Up-and-coming Robert Morris coach Toole ready to move into the fast lane

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The young coach is stuck. Monday afternoon's rush hour has brought his black SUV to a halt on Pittsburgh's dreaded Parkway West. Andy Toole doesn't like sitting still, especially in March, but at least he's in good company.

His father, white-haired Jerry, is in the passenger seat. His son, 5-month-old Ryan, is in the back, sound asleep in a car seat. Soothing country music plays from the speakers that usually bring Toole, a New Jersey native, his daily dose of Springsteen from satellite radio's E Street channel.

For a 32-year-old who could pass for 22, he carries an old soul. His hope is to transfer his appreciation for grit to the young men on his Robert Morris basketball team. It hasn't been easy, but they're coming along. The Colonials just won the Northeast Conference regular-season championship and will play host to the league's tournament this week, validation for Toole's intense methods in just his third season as a head coach.

Toole is discussing the challenges of winning at Robert Morris when he stops mid-sentence and turns up the radio volume. Here it is, the interview he did earlier in the day with "Danger Frog," the country station Froggy 104.3 FM's drive-time host.

"All you guys have to do is win three tournament games, starting on Wednesday, then Saturday, then Tuesday, and you're going to the Big Dance," Danger Frog says, "and we'll have Robert Morris on our NCAA brackets."

"That would be the plan, but we gotta take it one game at a time," Toole says.

"I think a good sign is that one of your best players is named Lucky," says Danger Frog, referring to RMU sophomore Lucky Jones. "Andy Toole, I'm guessing you're Irish."

"I am indeed," Toole says.

"So a little luck of the Irish in March doesn't hurt."

"We'll take luck of the Irish, Lucky Jones, doesn't matter."

Toole has heard enough. He turns the volume back down. At Robert Morris, you welcome any publicity, and with the Colonials 22-9 and playing for the NCAA tournament, now's the time people might decide to care about them.

Toole, the youngest Division I coach in the country when he got the job at 29, wants this moment for his players, and for the three generations of Toole males who now share this space.

Jerry Toole gave his son the gift of time, going to nearly every basketball game Andy played, beginning in Red Bank, N.J. When Ryan was born Oct. 6, Andy told Jerry, "Now, it's my turn."

Ryan's arrival has changed the stakes for his dad in a weird way: Taken individually, the losses don't hurt as much because he goes home and "Ryan doesn't know whether we won or lost," Andy says. But, in totality, more losses mean less job security for Andy and less of a chance to coach at the highest level and provide stability for his family.

So, yes, for Andy Toole, who already had a reputation for behavior bordering on the maniacal, this just got more serious.

Breakfast for the boosters

Monday began early, with Ryan wailing around 2 a.m. Brooke Toole, Andy's wife, took the baby downstairs so that Andy could get some sleep heading into a big week.

First up, a meeting with Jay Carson, RMU's senior vice president of institutional advancement; Matt Millet, the school's director of university sponsorships; and Kate Gatto, RMU major gifts manager, at Pamela's Diner in Mt. Lebanon.

"There's a major buzz around town," Carson informs Toole.

It is Carson, Millet and Gatto's job to capitalize on any perceived buzz. They have big plans for the spring. Top among them, an NCAA championship game watch party April 8 for about 40 RMU boosters at Toole's Mt. Lebanon home.

Millet also suggests that they be ready to have a special gathering at the school for the NCAA tournament selection show.

"Just so it's in the back of your mind," he says to Toole.

Toole knows what an NCAA berth would mean for his program. They could hopefully raise enough money to provide him with some more resources. The three ask Toole what he might want.

"They have these heart-rate monitors that you can put on kids," Toole says. "There's a couple of guys I know aren't working hard. I just don't have the evidence."

The table breaks out into laughter. What they don't understand is that Toole probably isn't kidding.

Scouting report

  • Matchup:

    Robert Morris (22-9) vs. St. Francis (12-17), 7 p.m. today, Sewall Center.

  • Radio, Internet:

    WPIT-AM (730), rmucolonials.com.

  • Robert Morris:

    Coming off 81-61 victory at Central Connecticut State. ... Has home-court advantage throughout the NEC tournament. ... Has won five consecutive games. ... G Velton Jones was named to the all-conference first team Tuesday, while F Lucky Jones was named to the third.

  • St. Francis:

    Coming off 92-80 victory against Sacred Heart. ... Has lost six of its past nine games. ... Defeated Robert Morris at home, 71-61, in the only meeting between the teams this season. It is the only NEC team the Colonials have not beaten this season. ... G Brent Jones is 19th among Division I players in assist rate.

  • Hidden stat:

    Robert Morris has allowed less than 1.0 point per possession in nine of its past 10 games.

