For a long time, Elon Basketball has been stuck in what I call the “Loop of Failure.” A failure to recruit good players leads to a failure to create a culture of winning, leads to a failure to build enthusiasm around the program, which leads right back to a failure to recruit good players. But in Mike Schrage’s first year as Elon’s head coach, I believe there’s already evidence to support that maybe (just maybe) the Phoenix is systematically breaking each of the “Loop of Failure’s” chain links in order to escape from it.
A Brief History…
Matt Matheny was Elon’s head coach for the last 10 years and his fatal flaw was his inability to recruit. In 10 years, he had only two noteworthy recruiting classes: The group that graduated from Elon in 2015 (Jack Isenbarger, Sebastian Koch, Ryley Beaumont, and Lucas Troutman) and the group that graduated this past May (Tyler Seibring, Dainan Swoope, Steven Santa Ana, and Sheldon Eberhardt). Outside of those two classes, Matheny consistently failed to recruit more than one contributor per year. Sometimes he came up completely empty. Look no further than this year’s Elon team, which has zero scholarship seniors that were recruited by Matheny. Matt Matheny was fired because he never figured out how to consistently recruit and, as a result, never broke from the “Loop of Failure.”
Mike Schrage’s Early Recruiting Success
This is Schrage’s first head coaching opportunity. He’s been to NCAA Tournaments as an assistant coach/staffer/manager at Indiana, Duke, Stanford, Butler, and Ohio State. He knows what college basketball success looks like and he’s going to set a high standard for himself and his program. He’s quickly learning that – at a place like Elon that’s stuck in the “Loop of Failure” – being the head coach means a whole lot more than knowing the “Xs and Os” of basketball. The “Xs and Os” only matter if you’ve got guys who can execute them. And getting the guys who can execute them is a whole different ballgame when you don’t have a foundation of success to stand on.
So it’s pretty amazing, really, that Schrage seems to already be well ahead of schedule in the recruiting department. First-year coaches typically receive a pass on recruiting so that they can “settle in” to the new territory. In year one, Schrage’s already managed to bring in five newcomers who figure to be key contributors. Three freshmen and a graduate transfer from Stanford are contributing right now. The fifth guy is a transfer from Butler who will be eligible next year.
It’s not just that Schrage’s gotten guys to show up on campus; even Matt Matheny could get guys to show up. Perfectly good scholarships were used on non-contributors like Collin Luther, Duje Radja, and Jack Anton (the value of these guys’ contributions during practice should not be understated, I’m sure). Schrage’s guys, on the other hand, seem to be #actuallygood. You know, the type of guys who can execute the “Xs and Os.” The graduate transfer, Marcus Sheffield, is leading the team in scoring and two of the three freshmen (Hunter Woods and Hunter McIntosh) have already won the CAA’s Freshman of the Week award. Schrage’s also already signed three high schoolers who will join the team next season. This all certainly bodes well for breaking the first chain link in the “Loop of Failure.”
Creating a Winning Culture
Look, Elon’s not going to be good this year. Currently, the Phoenix is sitting at 4-8 with only one win against a Division I opponent (Kennesaw State). They’ve blown leads to lost to the likes of High Point and Manhattan. They’ve also been plain blown out, including a 36-point home loss to Furman. The Phoenix has yet to win a road game and only has one more opportunity to do so (Saturday vs. Winthrop) before conference play begins. Last place in the CAA is still very much on the table.
“I know I probably sound like a broken record, but this year I’m just focused on creating a culture,” Schrage repeatedly tells us.
Even during a season in which wins are going to be tough to come by, Schrage’s focus is on building toward a culture of winning. He likes his guys. He believes in them and he takes every chance he can to make sure they know that. Hunter McIntosh had a rough go of it last time out against Campbell. He went 1-6 from the field, turned the ball over six times, and fouled out. It was a bad game, so what’d Schrage say to McIntosh when he returned to the bench after fouling out?
“I’d go to battle with you any day.”
You can create a culture of winning even when you’re losing. Schrage is focused on instilling a set of team values: high effort, commitment to his style of play, believing in yourself and in each other, and making open shots. Schrage knows that it’s up to him to create a culture of success because there sure as hell isn’t anybody else at Elon who’s going to be able to show him how. As long as he’s got guys who he’ll go to battle with any day, creating culture becomes a lot easier.
Building Enthusiasm Around the Program
I’ve been around Elon athletics long enough to know this is the hard one. The unfortunate reality is that nobody at Elon cares about the Phoenix. I’m – of course – exaggerating a bit when I say “nobody,” but I invite you to join me at an Elon sporting event of your choosing, where I can show you a nearly empty stadium, arena, ballpark, or pitch. On a “good day” at Schar Center, the student section runs only two or three rows deep.
The easy argument is that Elon hasn’t built a culture of winning in any sport, so of course nobody shows up, but here’s the thing: Elon has had pockets of success. Baseball has sent teams to the NCAA Tournament. Women’s Basketball won back-to-back CAA Tournaments in 2017 and 2018. Men’s Soccer has an alumnus who currently plays for the US National Team (Daniel Lovitz). Football went to the FCS Playoffs in 2017 and 2018. But these pockets of success have done nothing to drive student support.
As you might guess, I find this extremely frustrating. I desperately want Elon to figure out a way to bring more people to games. I’m sick of hearing, “okay, win more games and people will show up.” It has to be more nuanced than that. Winning is awesome. Winning fixes a lot of things. But there has to be more to attract people to a game than the possibility of experiencing a win. Can’t we support our classmates just for the sake of supporting them? Can’t we at the very least get the Pep Band to show up for more than 40% of home basketball games for Christ’s sake?
The unfortunate answer is that the quickest way for Mike Schrage to earn fan support will be through winning. Fortunately, there are already a couple of ways in which Schrage is pointing his team in the right direction, as I’ve illustrated above. I also see a couple of little things that Schrage and his team are doing that should help build some enthusiasm around his team, whether they’re winning or not. Most notably, he has his team stand arm-in-arm and shoulder-to-shoulder to sing the Elon Fight Song with the student section at the end of every game. After the Fight Song, the players will go into the crowd to shake hands and offer high-fives. It’s a nice moment after each game and it sure would be nice if some students would help to get some more momentum behind it.
Faith in the Distance
It may take a couple of years, but it’s an exciting time to jump onto the Elon Basketball bandwagon. The overall record may not yet reflect it, but Mike Schrage and the program he’s building appear to be ahead of schedule. We’ve got the right guys in place. Now we just sit back and watch this season with smiles on our faces because we have faith in the distance. The “Loop of Failure” will break soon.
Coach Schrage, please prove me right.