At RMU, it's Toole time
By Bob Cohn
Published: Sunday, Jan. 22, 2012,
A young man in a hurry, Andy Toole has raced to a major career destination. But more mundane things, like traffic, sometimes slow him down and force him to stifle his impulses.
"Believe me, I'd like to be the guy who can scream at everybody and tell them to get out of the way," the second-year Robert Morris men's basketball coach said. "But that doesn't work."
Off the road and inside the gym, Toole cuts loose, unchained by rules of decorum. When things go awry, as he said they tend to during practice, he launches a steady, blistering attack on sins more egregious than hogging the left lane.
These are sins against effort, the competitive spirit and the game itself, violations of beliefs held since about age 4 when he constantly clutched a basketball.
Basketball has since gripped Toole. At 31, he is the youngest non-interim head basketball coach in NCAA Division I. He also is likely among the most intense. Those who know him attest to his intellect, work-ethic and maturity. And his temper.
Toole is the first to acknowledge this.
"There's a lot of rage that builds up in me," he said casually.
Toole said he would love to go to practice "not crazed." But everyone just keeps messing up, he said, leaving him no choice.
"Every time I walk out on the floor, every time I walk into the weight room, everything I do, I always have in the back of my mind I'm ultimately responsible for everything in the program," he said. "And so there are times I become enraged, when I think guys aren't as invested as they should be or not giving everything they can. Because, ultimately, that's gonna fall back on me. And that's infuriating at times."
Katie Toole, a former player and coach in college, has seen how her brother conducts practice and film sessions. She described the experience, kindly, as "interesting."
"When he's teaching something and they don't get it, it's like, 'What's wrong with you guys?' " she said. "As a point guard, he knew where everyone was gonna go, what the defense was gonna do. Sometimes that's hard to translate to guys who don't necessarily know."
Making things uncomfortable
Practice is a time of teaching and learning. But things often get lost in translation. When that happens, Toole, a pleasant and approachable person off the court, the product of an Ivy League education, emits primal, painful screams punctuated by a familiar bad word and its variations. You know he's really ticked when he starts pulling the bottom of his warm-ups to his knees.
Every coach goes a little bonkers, some more than others. What's jarring to the uninitiated is that Toole, while calm and engaging in his office only minutes earlier, maintains the malevolence without pause.
Then there's the disconnect stemming from his appearance and off-court demeanor. These awful sounds emanate from a face so young and innocent-looking that some wise-guy fans in Memphis asked what home room he would be in next year.
Toole's anger bounces off walls and reverberates inside players' skulls, producing an immediate and visceral response -- fast, aggressive, loud, a greater sense of urgency. A method to the mania.
"It's a good thing for us," junior point guard Velton Jones said. "Our practices are pretty crazy, and for him to act as he does, it makes us mentally tough. But after practice he's always back to the calm, always joking with us. None of the guys take it personally."
(Off the court, Toole seems impeccably normal, listing family, golf, music, movies and reading as among his interests.)
As for the message being imparted, sometimes it sinks in. Sometimes not. In a recent home loss, the Colonials blew an eight-point halftime lead to Quinnipiac by allowing 67 percent shooting in the second half and well above 50 percent for the game.
This is bad for anyone, much less the presumed best defensive team in the Northeast Conference. At RMU, defense comes first, last and always, or at least that's the intent.
Among the disheartened observers was Jerry Toole, Andy's dad, who drives to nearly all the games, home and road, even though he lives in Florida. Jerry has followed Andy every step of the way. "I've been doing this for 25 years," he said. "I'm more nervous now than when he played."
Rehashing the loss the next day, Jerry's son said, "There are two ways to learn to win: the easy way and the hard way. Unfortunately, our guys like to learn the hard way."
This is not a problem for Toole, who not only has described himself as a "raving lunatic" but also has references. His wife, Brooke, who also played and coached, "thinks I'm a psycho," he said.
On the bench during games, where coaches often like to act out, Toole is calmer with officials and players. Practice, he said, is better suited to the "chaos" he creates.
"He understands the level of demand you have to have with young players, and he's not afraid to make them uncomfortable," said Mike Rice, himself a practitioner of the art of the uncomfortable who preceded Toole at RMU before heading to Rutgers after the 2009-10 season.
Toole said Brooke has accused him of being "mean" to the players. "And I'd say, 'Well, sometimes they're mean,' " he said. "It's mean to come to practice and not be ready to go. It's mean to me. It's disrespectful to me. I take it personally."
Brooke Toole does not refute the psycho label. As a former player at Binghamton and coach at Northern Arizona she does, however, get it.
"He sees guys with so much talent, and he doesn't understand why they don't put their best foot forward in practice," she said.
'Feel for the game'
A gym rat growing up, Andy Toole transferred to a grammar school outside his district solely because it had basketball teams. He said he wants his players to be "hyper-competitive." That is, like him. "We want to make that the norm," he said.
