The summer of 2010 was a crazy time for John Gallagher. In a matter of eye-blinks, the then 32-year old Gallagher went from not having a guaranteed paycheck as the assistant on the staff of good friend and interim head coach Jerome Allen at Penn, to a guaranteed gig when Allen was hired as the head coach, only to turn around be immediately hired as the associate head coach Boston College by close friend and mentor Steve Donahue.
But before Gallagher could even unpack his bags in Chestnut Hill, he was offered his first head coaching position at Hartford – a program he had helped build the foundation for only a few years earlier.
The catch, of course, was that Gallagher would be replacing his best friend, Dan Leibovitz, who had just resigned after two scuffling seasons. Gallagher had been the top assistant and lead recruiter on Leibovitz’ original staff, helping to take the program from the conference play-in game in 2007, to a then program record 18 wins and the America East championship game in 2008 (the program’s only appearance in the America East Championship).
In the two years after Gallagher left for an assistant coaching position at Penn, Hartford crashed and burned, winning a combined 15 games while getting trounced in two-straight conference tournaments – including a 41-point embarrassment on its home court against Boston University in 2010.
Shortly after taking the reigns, and before he had coached a single official practice, Gallagher and his new – and old – team (he had recruited virtually the entire senior class during his first stint in Hartford) boarded 30 hour flight to Australia for a 10-day tour of basketball and team building.
Four years later, the Hawks returned to The Land Down under, but while the destination was the same, everything else regarding the team has changed dramatically.
“Four years ago, I was hearing from two people: Sam Perkins, and my mother,” he laughed. “When I got back this year, I’ve already had calls from at least six different reporters wanting to talk about Australia.”
In his first season in Hartford, the Hawks won 11 wins, finishing sixth, before knocking off third-seed Maine in the conference tournament. That off season, Gallagher landed what has proven to be a game-changing six-man freshman class, among them power forward and future First Team All-Conference selection Mark Nwakamma, and starters Yolonzo Moore III (point guard), Corban Wroe (guard/forward) and Nate Sikma.
Before they could help the program turn the proverbial corner, that freshman class had to endure one of the harshest trials by fire, losing the first 13 games of their careers to open the 2011-2012 season. But the Hawks survived, finishing 7-9 in conference play, upset third-seed Boston University in the tournament quarterfinals and took Vermont to the limit before losing a double-overtime thriller in the semis.
The Hawks have won 17 games in each of the past two seasons, and continue to knock on the door that separates the true conference powers from the rest of the America East. Injuries, an inconsistent low-post presence, and arguably an over reliance on the three-ball have continued to stand in Hartford’s way from truly contending for a title.
With six seniors, including Nwakamma, who has entrenched himself as THE single most important player on the roster – and perhaps the single-most important Hawk since Vin Baker when considering his importance to Hartford’s title hopes – on the roster, this would seem to be the most important year both in Gallagher’s career and Hartford basketball history. Yet the fifth-year head coach refuses to see it that way.
Upon returning from 14 days in Australia, highlighted by five games against professional teams, and sightseeing trips to Sydney Harbor, Melbourne, and The Great Barrier Reef, among other spots, Gallagher sat down with One-Bid Wonders to talk about the Hawks’ recent trip to the land of Koala’s and Kangaroos. He also looked ahead to the upcoming season, touching upon what he views as needed areas of improvement and the keys – and barometer – of a successful season, as well as why he loves recruiting Aussies.
Gallagher also took a look back at his long, and strange journey to West Hartford and back again, offering insight on what it was like to replace his best friend, and his desire for the program to never forget its humble roots.
Sam Perkins: How was the return trip to Australia?
I went four years ago. And this time around, to have a team that can compete against some of the professional teams makes you feel good from basketball standpoint. But from a life-experience standpoint, our players will never forget what they experienced and I won’t forget it.
In addition to the basketball, what were some of the more memorable experiences from The Land Down Under?
Looking out over Sydney Harbor, touring Melbourne, visiting the Great Barrier Reef. They were incredible.
When we went on the Great Barrier Reef, everybody was snorkeling, and a few of us dived, and a few of us went on this machine called the “Scuba Doo.”
Going to the AFL (the premier) Australian rules football league game and there’s 85,000 people, it was a sport that our players don’t really know, but they really got into it.
(Editor’s Note: The Scuba Doo is a tiny, motorized, personalized submarine of sorts, in which the passenger’s head goes inside an air bubble, allowing them to sightsee underwater for prolonged periods).
So who were the best swimmers on the team?
There’s three great swimmers: The elite swimmers are Corban Wroe, Nate Sikma and Jamie Schneck.
Did anyone box a kangaroo or wrestle a crocodile while you were down there?
Well, I can’t really speak for what Corban does on his own time…
Speaking of Corban, he may have been the most improved player in the entire league last season, going from a defense-only role player during his first two and a half years in the league, to a go to scorer. What can you tell me about him and his transformation?
The funny story about Corban is, when we first tried to recruit him after the first trip (to Australia four years ago), he said “thanks but no thanks” — we were so bad. A few months later, coach G (associate head coach Chris Gerlufsen) told me that Corban actually had some interest in us, and I said, “nah, nah, we have no interest in him.”
Coach G had to put his foot down and tell me to check my ego because he was a program-changing player. Corban Wroe is one guy who is the heart and soul of what we do and what we’re about as a program. Corban coming from that distance and making the commitment is just awesome. (more…)