors being just occasional Cinderella teams. Keeping Toole keeps Robert Morris on track for RMU to model those programs.

"I think those are programs that are perfect examples of programs at similar sized institutions that have proven that they can exceed expectations of schools at that level," Coleman said, "and that's absolutely the track that we want to follow."

Dell'Omo believes that Toole is the man to keep building that foundation and help elevate Robert Morris' stature.

"We're becoming recognized as a legitimate program that is really beginning to develop the seeds of programs that eventually become very successful in this country," Dell'Omo said. "What we need to be successful is consistency, stability."

By committing more money and resources to Toole, Robert Morris is hoping to take care of the stability factor.

"He's a talented young man who is going to be somebody that many other institutions are going to look at as we continue to progress," Dell'Omo said. "But we want him to feel that this is his home, that he can build this institution and build this program to heights that he would like to achieve."

It's why Robert Morris approached Toole about an extension prior to the Northeast Conference Tournament and the program-defining win over Kentucky in the NIT. Toole had two years left on his contract, but Coleman said RMU wanted to reiterate how strongly it valued his leadership of the program.

"We actually started working on this even before the season ended. Andy knows how strongly we feel about him, and that doesn't just come up at contract time," Coleman said. "We started kicking some ideas for a contract extension before the conference tournament even started."

Toole interviewed for the head coaching job at Siena while Coleman vowed to put together as competitive of a package as possible to keep him. As a private university, Robert Morris doesn't release specifics of coaching contracts, but along with a raise and extension, the new deal also centered around potential facility improvements and raises for Toole's assistants.

"Equally important to him is that we're going to continue to increase support for the basketball program, look at ways to upgrade facilities in all different facilities," Coleman said. "He needed to know, and I completely agreed, that we're going to continue to make a commitment to provide him an environment that he can succeed."

The win over Kentucky is just the lynchpin for what Robert Morris envisions as potential consistent success in the future. While models like Gonzaga and Butler used early NCAA Tournament wins as launching pads, Toole said the nature of the NIT victory serves the same purpose.

"I don't know if it's equivalent to an NCAA win, but I think it's close," Toole said. "You can have tons of success, which we've had, but you need something that grabs everyone's attention and I think that one did."

At the very least, it's put Robert Morris on the maps of players they wouldn't normally reach.

"Some of the conversations that we've had from junior college kids from around the country, not from the northeast, they know that game," Toole said. "What do you know about Robert Morris?' 'I know you beat Kentucky'. That's the response we get from kids that normally wouldn't be in the know when it comes to Robert Morris basketball."

And it's that response that has Toole and Robert Morris believing that a renewed, shared commitment will take the program to new heights.

ColonialsCorner publisher Andrew Chiappazzi can be reached at achiappazzi@yahoo.com.



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