January marks the thick of basketball season and the state’s top dogs—the beloved UConn Huskies—are in the dog house, forbidden by the NCAA to play in the postseason due to a paltry eleven percent graduation rate. What to do while the state’s top team is rebuilding? Head to New York City and catch some pro ball? If you can get your hands on a ticket without involving a scalper, that is. Drive to Hartford to see the Huskies anyway? Where it costs three figures for four tickets and a few snacks, plus time on the turnpike?
No. If you’re searching for great basketball—dunking, stealing, heart-stopping action—discover the town where Division I basketball remains a best-kept secret right here in Fairfield.
It’s difficult to determine how many towns this size (population 56,544) have two Division I men’s college basketball teams, like Fairfield does. The sports experts at Fairfield University and Sacred Heart couldn’t come up with any others. Neither could we. So we sent a query to the NCAA, and they couldn’t tell us either. “If we’re not the only community of this size with two Division I schools, we’re certainly among the only ones,” offers Fairfield U.’s Roy Brown, the associate athletic director for sports marketing and promotions. Teams in Fairfield might slip under the national radar now, but not for long. The local product, Brown says, is outstanding.
The SHU Pioneers—one time national champs (1986)—and the Fairfield University Stags—coming off back-to-back-to-back twenty-game winning seasons—are in the thick of conference battles right now. The Pioneers returned four starters from last year, including the nation’s fourth-leading scorer, native Nutmegger Shane Gibson. Gibson can hit threes from behind the arc, jump shots from mid range, make points in the paint. Seven times last year the Pioneers lost squeakers in the final minutes; otherwise there’s no telling how well they would have fared in the Northeast Conference. Coach Dave Bike, who’s been leading the Pioneers practically since there was a Pioneers team, has high hopes for this year.
At FFU, the Stags’ coach Sydney Johnson, a young coach with a powerful pedigree, has big plans to match. They have heart, these Stags, and last year shocked skeptics at season’s end. When the Stags’ top scorer, Derek Needham, broke his foot a day before the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) tournament, many people counted his team out. But his teammates were not among the disbelievers. Down in the second round against Iona, the Stags mounted the biggest MAAC upset in years. Fairfield lost the championship, but did well enough to snag an invitation to the College Insiders tournament, where they lost in the semi-finals. Can they make it four straight years to the postseason? Johnson thinks so.
Coach Dave Bike
Who is the only Division I active men’s basketball head coach in Connecticut with a national championship on his resume?
Hint: Only Jim Boeheim of Syracuse has coached at the same college longer than this guy has. Still stumped? Then head on over to Sacred Heart University, where you can watch this hall-of-famer, Coach Dave Bike, at work with the Pioneers.
Players race up and down the Pitt Center court at practice, whistles blaring, coaches hollering. But not Bike. He strolls the sideline, scrutinizing.
“I like to let the players play and the coaches coach. What’s the best way for me to get them to produce? Get out of their way,” Bike says. His formula must be working; he won his 500th game last season, making him twentieth all time in wins among active coaches.
Bike is in his thirty-fifth season as head coach at SHU. He directs a seasoned Pioneer squad this year, which finished at 14-18 in 2012 and returned four starters and two top reserves. Bike has high hopes that his forwards will have a stronger presence, that star Shane Gibson will match his offensive prowess with strong defense and that junior guard Chris Evans will make a difference once his surgically repaired knee heals.
Evans says he’s learned a great deal in his three years playing for the Pioneers, on the court as well as in the classroom. “Coach Bike is teaching you lessons. He sits back and if you make a mistake he lets you know it,” says Evans.
Bike’s manual, “Basketball Rules,” in which the coach enumerates expectations ranging from “perfect class attendance” to “remove hats in class” to “make the games easier than practice” is scattered around the tables at the Pitt Center. The coach appreciates that his kids have talent, but he wants to make sure they graduate on time with an eye toward the future. When he talks about players’ accomplishments, the first thing he mentions is that three of his players are in master’s programs at SHU.
Bike appreciates first-hand that athletic talent gets a player only so far. As a youngster, Bike played baseball and basketball at Notre Dame High School in Bridgeport and turned down a college basketball scholarship to play pro baseball as a catcher for the Detroit Tigers. He reached triple-A before calling it quits. Bike returned home and enrolled at Sacred Heart, graduating in 1969 with a degree in mathematics. During that time he served as assistant basketball coach. Then he moved to Seattle University to take a job as assistant basketball coach. He signed on as head coach of the Pioneers in 1978 and doubled as the school’s athletic director.
Back then, the Pioneers competed in Division II and captured the national championship. In 1999, the Pioneers joined the Northeast Conference and Division I and they’ve been getting stronger each year.
One reason the Pioneers stay strong is Bike and his staff’s ability to discover little-known players who fit seamlessly into the Sacred Heart culture. One freshman center hails from Bellevue, Washington, a senior forward comes from Australia, a junior forward comes from Egypt. Then there’s senior guard Gibson, from Killingly. He was a superstar at his little high school in Connecticut and should have been wooed by many college coaches, but somehow he was barely a blip on the radar. The Pioneers saw promise in him, though, and offered him a scholarship. Last season Gibson finished fourth in the nation in scoring. He was named to the preseason all conference team and came out firing. In the Pioneers’ first game of the season, Gibson sparked the school’s biggest comeback in history, scoring 24 points in the second half against Yale and leading Sacred Heart to victory. Gibson was selected as the Northeast Conference Player of the Week.