Toole had smarts, skills and desire as a player, but the size came later. He had to wait out a growth spurt before finally starting his senior year in high school in New Jersey. An all-around guard, he committed early to Elon in North Carolina, the only Division I school to offer a scholarship.
Toole played two years before transferring to Penn (which does not give athletic scholarships) and helping the Quakers to two straight NCAA Tournament appearances.
"His greatest attribute was leadership," said former Penn coach Fran Dunphy, now the Temple coach. "He understood what the team needed. He had a great feel for the game."
Lafayette coach Fran O'Hanlon, who gave Toole his first coaching job, said, "As a player he had that competitiveness and that ability to lead, and (as a coach) he has an eye for talent and the ability to teach."
Teaching assumes many forms, including creative motivational ploys. After a particularly galling loss last year, Toole made the team eat dinner in the laundry room. The Colonials played much better. But Toole discerned that they enjoyed the novelty rather than feeling they were being punished, so he had to think of something else.
"The hard part is trying to realize they're 18-, 19-, 20-year-old kids, and they don't understand it like I understand it," he said. "They don't understand how exciting a time it is for them and that it's something they're not gonna replicate in their lives. That's something special. Not everyone has that opportunity."
Toole has grown weary of the age thing, which is accentuated by his looking even younger. But it makes for some amusing stories, like the time a donor at an RMU football game asked Toole if he was a senior on the basketball team.
Still, youth has its benefits. A two-time, All-Ivy League guard at Penn, he can show his players a thing or two on the court and relate to them off it. A relentless tweeter, he is hip to social media. But there is definitely a gap, authority clearly defined.
Jones, known as "V," said Toole pushes him the hardest because he's the captain and team leader. "He's made me a much better player," he said.
Two days after the Quinnipiac loss, Toole shuffled the lineup. Jones, the team's top scorer, began the game on the bench after 70 straight starts. He responded with one of his better efforts in a win over Sacred Heart.
Toole used to treat losing like death. As a kid, he said, he would "break down" after losses. His parents needed to remind him he had another game to play. Sometimes he belonged to four teams at once. Still, said his mother, Joan Toole, "We'd know to give him a little space."
But tempers often flared, and Toole got into a few scuffles -- with his sister. "He hates to lose. I hate to lose," Katie Toole said. "Usually after the third or fourth game, we would get into a fight. He would accuse me of cheating. I would accuse him of pushing me. If you lost you were mad for the rest of the day."
They competed in everything basketball-related. Jerry Toole told them to take 500 shots and keep track of the percentages. "We counted for each other," said Katie, who played at Sacred Heart and coached for seven years in college. (Their older brother, Matthew, did not play but is a well-known figure in the high-powered financial world).
Katie is two years older than "Andrew," as the family calls him and who she once towered over. He stood just 5 feet tall as a high school freshman. Once he grew past 6 feet, the brother-sister act ended. "I decided to retire," said Katie, who works as a school counselor in New Jersey but still referees and coaches an eighth-grade team.
Older than his years
RMU went 18-14 and just missed making the tournament in Toole's first season. He is trying to build on the work of predecessors Mark Schmidt, now at St. Bonaventure, and Rice, whose teams went 73-31 with two NCAA Tournament appearances in three years.
Toole had coached one season at Lafayette when Rice hired him as his top assistant. Before that, Toole worked for a New Jersey company that stages clinics, camps and showcase tournaments. Rice had worked there, too. The job helped Toole meet coaches and others connected with the college game.
"I knew I was getting someone who was much wiser in basketball than his age," said Rice, whose team came to town the week before last and beat Pitt."He absolutely loves the game, and he's an incredible teacher."
Despite his age and relative lack of experience, Toole was the only candidate to replace Rice. "You close your eyes and you think you're talking to someone in his 40s," athletic director Craig Coleman said.
Toole and Rice have "a lot of similarities," Velton Jones said, laughing.
"We want things done yesterday," Rice said.
Screaming matches were frequent, two hard heads colliding. Then they'd forget it and move on.
Toole was a good player at Elon but blossomed at Penn. The experience -- he graduated with a degree in political science -- "was like a breath of fresh air," he said. "It was like, 'You're supposed to win, you're supposed to work hard, you're supposed to do good things.' That's what I try to interject with these guys."
A look at second-year Robert Morris coach Andy Toole:
Hometown: Red Bank, N.J.
2002-03 10.6 ppg, 45.4 percent, 2.9 assists
2001-02 13.9, 45.5, 3.6
1999-2000 14.6 , 43.3, 3.0
1998-99 9.9, 43.3, 2.7
2006-07: Lafayette (assistant)
2007-10: Robert Morris (associate head coach)
2010-12: Robert Morris, (head coach), 30-20
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