On a picturesque day just west of Pittsburgh, Gregory Dell'Omo and Craig Coleman stood against a wall in Sewall Center at Robert Morris University, each with a wide smile on his face.
For the Robert Morris president and athletic director, it was a festive day as men's basketball coach Andy Toole signed a three-year contract extension, a move that temporarily locked up someone viewed as a budding star.
But there was a greater meaning to the occasion. Toole's extension was the most recent step for a basketball program that has distinguished itself over the past five years, an ascendency that has benefits beyond the court.
In the time the Colonials have collected wins, the school has burgeoned. What was once a small, almost exclusively commuter school has grown in size and visibility, all while its basketball team has worked to become the next mid-major power.
"Division I sports can serve as the front porch to the university," Dell'Omo said. "It gets a lot of people's attention that may not otherwise think about you."
After being mired in mediocrity for most of the 1990s and early 2000s, Robert Morris has won 141 games since the 2007-08 season, tying it for eighth place among schools outside the major conferences. In that six-year span, the Colonials have appeared in five postseason tournaments, a run capped in March with a home victory against Kentucky in the National Invitation Tournament that earned the program newfound recognition.
While the basketball program has thrived, so have the school and its campus.
Over a five-year period beginning in 2008, the school's undergraduate enrollment climbed to 3,517 while the number of students living on campus increased 47 percent. Over half of the university's undergraduates now live on campus, a telling statistic for an institution that was a junior college until the late 1970s.
From a financial standpoint, the growth has been as drastic.
Robert Morris' total revenue went from $87.4 million in 2008 to $113.7 million by 2012. The endowment climbed from $16 million in 2009 -- a number reflecting duress from the economic recession -- to $28 million three years later, a 75 percent spike. The President's Council, a group of individuals that donates more than $1,000 annually, increased from 75 members in 2005 to 305 members by 2012.
It's growth that Coleman called "astronomical," something he sees as a product of basketball success.
"I don't think it's a coincidence at all," he said. "I think all of these things go hand in hand."
A self-professed basketball fan, Dell'Omo learned athletics' larger impact while an administrator at Saint Joseph's in the early 2000s. It was then that the school's basketball team, led by future NBA players Jameer Nelson and Delonte West, embarked on an undefeated regular season that landed the small Catholic school in Philadelphia on magazine covers and into the national conversation.
Upon arriving at Robert Morris in 2005, Dell'Omo has worked with Coleman to build the school's basketball program in the mold of other mid-majors that rose to prominence -- Butler, Gonzaga and Virginia Commonwealth, to name a few.
In particular, Gonzaga's success has served as a model for Dell'Omo. But while the Bulldogs can be a beacon of hope for smaller programs, their meteoric rise is much easier admired than duplicated.
"It's extremely, extremely hard," Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth said. "That's why I said that we've been lucky enough to accomplish what we have here at Gonzaga because no one else has really ever done it in the confines that we're working."
It takes a seminal moment to legitimize a smaller program. For Roth and Gonzaga, it came with an unexpected appearance in the Elite Eight in 1999, something which helped launch the Bulldogs' continued success.
While it's hard to equate a win in a second-rate tournament to a prolonged NCAA tournament run, some believe the victory against Kentucky could be a watershed moment for the Colonials.
"You can have tons of success like we've had, but you need something that grabs someone's attention," Toole said. "I think that's exactly what it did."
Gonzaga's fortunes also improved after it opened the 6,000-seat McCarthy Athletic Center in 2004, something similar to what Robert Morris would like to build once it gets the necessary funding.
While Dell'Omo said it's hard to make a direct connection between the Colonials' success and the school's improvement, a facility upgrade would be another tangible step for the university.
Where some saw a complex problem years ago, Coleman and Dell'Omo saw a simple solution that didn't go far beyond a basketball, five players and a coach.
"If you have a researcher in a very important field of study who publishes a great research paper and has an amazing breakthrough in the field of science ... that never receives as much publicity as winning a first-round game in the NCAA basketball tournament," Coleman said. "That may be an indictment of our culture, but nevertheless, that is a reality."
Craig Meyer: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @craig_a_meyer. First Published May 21, 2013 4:00 AM