Former RMU coach Schmidt finally in NCAA tourney
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Prior to his first appearance in the NCAA tournament in 11 seasons as head coach, St. Bonaventure coach Mark Schmidt was relaxed at the podium at Bridgestone Arena on Thursday afternoon. He smiled, leaning toward the reporters sitting below. And as questions were asked, he was candid.
Most of all, the former Robert Morris coach seemed to take the whole moment in.
"We're playing with house money," he said in his familiar, heavy New England accent.
Schmidt's school may have changed, but the rhetoric was the same.
The Mark Schmidt leading the Bonnies to a surprising run out of the Atlantic 10 to the NCAA Tournament in 2012 was very much the same Mark Schmidt who went into battle with NEC foes, leading an average-at-best team in his first season with the Colonials in 2002.
The difference? St. Bonaventure is 20-11 in 2012 and preparing to face ACC tournament champion Florida State in Friday's second round after upsetting Xavier in the Atlantic 10 championship game. When Schmidt took over at Robert Morris a decade ago, the Colonials scraped by to get into the Northeast Conference tournament field as the No. 6 seed.
Schmidt spent six seasons in the Sewall Center, compiling an 82-90 record. He took over in 2001, after the one-season Danny Nee experiment. After a 17-11 campaign in 2006-07, Schmidt headed north to Olean, N.Y., to tackle another rebuilding project at NCAA probation-saddled St. Bonaventure.
Despite the overall losing record at Robert Morris, it wasn't without some success and long-lasting impacts.
Schmidt was responsible for recruiting both Tony Lee and Jeremy Chappell, both names that will long live in the lore and record books of RMU basketball. And he was the coach on the sidelines the night Robert Morris College became Robert Morris University.
But it was evident on Thursday that when Schmidt left Moon Township, he took his entire basketball playbook with him.
His three stars on his current roster - senior forward Andrew Nicholson and sophomore guards Matthew Wright and Charlon Kloof - all echoed the same refrain.
Chemistry. Confidence. Playing relaxed and loose.
"I definitely think we're peaking at the right point," Kloof said. "And our confidence and chemistry is at top level and we'll just try to carry it over."
Added Wright: "We're peaking at the right time and our team chemistry is finally down pat. I think the main thing is that we have nothing to lose, so we're playing a lot more relaxed than we have in previous games."
The reporters who covered the Schmidt-era at Robert Morris heard the same refrain after nearly every game, win or loss. Even 10 years later, the philosophy hasn't changed a bit.
"We don't have Top 100 players," Schmidt said. "In order for us to be successful, we have to play well together. We really recruit guys that are hard workers, that are overachievers, that are gym rats, good character guys and we got a bunch of good character guys that play for each other.
"Sometimes it's overstated, but in this case, it isn't. We're here because we don't have the greatest talent, but we've got a good team."
He spoke of Nicholson, who is a potential NBA Draft pick, much in the same way he spoke first of RMU alums Aaron Thomas and Wesley Fluellen, then later Chappell and Lee.
"Andrew's been everything to us since he arrived as a freshman," Schmidt said. "He's our go-to guy. … When your best player is playing his best, we've got a great shot."
He waxed poetic about the send-off the small basketball community in Olean gave his team on Wednesday.
"Bonaventure basketball, for the people that don't know, we've got 2,000 students in our school," he said. "They let all the kids out of school and our bus went through all the little towns, by all the elementary schools, all the businesses and it was special.
"It was almost like we had won the national championship. It brought a tear to my eye how important basketball is to Bonaventure, to the community."
After leaving the podium, Schmidt introduced two of his three sons - now much bigger and older than the tots who ran around the perimeter of the Sewall Center on game nights years ago - to some of the local media who traveled to Nashville.
He shook hands and took extra questions as he walked the tunnel to the arena floor, where he led the Bonnies in the team's final shootaround before Friday's tip.
He paced the floor, arms crossed, taking it all in. He smiled and nodded when three boisterous St. Bonaventure fans entered the arena midway through the practice, shouting praises to their team and coach from high above the hardwood.
He hardly said a word, let alone bark instructions to his team.
That, of anything, may have been the most surprising for those that have known Schmidt for a long time.
But then again, maybe it's not.
He's here. Finally. And he's playing with house money.
Carla Swank, who covered Mark Schmidt during his early days at Robert Morris, is a network producer for Rivals.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @CarlaSwank.