Let’s take a look at St. Bonaventure Basketball and see just how important head coach Mark Schmidt has been to this program’s complete turnaround.
At the turn of the millennium, college basketball was in a much different state than even today some twenty years later. Back then, players could go straight from high school to the NBA, the shot clock was still 35 seconds, and things like the cylinder rule were still far from existence. Programs like Illinois and Stanford were making waves on the national stage. The times were good for these and other teams, while the future looked even brighter for other schools.
St. Bonaventure was one of these schools. In 1970, the Bonnies marched to the Final Four, the highlight of a successful era under former coaches Eddie Donovan and Larry Weise. There were a pair of Sweet Sixteen runs and a number of NIT appearances; this was clearly the glory days for St. Bonaventure. As the century concluded, the program was still winning games but was making far fewer waves on the national scale. Their NCAA Tournament appearance in 2000 was their first in over two decades, but change was just on the horizon.
As coach Jim Baron departed for A-10 rival Rhode Island, the school brought in Jan van Breda Kolff, who had recently led Vanderbilt and Pepperdine to the NCAA Tournament. While the future looked promising for the Bonnies, it all came apart in 2003. Junior college transfer Jamil Terrell was allowed to play despite being ineligible, creating a scandal that would rock the program. Not only was van Breda Kolff fired, but so were the school’s president and athletic director. Tragically, it also led to the death of William Swann, one of the school’s board members who felt responsible for the scandal.
Moving forward, the scandal had major ramifications on the Bonnies program. New coach Anthony Solomon was faced with scholarship sanctions and probation. During his four seasons, St. Bonaventure did not bounce back, winning just 24 games during the roughest stretch the program had ever seen. Players were giving up on the program and new recruits weren’t helping the program turn the page. There was no guarantee things would ever get better for the Bonnies, but that all started to turn around in 2007.
The arrival of Mark Schmidt
Mark Schmidt wasn’t exactly a household name when the Bonnies named him head coach that spring, but he was exactly the coach that they needed. His background was certainly impressive, having played under legendary coaches Tom Davis and Gary Williams at Boston College, while spending nearly a decade assisting the late Skip Prosser. He had just come off six seasons as head coach at Robert Morris, though rebuilding this Bonnies program was clearly a more difficult task than winning games in the NEC.
As Schmidt got to work in 2007, it was clear that the task ahead was a challenging one. He wasn’t just rebuilding a basketball roster but helping to fix the culture of this program. Four years may have passed since the scandal, but the Bonnies were still the butt of all jokes, especially as their presence in the A-10 basement lingered. It was already hard enough to bring recruits to Olean, New York, but jumpstarting this program past that scandal was Schmidt’s most important task.
Where Solomon hadn’t been able to turn things around, Schmidt proved far more successful. Progress began slowly, but Schmidt made a large breakthrough with the recruitment of Andrew Nicholson. Part of his first recruiting class, Nicholson was just a two-star recruit before Schmidt developed him into a star. Nicholson was A-10 Rookie of the Year in 2009 and a two-time First Team All A-10 member, though the best was yet to come.
In 2012, everything came together for Schmidt and for Nicholson. St. Bonaventure had by far their best season since the scandal, finishing fourth place in the A-10. Nicholson was named A-10 Player of the Year and was on the All-Defensive team as well. However, Nicholson wasn’t going out without a bang, leading the Bonnies to an unexpected A-10 Tournament championship, being named Tournament MVP.
At long last, the Bonnies were back on the national stage. Less than a decade earlier, the program lay in ruin, but now they were heading to the NCAA Tournament once more. After a 20-point effort from Nicholson, the Bonnies almost pulled off a major upset of 3-seed Florida State but ran out of gas late in the second half. After this success, Nicholson became a first-round pick in the NBA Draft and would eventually have his number retired by the program. Despite their first-round loss, the season had been a magnificent success for Schmidt and this program.
Moving forward, St. Bonaventure didn’t exactly become the next Gonzaga, but they were certainly on the road to becoming a successful program again. Schmidt got back to work on the recruiting trail, bringing in more talent as the program’s prestige rose up again. In 2016, it looked like the Bonnies were back again, ending the season in a three-way tie for the A-10 regular-season crown. Unfortunately, they were upset in the A-10 Tournament and surprisingly left out of the NCAA Tournament despite an impressive resume.
Despite the snub, the momentum did not cease for St. Bonaventure. Two years later, Schmidt led the team to a program-record 26 wins and a return to the NCAA Tournament. The Bonnies were relegated to the First Four, where they upended fellow 11-seed UCLA before falling to Florida in the round of 64 a few days later. At the very least, they were actually included this time and proved they belonged with that victory over a power conference foe.
When you look at the big picture, Schmidt’s accomplishments with the schools are even more impressive. Consider what the Bonnies have done these last five seasons. In each of those years, they’ve finished in the top 5 of the deep, competitive A-10. During that time span, Schmidt is 105-57, which seemed little more than a pipe dream a decade earlier as the program wallowed after that scandal. Consider also that the Bonnies could have easily been selected to the NCAA Tournament in 2016 and the results speak for themselves.
Without a doubt, Schmidt stands out for his hard work with the Bonnies across these last thirteen years. It’s fair to say that a great number of today’s coaches, especially in the A-10, would not have been able to manufacture this kind of turnaround with the Bonnies program. In the span of just over a decade, Schmidt has transformed St. Bonaventure from a basement dweller, rocked by scandal, to a consistent competitor in what is arguably the best mid-major league in the country.