“I came here because they were the first team to have faith in me,” Gibson says one afternoon at the Pitt Center. “Now I want to be the best player they’ve ever had.” Gibson hopes to make it to the pros one day, like his hero Stephen Curry, who leapt from little-known Davidson College to make it as a guard in the NBA. In the meantime, though, Gibson needs to take care of business. Not in basketball. He has a ten-page ethics paper due, and if his grades slip, he knows that Coach Bike will send him to mandatory study hall.
Coach Sydney Johnson
At noon in the windowless gym of the Walsh Athletic Center sneakers squeak and basketballs bounce on the hardwood floor. Notable sounds that are absent: barking orders, shrill whistles, cursing. It could be a classroom in here, with the teacher, Sydney Johnson, spelling out instructions like a science professor. “Make your cuts this way,” he directs, his voice barely audible above the hum of the HVAC. “I need you to go through. It’s a better team when we do that.”
Neither yeller nor cheerleader, Johnson seems equal parts professor, coach, dad and mentor to the young Stags. “I want our guys thinking. I don’t want to add to the noise,” he says.
Johnson, thirty-eight years old, energetic and trim, is standing with his arms folded at half court. He’s wearing a red and white Stags sweatsuit with matching sneakers and looks as if he could still run the court with these guys, like he did in high school and as a player at Princeton and for seven years as a pro basketball player in Europe. To this day he holds the record for steals at Princeton, where he was known for his tenacious defense as well as an uncanny ability to sink shots when a game was on the line. Johnson was the only three-time captain in the school’s history and the teams he played for in Europe took home three championships.
“His IQ is amazing,” senior Derek Needham, the Stags’ leading scorer, offers after practice. “He played the game and knows the game. He’s won at every level.”
When practice ends Johnson calls his guys over to the manager’s table, where he holds a laptop in his palm, like a waiter with a tray. About a dozen guys, silent and sweaty, lean in and study the screen, as if some other team were at work. It’s a video of their practice, shot by the manager per Johnson’s orders, because some guys are visual learners, Johnson says, like he is.
Johnson offers up commentary like a broadcaster. “You’re working on your left hand, and it’s showing…I like the leadership here…I want you guys to talk to each other. I want you to come up with stuff out of the offense. You did great today,” Johnson says as he dismisses his charges, adding, “Remember, we have those pictures tomorrow. Get a haircut. Shave. Do what you need to do.”
The team huddles before going their separate ways. One guy says, “Family. 1-2-3.” “Family,” the team responds in unison.
Family. It’s a Fairfield U thing. Maybe it sounds corny, but that family atmosphere was part of what wooed Johnson to Fairfield from Princeton. He was the youngest coach in history there when he took over in 2007, leading the Tigers out of the basement and to the Ivy League championship in 2011. Just one month after his team won the title, then lost a squeaker at the buzzer to perennial power Kentucky in the NCAA tournament, Fairfield U came calling.
“The university, to me, is a gem. I love the mission of the school—to give young people an opportunity, people who come with many different strengths and from all corners of life. I appreciate what it stands for,” Johnson says.
It might seem odd that a coach would change schools—especially to move to another mid-major—just as his team had the makings of a dynasty. But Johnson wasn’t looking for the easy road. “I knew what I wanted and that was to challenge myself.”
The place had to be right, though. Close enough to a big city. Small enough for good public schools. A place where Johnson and his wife, college sweetheart Jennifer, could raise their two children. The university had to share Johnson’s belief that student-athletes, regardless of social or economic background, could and should succeed on the court as well as in the classroom. It also had to feature a competitive conference and challenging games outside of the conference.
When the Stags came calling, they were looking to replace Ed Cooley, who left to coach Providence. The Stags have been trying to brand themselves as a premier mid-major team, and they wanted just the right coach to lead them there. Johnson seems like the perfect fit.
He and the Stags got off to a slow start his first year but finished on a run. They ended the season with a 22–15 record and played in the 2012 CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament. Most of the backcourt has returned this year. The Stags can run and push the ball, they have a deep bench and a pair of seven-footers, and they started their 2012 season showing they could eke out wins in close battles.
The Stags play their home games in Webster Bank Arena, often offering family-friendly and group promotions that can cut ticket prices to just $5. It’s a different experience than fans get at a high major, where the focus is on the outcome of the game rather than the fun in the arena. Because the Stags participate in Read Aloud days in schools, run youth basketball clinics, host charity benefits and more, many people attend because they actually like the players and program, in addition to rooting for a win.
“We’re exciting to watch,” guard Colin Nickerson says, “and we have a good team. I’m predicting the NCAA tournament this year.”
Johnson agrees that the Stags are worth watching. “I think we have the best story to tell in the state,” says Johnson, “the type of kids we have, the type of players we’re developing. Get your tickets now, while you still can.”