Robert Morris basking in latest athletics success
In the beginning, recruits barely paid attention to phone calls from Robert Morris men's hockey coach Derek Schooley.
“I'd hang up,” Schooley said, “and he would say, ‘Thank you, Mr. Morris.' ”
Men's basketball coach Andy Toole saw attitudes toward his school change after the Colonials, a No. 15 seed, almost upset No. 2 Villanova in the 2010 NCAA Tournament, losing when a controversial call went against them.
“That was the first time that you called kids and said, ‘This is Coach Toole from Robert Morris,' and they would say, ‘Man, you guys really got screwed in that Villanova game,' ” Toole said. “All of a sudden, you could have a conversation.”
Athletics have been the conduit for the former junior college — it became a four-year school in 1969, joined Division I in '77 and attained university status in 2002 — to become part of many conversations.
Toole, an assistant on the 2010 team and head coach since, will escort his school this week to its first NCAA Tournament appearance in five years and eighth overall.
Schooley's team — it's not uncommon for the Colonials to sell out the $20 million, 1,200-seat 84 Lumber Arena on Neville Island — is 20th in the U.S. College Hockey Online rankings. The team reached the NCAA Tournament last season for the first time, making Schooley part of an elite Robert Morris fraternity.
Since 1982, the university's teams have won 40 regular-season championships and been represented in 23 NCAA championships or playoffs.
Women's basketball coach Sal Buscaglia can make it 24 on Sunday if his team defeats St. Francis Brooklyn at Sewall Center in the Northeast Conference final.
Women's lacrosse won four of its first five matches this season — its best start in history — and men's lacrosse expects a sellout crowd at Joe Walton Stadium on March 24 when Maryland, the No. 8 team, comes to town.
The softball team has won seven conference championships and football and women's volleyball six apiece.
Athletic director Craig Coleman, who also serves as softball coach, credits president Gregory G. Dell'Omo for establishing a mindset that sports matter.
“It helps that he's a sports fan,” Coleman said of Dell'Omo, who will leave Robert Morris at the end of the academic year to become president at Rider University in New Jersey. “He's much more attuned with the average person out there and what their interests are and what attracts them to our university.”
Dell'Omo, a native of Rumson, N.J., who has presided over Robert Morris since 2005, said sports get prospective students on the university's “front porch.”
“Hopefully they get excited and enter the front door and walk into the living room,” he said. “That's where the academics and intellectual side of the university reside.”
Toole said opinions toward sports are changing on campuses across the country.
“A lot of people felt at times athletics was a necessary evil,” he said. “It was part of what you did to be a Division I school, but there wasn't much of a benefit for you.
“When you look, especially now, with social media, the Internet, expanded TV coverage, you can utilize athletics to work for you from a name recognition standpoint, from a branding standpoint.
“People are pulled in by what they might see on ESPN or Twitter or Instagram and then follow up with a visit to somebody's website and investigate what the school is all about.
“Right, wrong or indifferent, a lot of times that's the way it works.”
The university has another opportunity for national exposure at 1 p.m. Sunday: ESPNU will broadcast the women's basketball game.
Thanks to athletes arriving from all over the United States and the world, Robert Morris no longer is known as a commuter school. For example, Santiago Mejia of Colombia, a transfer from Northeast Louisiana, is a one of the school's top golfers.
In the past 10 years, Robert Morris has experienced a 75 percent increase in students living on campus (from 1,140 in 2005 to 1,990), school spokesman Jonathan Potts said. Enrollment has grown during that time from 4,983 to 5,359.
“We can't build dorms fast enough,” Coleman said.
Coleman said Robert Morris has the second-least expensive tuition among private institutions in the state. “It's not as if we are rolling in tuition dollars,” he said.
Yet there are enough donors to help support Robert Morris athletics' $12 million operating budget (including salaries and scholarships).
“We have significantly grown our sponsorship revenue, our booster revenue,” Coleman said. “As we become more successful, there are more and more folks who want to have their names attached to our programs. So success is begetting success.”
The school boasts that its endowment under Dell'Omo has grown from $16 million to more than $33 million. Recent developments also have contributed to the athletic department's growth.
The most significant might have been the elimination last year of six sports teams: cross country, indoor and outdoor track and field, men's and women's tennis, women's golf and field hockey.
Dell'Omo said that was “one of the toughest decisions any president or athletic director has to make.” But he said the moves were “very strategic,” allowing the school to focus on its 16 remaining sports.
For comparison sake, Pitt and West Virginia — schools supported by significantly larger enrollments — both offer 17 teams.
Another factor that lifted athletics was the addition around the turn of the century of an elementary education major, a move university officials believed would serve as an academic draw for female student-athletes who want to become teachers. Robert Morris offers 60 undergraduate areas of study.
“If athletes are looking at a particular major, and you don't have that major, you may lose out,” Dell'Omo said. “You can kill two birds with one stone.”