Heading into the 2013-14 season, Bruiser Flint believed he had assembled his strongest team ever at Drexel. And in the first month of campaign, the Dragons backed it up, taking two nationally ranked teams in UCLA and Arizona right down to the wire.
But in what became a familiar theme for Flint and the Dragons, those good vibes were quickly dashed when, late in their game against then-No. 4 Arizona, standout guard Damion Lee came down funny on the Madison Square Garden court and tore his ACL.
Later that season, another starter, Kazembe Abif, missed almost all of conference play with an injury. The season before that, star shooter Chris Fouch was lost for the year in the third game. The season after, it was about half of the team, including Abif and Lee, that went down.
Suddenly, a talented core that included Lee, Abif, Fouch, Frantz Massenat and Dartaye Ruffin, among others, seemed like a distant memory as, at times, Flint struggled with simple things like finding enough healthy players to even practice.
“You’re thinking to yourself, ‘Yo, I’m gonna have it like this for a couple of years,’” Flint said last week before leading this year’s less-talented Drexel team into the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament. “Then Chris goes down, Damion goes down, Kaz goes down. We haven’t been the same since.”
In the end, all of the bad luck caught up to Flint, who was fired after the Dragons lost in the quarterfinals of the CAA tourney, ending a dismal 6-25 campaign — the coach’s worst in 15 years running the program.
And it’s hard not to think about what might have been.
Flint’s detractors will immediately point out he never got to the NCAA Tournament and thus had to go, especially after sputtering through his first-ever back-to-back losing seasons. And they’re probably right. Fifteen years is a really long time for any coach to stay with the same school, and when you become the longest-tenured Division I coach to never go to the NCAA tourney — a distinction Flint earned when Yale, under his friend James Jones, punched its dance ticket over the weekend — well, that’s not a good thing.
But Flint’s accomplishments, in the face of seemingly endless adversity and bad luck, are still quite good. He won more games than any other Drexel coach (245) and was named the CAA Coach of the Year a very impressive four times — in 2002, 2004, 2009 and 2012. And yes, the fact that the Dragons didn’t make the NCAA Tournament in any of those years largely boils down to bad luck, too.
For starters, until recently, the conference tournament was held in Virginia where the local teams like VCU, George Mason, James Madison, Old Dominion and UNC Wilmington dominated. Should Drexel have won at least one CAA Tournament in Flint’s tenure? Of course. But it’s still fair to say that the deck was always stacked against the Dragons and the other Northern schools in the league.
Because of those conference tourney struggles, the Dragons were often left hoping for an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament. And again, that simply led to more bad luck and frustration. The Dragons were snubbed in 2012, despite winning the regular-season league title, amassing 27 victories before Selection Sunday and, at one point, reeling off 19 straight wins. The problem, perhaps, was a weak non-conference schedule. But that just makes another snub — five years earlier — tougher to swallow. That season (2006-07), Flint purposely scheduled some tough road games and then proceeded to win most of them, beating Syracuse, Creighton, Temple, Villanova and Vermont away from home. But those wins — and 18 others — somehow weren’t enough for Drexel to get in either.
Perhaps in 15 years, Flint should have more to show than two almost NCAA Tournament berths.
But it’s important to remember that he still produced mostly winning campaigns and lured high-level mid-major recruits to a school that plays in a small gym and competes for players and headlines with five other, arguably higher-profile, D-1 programs.
The best recruit of all may have been Lee, who also serves as a perfect microcosm for Flint’s misfortune.
It was during Lee’s freshman year, when he was named the CAA Rookie of the Year, that Drexel won 29 total games but didn’t hear its name called on Selection Sunday. Two seasons later, Lee tore his ACL at the Garden. The following season, he got hurt before the conference tournament, preventing the Dragons from possibly going on a late run. And then, between last season and this one, he told Flint he’d be using his extra year of eligibility (gained from the ACL injury) at the University of Louisville, setting the table for the Dragons’ disastrous six-win campaign. (Lee’s bad luck continued at Louisville when the school imposed its own postseason ban, preventing him from ever competing in the NCAA Tournament).
What would have happened if Lee hadn’t come down awkwardly on his knee at Madison Square Garden? Or if Fouch didn’t break his ankle after falling on a photographer at the Palestra? Or if there had been different people on the NCAA Selection Committee looking at different things?
Maybe Flint still has a job today. Maybe he doesn’t. But as one of the most colorful and demonstrative coaches in Philly looks for a new place to work and Drexel a new coach, all we can do is wonder what if?