Ferry has right formula to turn around Dukes
Duquesne president Charles Dougherty introduces Jim Ferry as the new men's basketball coach April 12.
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When Jim Ferry arrived at Long Island University a decade ago, the men's basketball program was a bona fide mess.
The team played in the city's refashioned Paramount Theater where Frank Sinatra once crooned -- romantic-sounding, but awkward in reality.
Some of his players hated basketball. Others hated each other. Several disliked the school. It all showed in a 5-22 record in 2001-02, the year before Ferry was hired.
Ferry came in and laid down his law at the Northeast Conference school. He worked slowly and meticulously over the course of 10 years to lead LIU to back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances.
"I started all freshmen that year. I said this is how we're going to do it. We put our blinders on," said Ferry, a mild New York accent punctuating his words. "I had great support to really do it right."
This time around, Ferry has landed at Duquesne with the program at a crossroads: no longer Atlantic 10 doormats, yet nowhere near the conference's elite.
Ferry was hired in April to take Duquesne to "the next level," but was left with no backcourt, two recruits who bailed out and less than a month to fill five scholarships at a time of year when most of the best players had been spoken for.
How long will he be given? What rate of progress will be acceptable? How much harder is his task here in the competitive A-10, swelled now with the additions of Virginia Commonwealth and Butler, than it was in the Northeast Conference?
"You know what? Is it going to be harder? It'll be different," Ferry said. "It'll be a little different. There's a lot of similarities to the two challenges. The goal here is to get Duquesne back to the NCAA tournament. That was the goal at LIU.
"Some people might be disappointed to hear me say this: But it's not about next year. Next year is part of it. But it's not about that. I got a commitment to do it the right way."
He certainly did get the time to do it the right way at LIU.
John Suarez, the school's athletic director, recruited Ferry from Division II Adelphi University after slipping into Adelphi games to watch how the coach interacted with the kids on his team.
"He did what I wanted him to do. He changed everything about the program," Suarez said. "He changed the culture of the program. He changed the academics, the social component.
"Listen, you have to relate to these kids," he said. "They're not one-and-done kids like at the bigger level. At our level you have to have a coach who has the complete package. Who is going to make sure they graduate? Make sure they stay out of trouble? Deal with social issues? He's their surrogate father."
No player knows that more than Julian Boyd, Ferry's star forward at LIU who stunned him one August afternoon in 2009 with a phone call to report he had been in the hospital in Houston in renal failure. He was dehydrated so badly his kidneys started to fail. In the course of treatment doctors discovered a heart problem.
"Really nonchalantly he says, 'Hey coach, just wanted to let you know I've been in the hospital for two days,'" Ferry recalled.
Ferry and Suarez insisted he get checked out by New York doctors. He was diagnosed with non-compaction cardiomyopathy, a heart defect where the left ventricle doesn't pump at a normal rate.
"I don't have any family here in New York," said Boyd, who will be a senior for the Blackbirds next year. "He played a big role during that year. That whole time, he'd talk to me, try to cheer me up. I wasn't allowed to play run, shoot. Every day when we came to practice he told me to keep my head up, that we're going to get through it."
Boyd was on the sideline in 2009-10, the same season that Ferry lost his point guard, who returned home to Argentina to care for his sick mother, and his 6-foot-9 Lithuanian center, who passed up a fifth year of eligibility to turn pro and help his family financially.
It was six or seven years into Ferry's career at LIU at the time, and the team had been built to win a championship.
"We played with 11 guys that year," Suarez said. "It all happened in late August and we didn't have time to do anything about it. They were all heart-wrenching stories. I think that was his best year."
Ferry led the team to the NEC tournament semifinals. The next two years, with Boyd healthy, the team marched to back-to-back NCAA appearances.
"He knows what to do. The question is, is he going to have time to do it?" Suarez asked.
This past spring, there was not much time at all for the Dukes.
There was a stretch of weeks Ferry lived in a dorm room with his top assistant Brian Nash, his old college roommate.
The whole staff squeezed into dorm rooms on campus and worked 15-16-hour days to manage the spring signing period.
"We've been in this business almost 20 years. I don't think any of us have experienced a month like that first month," Nash said. "For everything we had to do: the number of players lost, the amount of traveling we had to do in a short amount of time. Each day rolled into the next one. I think we referred to it as Groundhog Day -- all right let's get in at 7. We worked out a little bit and before you knew it looking at your watch and it was 11 o'clock."
By late May the class was secured: point guards Marvin Binney, a junior college transfer and Derrick Colter, a high school senior from Largo, Md., forward Quevyn Winters and shooting guard Jeremiah Jones.
"They helped us fulfill some recruiting needs. When your program has lost that much -- T.J. [McConnell], [Mike] Talley [both transferred], Eric Evans [who graduated], that's everybody in the program who could dribble. So we addressed that. Got some good guys who can step in right away who can do that."
Now, summer sessions begin. Ferry will get his guys for two hours a week thanks to a new NCAA rule and will continue to settle in.
Ferry is still in the process of moving his family to the area, sending his daughter to Penn State in the fall and getting acquainted with Pittsburgh.
"The first thing I noticed, going to get dinner somewhere at night, how many people are Duquesne people and have season tickets and want to see success and want to get there," Ferry said. "That's great. Exciting. But at the same time it's not just going to happen right now. I wish I could say it would. But when you lose your four top scorers, to graduation or transfers, that's something that's difficult to recover from."
Which brings us back to time, as the Ferry era officially begins.
"I think if they have the patience to let him do what he needs to do they'll be fine," Suarez said. "I think he can be a major Division I coach. I think he's got all the tools to do it. It still comes down to recruiting the horses.
"He was able to do it in Brooklyn, I'm sure he'll do it in Pittsburgh."
First Published June 16, 2012 12:00 am