The IUP men's basketball team is 18-2 and ranked No. 6 in the country among Division II teams.
Its coach is Joe Lombardi, who was Jim Baron's right-hand man when St. Francis had one of its best two-year runs since the Maurice Stokes era.
I've often wondered what would have happened to the Red Flash program had SFU hired Lombardi after Baron left in 1992.
Former St. Francis assistant coach Joe Lombardi is 40-10 in the last two years as IUP’s head coach.
Baron recommended him and still believes to this day, "I could not have done it without him. Did I think he should have gotten the job? Absolutely."
But St. Francis had other ideas.
It hired Tom McConnell, who spent seven seasons before surrendering and giving way to Bobby Jones, who somehow managed to stay nine years before, mercifully, the Flash made a change and turned to Don Friday, who is making some progress in his second year.
During that 18-year stretch, St. Francis has had two better-than-.500 seasons - they've had just five since the Pete Lonergan Era (1973-78) produced four in five years - and they've not been to even the NEC quarterfinals since 1996.
Neither Lombardi nor Baron, who has since carved out a great career at St. Bonaventure and now Rhode Island, take particular delight in the Red Flash's malaise.
"I'm still thankful just to have gotten into Division I coaching and to this day, I root for them and hope for their success," Lombardi said from his IUP office. "When you're in the middle of it, sometimes it can be discouraging, but it doesn't take long to look back and think of the positive impact the situation had on my life and not dwell on the downside of it."
Lombardi had a disconnect with then-Flash Athletic Director Frank Pergolizzi, who chaired the search committee.
"It was just a departmental decision to go in a different direction," Lombardi said, "and that's all part of the business."
Baron didn't want to rehash "a soap opera," but he also thinks schools should retain continuity following success.
"Sometimes when you come in and overachieve, they [administrations] think they did it," and want to bring in their own coach, he said. "Bonnies did the same thing. We graduated everybody. We did what was asked and then some. How could you not? That really hurt me, but you move on. I still love the place and the guys we had. It was a magical time."
Indeed. Saturday nights in Loretto were a happening. The Stokes Club and PJ's Tavern were packed as the Flash faithful would linger well into the night.
Lombardi used to call it "the miracle on the mountain."
He knew the Flash were fortunate to land both Mike Iuzzolino and Joe Anderson, the cornerstones of the program, and, as Baron's successor, he didn't expect to win 41 games in two years (23-9 in the NEC) along with a 24-8 mark in 1991 that secured the school's only NCAA Tournament berth.
But he wanted to try.
"I'm not necessarily some kind of miracle worker," he said. "I consider myself more of a construction worker."
The program has been under construction since.
"I would have liked the opportunity," Lombardi said, "but no way could I sit here and say we could have maintained the success. I don't know if it can be duplicated. It's a tough job with a lot of hurdles. I feel confident I could have had success there - as I'm confident I could be successful in most situations."
But even though Baron left very late - he was hired at Bona in September of 1992 - Lombardi was passed over for McConnell.
Lombardi was 33 at the time.
So was McConnell.
"Initially, it was very disappointing," he said. "At the time, I had great ambitions, and I wanted to be a head coach, and I felt I had put a lot of blood, sweat and tears in helping Jim be successful. That was my focus - to make the head man look good. We felt we took it step by step together. Knowing where it was and where we went and breaking new ground, we felt we were deserving for that opportunity."
The St. Francis brass ultimately disagreed. Lombardi understands better now than he did then.
"In fairness to the administration at the time, my perspective may not have been the clearest one," he said. "Sometimes you feel you're more qualified than maybe other people think you are. I had great respect for [then SFU president] Father Christian [Oravec] at the time and still do. Although it was disappointing, it was exciting to go the Atlantic 10 where UMass and Temple were top 20 programs. I've never lived my career looking in the rear-view mirror."
At the same time, it also shows that when someone is seemingly on the verge of a head coaching job that they don't get, it sometimes takes another dozen-plus years to land one.
In Lombardi's case, after nine years at Bona, two at LaSalle and three at Pitt, IUP came calling.
"I wanted to be a head coach not to legitimize myself and my ego but to be able to run a program and have a greater stamp on it - and it didn't concern me what level," he said. "I have a job now that in my mind is comparable to a lot of D-I jobs, and I'm not consumed 365 days a year like you are at Pitt. The only thing missing from a quality of life standpoint is sometimes the bright lights of Division I and after doing that for 27 years, that became less important to me."
Lombardi has made great progress at IUP, taking over a messy program and improving it each year. He's gone from 6-12 to 13-15 to 22-8 and is 40-10 in the last two years.
"I love what he's doing," Baron said, "and I'm not at all surprised. Joe is a terrific coach, he's a family man, and he's a helluva recruiter."
Lombardi believes his seasoning under Baron, Billy Hahn at LaSalle and Jamie Dixon also helped.
"You'd like to think you get better and more prepared as time goes on," he said. "After all those stops, by the time I got to IUP as a head coach, I'm sure I had more wisdom and knowledge on how to be successful. And looking back, the silver lining of not getting the job at St. Francis was the great experience my family and I had at St. Bonaventure. If I had gotten that [SFU] job, I may not have had the opportunity to coach in the Big East - and I cherish those experiences. I've been blessed over the last 17 years since then.
"In no way do I harbor any resentment."
That kind of positive attitude matches Joe Lombardi's perseverance.
Since history has a way of judging how schools handle filling high-profile vacancies, if St. Francis is ever fortunate enough to win 41 games in two years again, and go to the NCAA Tournament, it will be interesting to see how the coaching succession goes then for the guy riding shotgun.
That's a big "if" that, given the last 18 years, St. Francis would be only too happy to address.
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.