Andhika K. Wardojo, Contributing Writer
The Utica College men’s basketball team began its winning ways in the past two seasons after three years of absence in the Empire 8 Conference Tournament. Since the arrival of head coach Sean Coffey in 2016, the Pioneers have made the conference tournament in two consecutive years.
While Coffey’s team missed the playoffs this season despite posting a 14-11 record, it is safe to say that the head coach is doing something right — and it starts with his defense-minded coaching philosophy.
According to Athletic Director David Fontaine, Coffey’s defensive minded approach, scouting abilities and dedication to the game are major factors that brought UC men’s basketball to its recent playoff runs.
Prior to Coffey’s arrival, the Pioneers made the Empire 8 Tournament four times in the last 11 seasons. Since the 2012-2013 season, the team failed to make the Empire 8 Conference Tournament for three straight years. UC also failed to achieve a .500 winning percentage since the 2010-2011 season as well.
“When coach Coffey came here, the whole attitude of the program changed,” said senior Justin Mayers, captain of the UC men’s basketball team.
As the newest head coach of the UC men’s basketball team, Coffey said that the Pioneers needed to change their culture. He wanted his players to believe that they are capable of becoming a strong team and are able to beat the best teams in the conference.
“We want to make anyone who is going to come in here has a difficult night,” Coffey said. “If you are going to beat us here, you are going to have to feel us.”
In order to achieve a winning mentality, Coffey needed the right players to establish the team’s new culture. His recruiting process played a big role in his decision making to improve and develop the program.
According to Coffey, to start a winning team, he needed to recruit versatile basketball players. The players need to be able to play different positions and play out of their comfort zone to create a winning team.
Character is also a very important aspect to a player, according to Coffey. He believes that having a player who commits to the team and is selfless can lead to the team’s success. Talent is also an important aspect to Coffey because he believes that college basketball is highly competitive and not all players can play at this level.
“Many coaches will tell you that you can mold players, but you need to have the talent,” Fontaine said.
Coffey’s recruiting skills and ability to attract student-athletes to Utica College are one of the biggest reasons that enabled the Pioneers to establish their winning mentality, Fontaine said.
Coffey explained that defense is the most important factor in winning basketball games. He believes that players can have good or bad shooting nights but defense “travels” with them. Having the ability to stop plays and get many rebounds gives the team the advantage for better offense.
“If they don’t score, we have a better chance to win,” Coffey said.
Coffey believes that good defensive possessions will bring more offensive opportunities. He said that defensive stops will lead the team to a fast-paced offense against an opposition with unbalanced defense. By doing this, scoring will be more efficient and it can create scoring runs through fast break plays.
“He strives on defense,” said senior Ivan Iton, a Pioneers assistant coach who played for Coffey. “He wants us to drill defense in our head.”
In the 2016-2017 season, the Pioneers led the Empire 8 Conference in blocks with 118 and were third in defensive rebounds with 692. In the 2017-2018 season, the Pioneers were second in team defensive rebounds with 786 and again led the conference in blocks with 115. The Pioneers also finished both seasons third in the conference and advanced to tournament play.
Defense alone cannot be the only major factor to the Pioneers’ recent winning seasons. Time and hard work are also the key factors for a winning team in Coffey’s opinion. He said that believing is not enough and that players need to give time and the effort to make their beliefs happen.
According to freshmen CJ Harris and Chris Green, Coffey is a very intense coach that expects the best from his players.
“He really demands the best out of us,” Harris said.
During Coffey’s first season at UC, the Pioneers lost their first 10 games. According to Coffey and Fontaine, the team could have won at least five games, but UC was not able to secure a victory.
“It is easy to show your character when you’re winning, but, when you’re facing challenges, your true character comes out,” Fontaine said. “Sean is outstanding.”
According to Associate Athletic Director for Sports Information Gil Burgmaster and Iton, Coffey was able to hold the team accountable and give them the confidence to improve as the season progressed. Despite the Pioneers losing start, they were able to finish the season third in the Empire 8 Conference with a 10-16 overall record, including a 10-6 conference mark, in 2016.
Coffey’s coaching continued to grow in the 2017-2018 season. The Pioneers finished the season with a 17-10 record and went 11-5 in the Empire 8 Conference; UC was third in the conference behind Nazareth and Stevens. The Pioneers also won their first Empire 8 Conference semifinals since 2007 but lost the final game against Nazareth.
“He really pushed us to achieve our full potential,” Iton said. “He just always wanted more, and he wanted us to want more for ourselves and the program, and it just stuck with all of us.”
Before Coffey became the head coach of the UC men’s basketball team, he earned his bachelor’s degree from SUNY Oneonta in 2006 and also played on the school’s basketball team.
Coffey received his master’s degree from the College of Saint Rose in 2008. While attending his master’s program, Coffey had already begun his coaching career. From 2006 to 2008, Coffey was the assistant coach for Hudson Valley Community College (HVCC). His contributions led HVCC to a 51-11 record, including a 30-1 record in the 2007-2008 season.
Coffey left the United States for a year to play professionally in Ireland. He was part of the Limerick Lions in the Irish Superleague in the 2008-2009 season. As a professional, Coffey was coached under Spanish and Serbian coaches, which he believed shaped his own coaching philosophy. During his stint in Ireland, Coffey was selected to the league’s All-Import Team.
Besides playing basketball professionally, he was also the Head of Basketball Operations for the Claregalway Basketball Club in Claregalway, Ireland. Coffey coached males and females from under eight years old up to 40 years old in the club.
Despite living there for only a year, Coffey said that playing and coaching in a different country gave him a different perspective towards the game. He felt that basketball in Europe has more efficient footwork and dribble moves to make the most out of each possession.
“It shaped me to really adapt to the audience and different learning styles,” Coffey said.
From 2011 to 2016, Coffey served as a full-time assistant coach at St. John Fisher College. During his five seasons in Fisher, his contributions helped the team to three Empire 8 Tournament appearances, including a Sweet 16 berth in the 2014-2015 NCAA Division III tournament. It was after his time at St. John Fisher came to an end in 2016 that Coffey decided to bring his talent and knowledge of the game to UC.
“I felt very fortunate that Dave Fontaine highlighted me to become the men’s basketball head coach here,” Coffey said.