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Navigating the Offseason's Turbulent Opening Week

It's been a whirlwind of a week since St. Bonaventure’s NCAA Tournament hopes ended in Brooklyn.

Twenty-four hours after the Bonnies endured a semifinal loss to eventual conference champions Duquesne, fans had another tough pill to swallow: it was reported that fan-favorite wing Barry Evans planned to enter the Transfer Portal.

Behind the scenes Sunday, exit interviews with players were completed, and Evans, Kyrell Luc, and Melian Martinez likely informed staff their plans to enter the transfer portal. Chad Venning’s decision to go portaling had already seemed pre-determined after being honored on Senior Day. Noel Brown was hampered with recurring ankle issues and what looked like an additional knee ailment.

Freshmen Miles Rose and Duane Thompson were unavailable due to the need to keep a redshirt in tact. And it's natural to question how much others, including senior transfers and a staff eager to scour the portal and get to work on another rebuild, might be motivated to continue a roller coaster season. Was the rest of this depleted roster enough to be competitive? If the answer is "maybe", was that worth accepting an invitation?

Because of all this, the real story began: NIT officials were informed Sunday afternoon the Bonnies should not be considered for the tournament, based primarily on what coach Mark Schmidt and Athletics Director Joe Manhertz deemed a lack of player availability and motivation.

Only a small handful of people knew about this preemptive decision. According to an NCAA spokesperson, "St. Bonaventure was one of a few teams that notified the NIT committee before the tournament field was selected or announced that it was going to opt out of participating in the event. In that sense, “declined an invitation” is probably not the correct wording because invitations are not extended to individual teams before the selection of the field is announced."

The semantics mattered little by Tuesday night, when ESPN displayed a graphic of the 17 teams who declined a bid to the NIT. It was then that the fan base, alumni, employees, and, yes, players found out. While Richmond, Loyola-Chicago, VCU, and Saint Joseph's were prepping for nationally-televised games against the likes of Virginia Tech, Bradley, Villanova, and Seton Hall, St. Bonaventure was, apparently, voluntarily sitting this one out.

At the time it reeked of, "we didn't think it'd get out, and we got caught when ESPN put the teams on blast."

That sentiment was solidified Thursday, when Manhertz told a Jandoli School classroom, “we notified the NCAA. Did we think it was gonna leak? Obviously not.”

Throughout Tuesday night and into Wednesday afternoon, a groundswell of rumors ranging from players quitting to not wanting to spend the money necessary to compete began swirling.

An initial explanation was apparently given Tuesday morning, but only behind a paywall on Zoom for a select number of 6th Man Club donors. It seemed, again, that a lack of transparency was continuing during a situation that called for urgent straightforwardness.

Then, Manhertz released a statement addressing the situation around 12:30 PM:

“We understand that ESPN posted a graphic regarding the selection of the NIT Tournament field on air Tuesday night.
Reaching the NCAA Tournament is the goal for St. Bonaventure basketball each year. We unfortunately came up short of that goal. Considering the logistics of what would have been an NIT road game, we made the proactive decision Sunday afternoon to inform the NIT selection committee of our concerns regarding roster uncertainty given injury and the transfer portal that would have left us at a competitive disadvantage. Together, athletics department administration and the coaching staff made the decision in the best interest of our student-athletes.
No invitation was extended prior to our conversation with the NIT committee. We respect the NIT and not only its history overall, but what the tournament has meant to our program. We look forward to future postseason competition.”

This, to put it mildly, didn’t help remedy what had become a public outcry for answers.

It didn't end there. On Thursday morning, Manhertz attempted to fix the hole by speaking to the aforementioned Jandoli School class about the decision, only to dig it deeper.

This Bona Venture story featured quotes from the AD that caused the outcry to reach a fever pitch:

“If they tell us they’re leaving and then we say, ‘Guys, we got one more game so suit up.’ That’s rolling the dice on what kids are going to do. How much are they going to give?” 
“Pitt, Syracuse UCLA, do we not want to be associated with them? Do you think recruits that we want, want to say ‘Yeah, I want to be in that group”? Or ‘Do I want to be in the NIT?’”
“For alumni and fans that the NIT means something to, that’s a dichotomy that I didn’t appreciate. What I learned is that [the NIT] means a lot more to the Bonaventure alumni than it does to the Bonaventure players.”
“I think the aspect that I learned the most is to get the [players] in on the decision early, and if there’s something we’re doing, notify the right people. I made decisions that some were good and some were bad. I got to be better next time. Every decision I make is to make sure the student athletes and, as an institution, can get better at being competitive.”