Get on the bus

Above Andy Toole's desk, a Springsteen lyric from "Atlantic City" is painted on the wall: "Down here, it's just winners and losers, and don't get caught at the wrong side of that line."

Robert Morris is on the right side for now, but Toole knows the Colonials will need to be motivated again, and he asks his assistants if they have any ideas.

"I wonder if there's anything we can do with the energy bus or not," assistant Robby Pridgen offers.

"The Energy Bus" is a motivational book that Toole assigned the Colonials for summer reading, featuring "10 rules to fuel your life, work and team with positive energy." The main character, a man named George, has fallen into a rut in all facets of life.

"That's our guys to a 'T,' " Toole says. "Just, the world is so hard. Our guys get in the rut of life, and unfortunately, instead of attacking each day ..."

From the time Toole became a basketball-obsessed child, he has not understood people who accept losing. He remembers taping a stop-watch to the hoop in his backyard and seeing how many layups he could make in a certain amount of time.

"I thought other people were weird when they didn't act like that," Toole says. "I've had issues with competition. I have people who don't want to partake in games with me."

The fire inside Toole led him to Elon University in North Carolina and, after two seasons, to the Ivy League and the University of Pennsylvania. At Penn, Toole, a 6-foot-3 point guard, led the Quakers to back-to-back NCAA tournaments and a memorable win against Villanova his senior year in which he played with a stress fracture in his foot and scored 21 points.

"He was probably the best player on the court that game," says Fran Dunphy, Toole's coach at Penn who now coaches Temple. "It's that kind of determination that leads him to be the leader he is today."

Today, Toole has decided that the energy bus is the way to go for a motivational metaphor. He wants a poster of a big yellow bus put on a wall of the locker room, with a road that leads to the NCAA tournament, and he wants it done by the next morning.

An uncaring month

Practice is about to start, and the Colonials are gathered in a circle around their leader, who is talking about the month of March as if it were a person.

"It doesn't give a [expletive] who you are, what you've done, where you've been, the past, it doesn't matter. All that matters is that every day you get to put your jersey on that you respect the game, play as hard as you can, play for each other, and then you might have the possibility to continue to play."

To an outsider, the mood of practice feels upbeat, energized. Yet, Toole appears consistently disgusted by what he sees, and nobody is immune to his verbal sparring.

Not his assistants, who have to participate in most of the drills: "Be physical! That's what I said upstairs! You don't listen!"

Not the clock guy: "Why do you stop the clock all the [expletive] time? Maybe that's why practice takes so long!"

Not the walk-on, Treadwell Lewis, who wants a foul call: "You're just as delusional as everybody else! It was a foul! A vicious mugging!"

And certainly not the scholarship players like the suddenly un-Lucky Jones: "Lucky, that was the worst [expletive] pass I've ever seen! There's no discussion! No response! That's embarrassing!"

Toole came to Robert Morris in 2007 to be an assistant under Mike Rice. They were kindred souls, double-teaming the Colonials at each practice with their combined rage. They coached Robert Morris to the NCAA tournament in 2009 and 2010, and then Rice took the Rutgers coaching job, leaving Toole to take over the Colonials.

Earlier this season, Rice came under fire from Rutgers officials for his treatment of players and was suspended for three games and fined $50,000.

"I think you do some self-analysis," Toole says. "Mike and I have some similarities in terms of our intensity level, our desire to get the most out of people. You make sure you're in control, but there's times when things aren't going well and guys aren't responding, that intensity can turn difficult to manage at times."

After practice, the Colonials are back in that circle. It's quiet.

"I'm disappointed with how you approached practice today," Toole says.

At this point, he can only hope March wasn't watching.

When, not if

The day almost over, Brooke Toole sits baby Ryan on her lap at Buffalo Wild Wings in West Mifflin. They're wearing their RMU red, white and blue, watching as Andy does his weekly radio show.

About 10 Robert Morris supporters attend, a bit of a downer after winning a conference championship last weekend.

How much longer will Toole, whose name likely will come up often in coaching rumors this offseason, be at Robert Morris? It's a question the Tooles can't seem to avoid.

"All the time," she says.

Brooke says that they are not in a hurry to leave Pittsburgh, that it's about finding the right job at the right time. Andy says it will have to be a "great job" to take him away.

Jerry Toole, the proud father, isn't as politically correct. Eventually, he says, Andy will be on the move once again.

"It's been a series of steps," Jerry says. "That's why, at this point, most people who know Andrew, you don't even question whether the next step is coming or not. It's more when, and when he decides that's what he wants to do."

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J. Brady McCollough: bmccollough@post-gazette.com and on Twitter @BradyMcCollough.


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