On Wednesday evening in storm-battered Boston, Colgate men’s basketball head coach Matt Langel was the eye of the proverbial storm. Outside the Agganis Arena, the city remained at a standstill after the latest of a serious of blizzards and Nor’easters.
Inside, the energy emanating from the benches of Langel’s visiting Raiders and their hosts, the Boston University Terriers, was frenzied, with seemingly every player and coach jumping up and down, shouting, and contorting their bodies with every foul and every bucket in a back and fourth game.
Everyone except Langel.
While Colgate assistant Mike Jordan and athletic trainer Leslie Cowen were shaking the floor from the Raiders bench, and Boston University head coach Joe Jones was halway out onto the court emploring his team to make a stop, Langel was methodically walking up and down the sidelines, calming watching his players en route to a 76-69 win to stay in a two-way tie with Bucknell atop the Patriot League.
Set against the backdrop of the flamboyant antics employed by bombastic coaches in today’s game, Langel stands out as a bastion of cool, collected calm on game days – making a scene on the sidelines simply is not who he is.
“I believe the game is about the players,” says Langel. “I think if you watch a lot of coaches out there, I try and take after younger coaches, Brad Stevens, who obviously is a very young coach and somebody that I say man that guys has a great even keel about him. His players play really hard; when he was at Butler, they played for each other, they played together and he never makes it about himself, there’s not antics, no sideline show, that’s how I feel the game should be coached, it should be about the players.”
While Langel admired Stevens from a far, his true inspiration comes from his mentor, former coach and colleague Fran Dunphy. Langel spent his playing days (1996-2000) with Dunphy at the University of Pennsylvania and then returned in 2004 as an assistant. Two years later when Dunphy left and went down the road to Temple University, Langel was right by his side, remaining there until he left to run his own program in Hamilton, New York in 2011.
“I think I pick my moments,” says Langel. “We’re a veteran team, I think they understand me; they’ve been with me for a while. I’m sure they’ll tell you there were plenty of times where I’ve let them know what they’ve done wrong and what they need to do better. I think I learned that from Fran Dunphy who I was fortunate enough to play for and then work for. And that is you have to be who you are and you can’t try and be something that you’re not, because it’s not genuine and again young people read through that really quickly.”
Langel’s time, especially as a player at Penn, not only help him with his person on and off the court, but it has helped him learn to use personal experiences to get the most out of his players.
“My staff and I know what’s required to be a student-athlete at the highest level, not meaning that we played or studied at the highest level individually, but to balance that rigor of competing like crazy but also going to a really prestigious academic institution where it’s hard work,” says Langel. “I hope those experiences that we had help us keep perspective of what our guys go through and help them figure out the best way to keep those balanced.”
Langel points to the winning attitude that permeated through the Penn program as one he is trying to cultivate at Colgate. During the 1998-99 season, Langel and his teammates punched their ticket to the NCAA tournament, something Colgate hasn’t done in nearly 19 years.
“I was fortunate to be a part of a program as a student-athlete when I was their age and then as an assistant coach at Penn and at Temple where there was great history, tradition, there were great expectations, and a winning culture in place and that was carried down from generation to generation,” says Langel. “Specific to here over the last four years, that was something we’ve been trying to create, cultivate, grow and that’s hard.”
Hard may be an understatement.
Entering the season, Langel’s record as a head coach was 32-61 in three seasons, with the Raiders racking up losing records in all three seasons – something Langel had only experienced once as a player and coach at both Penn and Temple.
During non-conference play this season, Colgate lost seven of its first eight games and went just 2-10 against Division I opponents. But there were signs of growth admit the losses, as eight of the Raiders 10 losses came by single-digits, with the only two blowouts coming at the hands of powers Syracuse and Ohio State.
“Sometimes it takes without winning some games, losing close games, it’s hard to help young people figure that out,” says Langel. “We just couldn’t get over the hump.”
But Langel’s team was able to seemingly flip a switch and turn the corner when Patriot League play began on New Year’s Eve, racing out to a 9-4 record in conference play, including a regular season sweep over a Bucknell squad that remains tied with them in the conference standings.
“I credit this group, the veterans specifically for not giving up, not saying oh man it’s too hard, they continued to work and work together to try and find solutions and what more they could do to push it that little bit extra,” says Langel.
Langel feels that his group of seven seniors were the main reason behind such an impressive turnaround, as they have embraced the sense of urgency that comes with their final season of college ball.
“I talked to the older guys and some of the captains often and said it’s not anybody else’s team, it’s your team, and if you want this thing to go better, you’ve got to give more and you’ve got to figure out a way to help a little bit more,” he says. “And they did. They listened, and I think that’s a hard thing for young people to do sometimes and say well I feel like I’m doing everything I can it’s not my fault, it’s somebody else’s fault, but they really have taken ownership of it and its worked out to this point.”
According to Langel, building the current team began the moment he stepped foot on campus in 2011 and began recruiting his inaugural class, first with forward Matt McMullen, whose AAU team Langel knew well. Late in the recruitment process, Langel brought in Luke Roh and then along the way landed transfers like Damon Sherman-Newsome and Ethan Jacobs.
“Those guys, there’s been bits and pieces that have been added along the way like transfers and some of the younger guys,” says Langel. “Those pieces have continued to grow together, I wouldn’t say there’s been one time when the group came together, it’s been a process.”
Through the process, the Colgate basketball program suffered through some tough seasons and hasn’t had much to show for it on paper, but Langel credits those struggles with sewing the seeds of success the Raiders are now experiencing.
“We stuck together and that started to build that winning culture that all good teams need.”