Former Robert Morris coach Furjanic enjoys coaching in Florida
If Matt Furjanic could start over, his life likely would follow a similar path.
For Furjanic, once a college basketball coach, always a college basketball coach.
No matter where it would be.
“I've been happy at the situations I've been in,” he said. “You mature, you move on. Reflecting back on it now, some people don't understand, but I wouldn't have changed anything.”
The man from Rankin, who led Robert Morris to its first NCAA Tournament appearance, including the first March Madness victory for the ECAC Metro Conference (now Northeast Conference), and coached the Dunking Dutchman, future NBA star Rik Smits, at Marist, these days is running the men's program at an obscure college in central Florida.
Furjanic, 63, seems to be enjoying himself, too.
“Hey, I was back home for Christmas, and I was lucky. It was pretty warm. I missed the deep freeze,” Furjanic said last week from his office at Polk State College in Lakeland, Fla.
“I have shorts on now. You get used to this weather. It's great.”
Furjanic is in his 14th season at Polk State College, a four-year school that mainly plays Florida-based Division I junior colleges.
“He's really perfect for junior college,” former Robert Morris assistant Jim Elias said. “It's all about recruiting there. Matt is a really strong recruiter, and he always had a good rapport with kids. They always liked him a lot. It's just his personality that makes him that way. He's always been upbeat. He's a very generous guy.”
Elias, who does color commentary alongside play-by-play man Chris Shovlin on Robert Morris broadcasts, was an assistant for 14 seasons at Robert Morris, two under Furjanic and 12 under Furjanic's successor, Jarrett Durham, now a color commentator on Duquesne broadcasts.
“I've probably been at Robert Morris longer than most people,” Elias said. “We still have the most NCAA appearances, and it started when we were with Matt.”
Furjanic, who spent five seasons as coach at Robert Morris, led the Colonials to the first of seven overall NCAA apperances by getting them into two tournaments in 1982 and '83.
The '83 team defeated Georgia Southern in a preliminary-round game to earn the NEC its first such victory. They lost to Purdue, 55-53, in the first round.
“You get a little attitude when you're a young guy, like I was then, and you do some of the things we were doing,” Furjanic said. “You act like maybe you're a little better than you are. I just wanted to go in a different direction, so I left Robert Morris.”
Furjanic said it was tough to leave Western Pennsylvania, and he comes home usually three times a year.
“When I coached in the '80s,” he said, “there were no restrictions on how long you could be on the road recruiting. I was a little burned out. It consumes you.”
He landed a job at Marist, another NEC school, after his predecessor, Mike Perry, was fired for recruiting violations but spent just two years with the Red Foxes in Upstate New York.
His 1986 team, with the 7-foot-3 Smits and 6-11 Miroslav Pecarski, made an NCAA Tournament appearance, losing to Georgia Tech in the first round.
But the shadow of the violations was too much for Furjanic to overcome, and he decided to return home.
“It was very tough, very stressful,” Furjanic said. “There hadn't been a decision yet, but the NCAA kept coming in. It was just a matter of time.”
His departure opened the door for Dave Magarity, his longtime coaching rival at St. Francis (Pa.), to take over at Marist.
“We're still friends now,” Furjanic said of Magarity, who succeeded the late Maggie Dixon as women's coach at Army in 2006.
Furjanic enjoyed a successful stint as boys coach at Woodland Hills High School, where one of his players was future NFL star Jason Taylor. He said he took the job mainly to remain in the area because of his family, which included three school-aged children.
Eventually, he left Woodland Hills and helped to launch the NCAA Division III program at Pitt-Greensburg, where he won back-to-back Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference championships in 1999 and 2000 — the school's only two men's basketball titles.
“I enjoyed my time at Pitt-Greensburg,” he said. “It got me back in the college game.”
Years later, he's still in it.
Among his practice players at Polk State College, where he has won six Suncoast Conference titles — the last in 2013 — is former Beaver Falls standout Sheldon Jeter.
Jeter, who played one season at Vanderbilt, is attending Polk State College but is not eligible to play in games in the interim of his transfer to Pitt, where he'll have three years of eligibility beginning in 2014-15.
Perhaps Jeter could have helped Furjanic and Polk win more games. The Eagles are 8-10 overall but have won three games in a row heading into Monday night's contest against TAAG Academy of Tampa.
“We've been fortunate here to have great players, many who've gone on to play at Division I schools,” Furjanic said. “I do miss Pittsburgh. I miss seeing friends. But it's nice living in Florida. This school has been very, very good to me.”
Dave Mackall is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.