By Chris McManes

The National Invitation Tournament (NIT) provides a second chance for men’s college basketball teams that miss the NCAA Tournament to participate in a prestigious postseason event. 

When George Washington (GW) University played in the 2016 NIT, Mike Lonergan’s team made the most of it by winning it all. Lonergan now seeks the opportunity to coach again. 

A few months after Lonergan guided GW to its only men’s basketball postseason championship, a Washington Post story, based largely on anonymous sources, claimed that he made a homophobic remark, and verbally and emotionally abused players. In September 2016, GW fired Lonergan.

The former Maryland assistant (2004-05) has not coached since. This, despite his being the only coach in college basketball history to win the postseason NIT and the NCAA Division III national championship (2001), achievements which demonstrate his ability to succeed with or without coaching players on athletic scholarships. His combined career record at Catholic University, Vermont and GW is 474-226 (.677). 

“Mike is a proven winner,” former Terrapin Coach Gary Williams said. “He was an outstanding assistant coach in his year at Maryland.”

I have known Lonergan for about 35 years. I’ve attended hundreds of his practices and games, was Catholic’s sports information director when we won the national crown and have coached at several of his camps. I never once witnessed him abusing anyone. 

Telling a player to get tough, be a man, is not abusive. It is a coach attempting to motivate someone to play better defense and grab more rebounds. 

Isaiah Armwood, who helped lead GW’s Colonials to the 2014 NCAA Tournament after transferring from Villanova, told ESPN: “In my opinion, he did not demean players using inappropriate language whatsoever. He was a very hard-nosed and straightforward coach. Someone who a good player would love to play for.”

The Washington Post’s Dan Steinberg, writing the day after Lonergan’s firing, quoted three former players who supported their coach. 

Maurice Creek, who transferred to GW from Indiana, said Lonergan “never crossed the line with any of the guys. … If a coach is too tough for you, then you don’t need to be playing college basketball. [His teams succeeded] because he expected the best out of all of us.” 

The Lonergan I know graduated all of his players, and was a mentor and role model. One student-athlete, John Kopriva, followed Lonergan from Vermont to GW in 2011. He is now a medical doctor in training to become an orthopedic surgeon.

Notre Dame Head Coach Mike Brey said Lonergan is “the kind of coach you’d want your own son or daughter to play for.” 

Lonergan’s undoing originated with former GW Athletic Director Patrick Nero’s interference in his program. Nero began by inviting an athlete to dinner and offering him a key to his home. The player eventually told Lonergan that Nero was giving him money. 

These are NCAA violations. Lonergan was required to report the rule-breaking, or he would have been considered complicit in the wrongdoing. 

In a well-researched Deadspin story from Nov. 2018, Dave McKenna detailed much of Nero’s improper behavior with student-athletes and recent graduates. Images showed Nero straddling a young man and making sexually inappropriate gestures.

When GW fired Lonergan, it said it valued “inclusion and diversity.” So does the Lonergan I know. That’s why I can’t believe he made the homophobic remark that he was accused of. It was inconsistent with his character. (I had heard months before that the remark wasn’t even made by Lonergan, but by another staff member.) 

Lonergan was taught by his parents to respect all people regardless of their sexual orientation. He recalled that his mother played on softball teams with several lesbian teammates when he was a child. This taught him that good people lead many different lives. He also attended a 2016 LGBTQ summit at the University of Maryland. 

The most striking way Lonergan demonstrated his acceptance of the LGBTQ community was his recruitment of Derrick Gordon, the first openly gay Division I men’s basketball player. 

Gordon told McKenna he was leaning toward transferring from UMass to GW, until the Atlantic 10 Conference told him he’d have to sit out a year if he went to a league rival. 

“Mike’s a great guy,” Gordon said. “I like the way he coaches and I wanted to play for him, and it sucks that he lost his job over being called homophobic. It doesn’t add up.”

The Washington Post suggested that having 13 players transfer away from GW during Lonergan’s five-year tenure was evidence of his being overbearing. Heck, two teams in the Atlantic 10 had more players transfer out. The Post reported that the transfer rate in college basketball had more than doubled in the previous five years to over 700 players. Most of the departing players were not talented enough to play at GW. 

I hope a head coach or athletic director gives Lonergan an opportunity to coach again. He’s an excellent teacher, a tireless recruiter and an outstanding in-game tactician. He cares about all aspects of his players’ lives. The school that hires him will be glad it did. 

Chris McManes (mick-maynz) is a local freelance sportswriter.