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Amid trying season, Robert Morris' Toole remains confident in program's direction

| Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016, 7:35 p.m.
Robert Morris coach Andy Toole yells from the bench during the second half against Oakland on Saturday, Dec. 5, 2015, at Sewall Center in Moon.
Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
Robert Morris coach Andy Toole yells from the bench during the second half against Oakland on Saturday, Dec. 5, 2015, at Sewall Center in Moon.

Andy Toole still is young for his profession and looks even younger than his age, but people are noticing new speckles of gray atop his 35-year-old head. They assume the cause to be a tough season taking its toll, but no, Toole said. It's mom and heredity, not the stress.

Still, this has been an exasperating grind for the sixth-year Robert Morris men's basketball coach. Forget the hair. The Colonials' 8-19 record entering Thursday's game against LIU Brooklyn at Sewall Center is evidence enough. Toole will finish with his first losing record since he replaced Mike Rice in 2010 after three seasons as the top assistant. Loss No. 20, whenever it comes, will be the first time the program hits that number since 2001.

Even though RMU went to the NCAA Tournament for the first time under Toole — the Colonials beat North Florida in a play-in game and lost to Duke, a No. 1 seed — he said last season might have been even more difficult because the team underachieved before getting hot at the end.

“Last year's frustration ended up having a nice bow at the end,” Toole said. “By the same token, there were a lot of missed opportunities, things that should have been different. We were able to kind of figure it out down the stretch.”

Stretch time is here again. On Saturday, RMU went on the road and upset first-place Fairleigh Dickinson. With few exceptions, Toole said, “they played really well, really hard.”

Senior Rodney Pryor had 27 points and 14 rebounds and scored what proved to be the winning basket. Junior Billy Giles, the tallest starter at 6-foot-7, made 9 of 11 shots and scored 18 points.

Have the Colonials figured it out? Toole said he has no idea. Even when his team is playing well it often becomes “distracted” by officials, missed shots, whatever, he said. “You're always waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

Toole said his squad needs more of the likes of Karvel Anderson, Anthony Myers, Coron Williams and Russell Johnson, former players who were “low-maintenance guys that are happy to be part of the program and work as hard as they can.”

“It's a chemistry thing,” athletic director Craig Coleman said. “As I've said to Andy, there are two types of coaches: those who have grappled with it and those who will grapple with it. Human behavior is hard to predict.”

Coleman not only is a fellow coach (softball) at RMU, but he also is a practicing psychologist.

“It's mystifying,” he said of the chemistry issue. “But the truth is, it's around every athletic department for a period of time. When we beat Kentucky (in the NIT three years ago), they were having this kind of year, for Kentucky.”

Five of the top eight players are freshmen or in their first season after transferring from junior college. Among the absent are forward Aaron Tate, who played in three games before suffering a season-ending knee injury, and forward Elijah Minnie, a former Lincoln Park standout and the team's tallest player at 6-8, who was kicked off the team two weeks ago after multiple suspensions. He remains the squad's second-leading scorer and rebounder.

Tate was named team MVP by the coaches last season “because of the values he brings to the game, the way he works on a regular basis, the mentality that he has,” Toole said. “He's not the best scorer or the most talented, but it's the value he brought on a daily basis.”

Tate is Toole's kind of player. On the flip side was Minnie, a talented player apparently lacking the innate qualities Tate added. Several other players have been suspended, told to leave or left on their own during the last few seasons, “probably too many,” Toole admitted, but necessary.

“We're open and honest,” he said, “and we hold guys to standards.”

Toole said he and his staff lay down the standards with every recruit.

“When you start the recruiting conversations, it's, ‘Hey, there's gonna be a lot of days in practice that you don't like,' and everybody laughs, hah-hah-hah,” Toole said. “And I say, ‘No, I'm being completely honest with you. There's gonna be days in practice that you don't like me. You can't say you don't know what you're getting into.' ”

Toole can be exceedingly loud and almost brutally unsparing during practice. All for a reason, he said.

“We're gonna challenge you to do things the right way, and we're gonna tell you when you're not,” Toole said. “And if you don't like that, if you can't handle that, you probably shouldn't come to this program.”

Toole recalls a parent who watched practice and afterward complimented him by saying, “You're a tough coach but a fair coach.”

A year later, he said, the same parent is on the phone saying, “My son says you're being mean to (him) in practice.”

Toole played for Elon before transferring to Penn and helping the Quakers win back-to-back Ivy League titles. He said he understands the transition from high school and the difficult adjustments.

“If you're not passionate about the game, it's going to be hard for you,” he said. “We have a staff of people here who are passionate about the game, who think about it a lot. We spend a lot of time analyzing and figuring out ways we can get better. We expect you to be, if not the same, to have similar feelings.”

This has not always been the case this season. Toole said he walked into the locker room about 45 minutes before the start of practice earlier this week to find a player on his phone, “doing whatever he was doing,” Toole said. “He's not shooting a very good percentage, and I said, ‘Why don't you go out and get some shots? I'll be out on the court.' ”

Fifteen minutes later, Toole returned and found the player just getting changed.

“So you sit there and scratch your head,” he said. “This is a guy who sometimes is frustrated when we question his shot selection, so now he's got all this time to work on it, and everybody wants to shoot, and everybody's got the green light. But you've got to come in and put in the work.”

A few years ago, Toole said, he might have lost it. Instead, “I kind of said, ‘OK,' ” he said. “That's just who the guy is. This is what he thinks is important instead of working on his game. You have to kind of swallow that and keep trying to help guys get better and do the right stuff and hopefully find the right mix of personalities who want to win and compete.”

Tate is that kind of player, Toole said. So is Giles, who transferred from Allegany College of Maryland. After Minnie left, Toole told Giles he had to slide over to play the middle of the Colonials' 2-3 zone “because he's the best thing we've got.” Giles readily accepted.

“He's a good teammate and an unselfish guy, and he didn't have any problem with it,” Toole said. “Where we've had other guys, if we asked him to play a different spot or slide over to help the team, sometimes that has been met with some blowback.”

Giles is 25 and has a 2-year-old son. He spent three years away from the game working various unglamorous jobs, in part to help support his ailing father. He told Toole a two-hour practice beats eight hours in a warehouse. But those two hours can be punishing.

“(Toole) tells you straight up it's not gonna be easy,” Giles said. “It's a lot of hard work, and you have to be ready to take it on. He lets you know it's gonna be the one of toughest things in your life.”

Toole said, “Billy is a guy who, I think, gets it. He appreciates the opportunity. I think he has a big-picture outlook.”

Toole's practices are open to all, and he is oblivious to spectators. Sensitive types should bring ear plugs. His public comments after a poor game, sometimes more like stream of consciousness venting, similarly are unvarnished.

“Here's what I think, and I don't know how many people agree with me, and I'm not really concerned with how many people agree me,” Toole said. “Guys come here to play basketball and get an education. Part of our responsibility is to help them prepare for their lives. I laugh a lot when people say, ‘Oh, you shouldn't go into a media press conference and call your team out or point to an individual who's capable of playing better or talk about lack of leadership in your locker room because it's not fair to the players.'

“Well, any conversation that's ever been had in public has been had in private first,” Toole said. “We've always given players opportunities to change their behavior in private. And if they don't change their behavior, maybe it needs to be talked about in public. If you can't be held accountable for a college basketball game, something you supposedly love and care about, how are you gonna be accountable to your job? ... If I'm not successful as a coach, at least I can put my head on the pillow and know I was honest with people. We didn't mislead them.”

Bob Cohn is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at bcohn@tribweb.com or via Twitter@BCohn_Trib.

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