Oof. For the few who still believed Manhertz and St. Bonaventure were a healthy marriage, that he “got Bona’s”, or could at least work his way out of this partly-self-inflicted fiasco, this had them eager and willing to sign the divorce papers.

The logic implied that ESPN’s graphic was actually a good thing, because future prospects would maybe say: "I'm going to SBU because I'd rather be on a list of P5 NIT rejectors than in the NIT." And this hypothetical recruit's opinion holds more weight than current players, whether or not most were ready for the offseason.

But here’s the rub: People wanted transparency and communication from leadership. Despite fumbling the ball twice on two carries, Manhertz did try to communicate, and these comments “ultimately contributed to Manhertz’s resignation,” sources told the Bona Venture.

He did talk about what he learned. He did admit he did things wrong. He did think about what he'd do differently next time. Although he certainly botched the messaging, he did stand in front of a crowd and address a difficult situation.

In other words, at face value the one who attempted to communicate was almost certainly forced to resign, and the one who hasn’t spoken a word publicly since Saturday’s postgame presser seems to have come away completely unscathed.

For a controversy primarily about open communication, doesn't this paradoxical result imply it’s still better to say nothing? If so, the lessons learned are at risk of being counterproductive.

This is not to say Manhertz shouldn’t have resigned. After interviewing elsewhere 1.5 years into his SBU tenure – something a source told the BV “concerned the university and raised questions about his ability to lead,” as well as several other things bubbling up beneath the surface prior to Sunday, Manhertz simply could not come back and right the ship (let alone gain enough confidence to fundraise) after this crippling blow.

This story has become a Manhertz one, yet Schmidt almost certainly had as much or more of a say in it all than his boss. A belief that this head coach had little agency in such a decision would be a naive one. Odds would more favor the decision being entirely Schmidt's than entirely Manhertz's.

That's not to say anything more than this: It’d be refreshing to hear from Schmidt during such a controversy. Titles be damned, Schmidt is the most powerful figure not just in athletics, but arguably the entire university. Owning some of the situation, even at the most basic level, would go a long way with a forgiving and loyal fan base.

Interviewing elsewhere is his professional business, not ours. What happens on the court or in the locker room is his business, not ours. Recruiting and development and playing time and schedule-making and everything in between is his business, not ours. And, yes, declining an invite to the postseason is his call to make. But when fans are asked and answer the call to donate and invest their time and money with the goal of helping St. Bonaventure gain as much exposure as possible through men's basketball -- something they should continue to do -- this felt different.

Schmidt rightfully gets the lion’s share of credit for leading the program out of its Dark Ages. You don’t stay at SBU for almost 20 years if you don’t “get Bona’s” -- the most common grievance among the Bona Faithful in regard to Manhertz. Schmidt seamlessly melded into the community, raised a family here, created a successful program and culture, and enjoys the comfort and benefit of the doubt the fans and alumni give him. When he talks, we listen.

A postseason berth was a no-brainer in years past, especially for a program that early this century went a decade without one. And even as recently as a few years ago, coaches would have told players they’re competing, not asked. In this transactional modern era of college athletics, with nearly half the sport transferring annually and the NIT not holding the cache it used to, most fans would have shrugged off a Sunday night explanation from pretty much anyone involved, woke up Monday and carried on filling out brackets.

(Those of us who watched the NIT Selection Show late Sunday would have saved an hour of our time and a little confusion when Saint Joseph's was selected to the field, but that's beside the point.)

As much initial optimism as there was for the 2023-24 Bonnies, many were ready to turn the page once “Brooklyn or bust” officially went bust. The portal’s nonsensical early opening date made matters worse for Bona’s and 294 other teams who didn’t hear their name called on Selection Sunday. Some players would rather get a head start on being (publicly) courted than commit to continue playing for a school where they’ve already got one foot out the door.

It isn’t an ideal situation or timing for anyone involved, far beyond St. Bonaventure. Self-aware fan bases not packing 90,000 people into a stadium on fall Saturdays can look to the NCAA horizon and see nothing but stormy seas to navigate. Most aren't aboard an SEC or Big 10 aircraft carrier.

The captain of St. Bonaventure’s small but sturdy tugboat, though, is Mark Schmidt. It’s been Mark Schmidt since April 2007, and we’ve been passengers on this proud ride ever since. Its sturdiness was tested all week, and as it was buffeted by wave after wave, sending a top crew member overboard, the seasick occupants have yet to hear from the skipper.

It'd be a pleasant surprise if that changed soon.

1 comentario

Well said. I'm not an alum but a big fan of Bona hoops. I joyfully screamed when the Bonnies made the NIT Final Four. I was looking forward to watching them again in the NIT this year.

This is sad all the way around

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