Coach Jim Engles has turned NJIT into a championship team. He is a national finalist for the Skip Prosser Man of the Year Award, which recognizes coaching success and moral integrity.
The team’s turnaround has been nothing short of amazing, one of the most incredible transformations in the history of college basketball.
Four years ago, the NJIT Men’s Basketball team was the first in the history of Division 1 play to go 0-29. Over three years, NJIT lost 51 straight games, thereby setting an NCAA record for futility and loss.
Yet last week, by defeating Houston Baptist, NJIT clinched its first regular-season conference (the Great West Conference) title. The team also earned the No. 1 seed in the upcoming conference tournament at Chicago State. NJIT will play one semi-final game on Friday, March 15, at 5 p.m. Central Time. NJIT will play either Utah Valley or Houston Baptist University; those two face off on Thursday afternoon. If NJIT wins the one semi-final game, it advances to the championship game on Saturday, March 16, at 7:30 p.m. Central Time.
“We’ll win,” says Ryan Woods, a senior and co-captain of the team who plays small forward. “That has been our season-long goal and we have the ferocity and hunger to win the championship.”
Woods, who transferred to NJIT after two years at Pace University, said he was recruited by NJIT Coach Jim Engles, who has a national reputation for turning teams. He also known for his high moral standards and is a national finalist for the Skip Prosser Man of the Year Award, which recognizes coaching prowess and moral integrity. Engles recruited players to NJIT who were selflessly devoted to winning and whose chemistry was spot-on perfect, said Woods, a History major who grew up in Staten Island and excelled there as a high school player.
“Our team is tight; we are best buddies; we love each other; we have each other’s backs,” said Woods. “That’s why we’ve been so successful on the court. Winning the conference title was the greatest sports moment of my life. We’re ready for the leap to win the championship. A championship banner would be testimony to how hard we’ve worked and what great support we’ve gotten from the university and from our coaches.”
Turning around a basketball program, explained Engles, is like starting your own business: you must put in place the pieces of a plan for success and then execute that plan. His plan involved recruiting the right players; improving NJIT’s athletic center and weight room, and most importantly, molding young players into skilled veterans. Four of the seniors now on the team all started out with Engles.
“The seniors came in young and got a lot of playing time and matured physically and mentally over four years,” he said. “They committed to what was then a losing program but they had a will to grow and win. To see all their hard work come to fruition now is great. I’m really happy for them.”
Chris Flores, the team’s guard and co-captain, said he took a chance in coming to NJIT. He too was a top player at his Connecticut high school and was recruited by NJIT. Flores, a senior majoring in International Business, said he came to NJIT to be part of something special: a major turnaround. Each year the team improved and now it’s poised to win its first Division 1 championship for NJIT.
“The senior players on the team stayed at NJIT this summer to workout hard in the heat,” said Flores. “We lost last year in the championship game so we wanted to be in top shape this season.”
Flores, whose parents are from Honduras, says after he graduates in May he hopes to play for the Honduran National Team. After that, he’d like to play professionally in Europe and, with a bit of luck, in the NBA.
But first things first, says Flores, with a touch of swagger in his tone. “And first we gotta win the championship.”
P.J. Miller, a senior point guard who majors in Business, said he came to NJIT because it had a great academic reputation and a team in need of a spark -- one that he was happy to supply. “Coach Engles gave me a chance to be part of an historic turnaround,” Miller said. “He gave me a chance to take a program that needed a spark and to help set it aflame. I couldn’t turn that offer down.”
In the past, the team would sometimes fall behind in a game and lose the urge to “fight back,” said Miller. But now they have a counter-urge – an urge to come back and win. The team is also proud of its winning record and wants to pass that onto posterity. Miller hopes this season spearheads a tradition of hoops excellence at NJIT.
“We want to pass on our hard work and winning to the teams that come after us,” Miller said.
The team is like a brotherhood, he adds. Or a fraternity: one that trains together, eats together and socializes together, added Miller. The players on the team will stay in touch long after they graduate. After what they’ve been through together – the losses and the bad publicity and now the wins and the path of glory – they’ll be life-long friends. And a championship win will be the glue that cements their bond.
“When they hang that championship banner in the our gym," said Miller, "it will be the symbol of what we did, what we accomplished. "We’ll always have that banner to be proud of."