A Long Rebound

April 16, 2008

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - This story appears in the Spring 2008 edition of The Wave, the official magazine of Jacksonville University. To view the magazine layout, click here.

Three years ago, Cliff Warren took control of the men's basketball program at Jacksonville University. With his arrival, he brought a renewed passion and sense of hope for a once-proud program that had been trampled upon during the previous 20 years.

With the momentum of a young, fresh face leading the program, along with a new administration and returning fan base, there were hopes that Warren would have a "Midas touch" with the program.

Men's basketball at JU has long been a preeminent program at the school, dating back to its junior college roots. The Dolphins have made nine postseason appearances in their history, with four trips to the NCAA Tournament - including the Cinderella run to the 1970 national championship game against UCLA.

But before Warren took over, the program had fallen into a rut. While JU tallied the occasional winning season, there was no excitement as the Dolphins failed to produce in conference play or advance deep into the conference tournament.

While Warren and the new administration dreamt of a quick turnaround, the program had to hit rock bottom before rising again.

After winning just one game in his first season as head coach, Warren was staring directly into the abyss trying to find answers. What he found was the confidence in himself and his staff. His plan to revive the program was built on bringing in a solid group of young men that could grow together and succeed for years to come.

No quick fixes. No dipping into the junior college ranks for a couple of players that would provide some success in the short term, but not set the program up to succeed in the long term.

"When I took the job, everyone I talked to told me that the key to being successful was to get good players," Warren said.

Warren and his coaching staff hit the roads throughout the Southeast scouring for talent - wherever it could be found.

His first recruiting class had found a gem in Marcus Allen (left, #45). Allen finished his first season by being named to the conference all-freshman team and had moved into the spotlight by the end of the season.

With plenty of playing time available to potential student-athletes, Warren brought in six new players that would help fully implement his up-tempo system.

The results were instant and beyond belief. JU completed the largest turnaround in Division I history, improving from one win to 15 and claiming a winning record en route to a third place finish in the conference.

While all the accolades were nice, Warren's young team missed a chance to capture the eyes of the nation as they were upset in the first round of the conference tournament.

"That was a tough loss because we had played so well over the last month of the season," Warren said. "But it was part of the building process and as we have shown, sometimes you have to take a step back to go forward."

For Alan Verlander, JU's newly named director of athletics, his first year was setup to be a glorious return to his hometown as he led the athletic program back to its previous heights. After all, it was his hire that was running the men's basketball program - a man who he had complete faith in doing the job.

But that first year came and went, and in the process JU put up just one win. Crowds dwindled from a packed house for the home opener to less than 200 people in Swisher Gymnasium for the season finale.

Verlander had now overseen the worst season in school history with the man he had hand picked holding the reins. Verlander remained confident in Warren's abilities and helped polish some of the rough edges of the first-year head coach. It was similar to what JU President Kerry Romesburg was doing with his first-year athletic director.

"Throughout that first year, Cliff and I talked almost nightly," Verlander recalled. "We would discuss ways we could improve the program. We would talk about his philosophy and how he handled things. He did a great job of maintaining a positive attitude at all times with the team, despite the mounting losses."

Warren had the full support of the University administration - and was ready to get some even better news: a new home facility.

The Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena became the new home of JU basketball during the summer of 2006 - coming off the NCAA announcement that the first and second rounds of the men's basketball tournament would be returning to the Arena in 2010, hosted by JU.

The move Downtown gave JU the nicest facility in the conference, easier access for fans across the city and a recruiting edge that makes many schools envious.

"When Cliff and I first discussed it, it seemed like the right thing to do in building this program," Verlander said. "We wanted to put the program back in view of the mainstream sports fan in Jacksonville. The Arena is one of the best in the country and we couldn't have asked for a better group of people to work with than them."

The relationship has taken off, with JU seeing its attendance increase each of the past two seasons. Close to 7,000 fans came to the East Tennesse State University game this past season, the most to attend a JU home game since a sellout against North Carolina in the early 1990s.

While the relationship has worked well off the court, it has worked on the court as well, with JU losing just two games on its new home floor - Billie N. Nimnicht, Jr. Court - since moving back Downtown.

"Any time you have a facility of this caliber, it helps in building a program," Warren said. "Moving our games Downtown has created a buzz around the city and that has resonated with the student-athletes we're trying to recruit."

As the horn sounded at Allen Arena in Nashville, Tenn. for the final time in the Atlantic Sun Conference championship game, the Dolphins retreated to the locker room disgusted, disappointed and determined to do bigger and better things next season.

JU had just watched Belmont become the first three-peat champion in league history with a 79-61 win to advance to the NCAA Tournament. Originally picked to finish fifth in the league, Warren's third season finished with the belief that the program has turned a page and ready to write a chapter on the next championship in school history.

After dropping the regular season finale at Stetson, it seemed the Dolphins might have lost their momentum entering the tournament. Instead, the team responded by putting together one of its best defensive performances of the season in the quarterfinals against Mercer before racing past Gardner-Webb in the semifinals.

Dolphin nation was on alert to dust off its dancing shoes, which have been in hibernation since JU's triumph in the 1986 Sun Belt Conference tournament.

While the loss in the championship game, nationally televised on ESPN2, was disappointing, its hard to believe that just two seasons before the Dolphins won just one game and were just one game away this season from going to the NCAA Tournament.

"It's another step in the right direction, but we're not where we want to be yet," Warren said after the championship game. "We're building a program that contends for championships every year. We had a good year, but there is still a lot of work to be done for us to get back here next season."