The following feature appeared on Examiner.com on Monday, Oct. 25., and was written by Ron Mergenthaler.
WEST POINT, N.Y. - A long time ago, at a college not too far away, Dave Magarity stood on the sidelines and coached a player who months later would become the second player chosen in the NBA draft. This wasn’t a Duke or a North Carolina, where first-round draft picks are replaced on a near-annual basis by more future first-round picks. This was unique. This was Marist College. And there, standing in the middle of the lane, was Rik Smits, a 7-foot-4 center.
“You rarely get an opportunity to coach a player of his ability,” Magarity said. “He was special.”
But because Marist had been penalized by the NCAA for recruiting violations that took place prior to Magarity having taken over the team, the Red Foxes were suspended from tournament play for the 1987-88 NCAA tournament. Coaches at smaller, less-prestigious programs often have the opportunity to ride their one great team or one great player, translate it into a big-time tournament run, and find themselves a bigger, better job at a bigger, more well-paying university, and at the time Magarity admitted he had such aspirations.
“Well, that never happened,” he said. “I cleaned that program up, but it was like for three or four years I had leprosy.”
And that big-time college job never came. No further future first-round picks fell into his lap. So here he is, 22 years later, the coach of the women’s basketball team at Army.
And he’s never been happier.
“I love what I’m doing,” he said, “and I love where I’m doing it.”
It was definitely a circuitous route.
In 23 years as men’s head coach, including 18 just 27 miles north of West Point at Marist, Magarity compiled an overall record of 313-334, with 253 of those victories coming with the Red Foxes.
During his time at Marist and St. Francis University (Pa.), Magarity was named coach of the year in four different leagues. Under his direction from 1986 to 2004, Marist saw unparalleled success, as he led his teams to an NCAA Tournament appearance in 1987 and to the National Invitational Tournament in 1996. Of the 18 Marist teams he coached, 15 of them reached double digits in victories, including two 20-win seasons.
His coaching career began at St. Francis, his alma mater, in 1973 as a graduate assistant, and than as an assistant coach until taking over the program in 1978, becoming, at age 27, the youngest Division I head coach in the nation. In his third season, Magarity led the Red Flashes to a 17-10 record, the most victories in a season for St. Francis in a dozen years.
He moved on to Iona College, serving as an assistant under Pat Kennedy for three years until taking the head job at Marist in 1986. It was in his first season at Marist the team had its first-ever 20-win season, winning 14 of its last 15 games. Magarity led Marist to only its second 20-win season in 1995-96, compiling a school-record 22 victories.
Following the 2003-04 season, Magarity said, Marist school president Dennis Murray wanted him to leave the bench and move into athletic administration, which he did, reluctantly, for six months. It was then onto the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, where he served as assistant comissioner before moving onto a similar position at the Mid-American Conference. Among his stops with the MAC was a football game – Central Michigan at Army. He was approached by Bob Beretta, the academy’s senior executive associate athletic director. Army coach Maggie Dixon, about to enter her first season as Army women’s coach, needed an experienced assistant. Magarity knew Dixon’s brother, Jamie, the head men’s basketball coach at Pittsburgh.
“And I’m saying, ‘Like what, I’m going to be an assistant coach at Army?’" Magarity said. “Bob was inciteful. He knew it would pique my interest. My family’s still in Poughkeepsie, and they put me together with Maggie and she’s a wonderful girl. She said, ‘I can use somebody with your background.’ I go to my wife and she says, ‘You really wanna do this?’ At that point, I really started missing coaching. So here I am. People think I’m crazy. I’m leaving a Division I football and basketball conference to be an assistant coach at Army? It was one of the most fun years I’ve ever had.”
Following that first season, Magarity was approached by one of his fomer Marist assistants, Jeff Bower, then the general manager of the New Orleans Hornets. The Hornets needed a director of college scouting. Magarity took the job.
“I’m pretty excited about it, but I’m apprehensive about telling Maggie,” he said. “We’d had that great year. She was great. She said, ‘Dave, I didn’t expect you to stay for more than a year.’ So I’m at the NCAA tournament and we got a call.”
The call was about Dixon. Just a month prior to her 29th birthday, she died of heart arrhythmia, due to an enlarged heart. The team was now Magarity’s – if he wanted it.
"She was a sweetheart, a real rising star in this business,” he said. “So that became a real saga. We flew out to her funeral, and on the way back, the [academy] superintendent, General [William] Lennox sat me down and said, ‘We need you to stay. We need you to do this.’ I say, well, thank you, I’m honored, but I just took a job in the NBA, and he gave me this look like, we need you to do this. I said, ‘Let me think about it.’ I spoke to the team and it was clear they wanted me. I said, ‘I’ll stay, but I need to have my daughter [Maureen] with me as assistant coach.’ So I got out of the NBA. Jeff understood.”
And through his first three seasons as head coach, the Black Knights had a record of 60-31, including that first season, in which the team set a school record with a 26-4 record, winning its first-ever Patriot League tournament title and an NCAA Tournament berth.
“It was a tough time for the girls because they missed Maggie,” Magarity said. “We had a great run.”
Then, there was last season, the team’s first losing year under Magarity, in which the Black Knights finished 11-18. All 16 players from last year’s team have returned this season, including forward Erin Anthony, a first-team all-league selection.
“We had it rough year last year,” said Magarity, whose team opens its season Nov. 12 at Wagner. “It was OK. It’s bound to happen here.The men, God bless them, the coaching’s good, but they haven’t had a winning season since 1985. In basketball, men’s basketball and women’s basketball, it’s a different animal.”
He would know. One of Magarity’s early challenges was tip-toeing through the minefield of recruiting players who might be interested in coming to the academy, and then having them accepted. This isn’t a matter of going after someone with a just-passing SAT score who’s demonstrated they can hit free throws. There are tests, both mental and physical. Then there’s the matter of a prospective cadet being sponsored by a member of Congress. This ain’t Nebraska going after another linebacker. The talent pool is inherently limited.
“It wasn’t only the transition from men to women,” said Magarity, whose daughter served as his assistant for four years before taking over this season as the head coach at New Hampshire. “Everyday I have to remind myself where I am. These kids are Division I athletes, but not Division I players. But they have great basketball IQs.”
And perhaps his biggest day-to-day challenge now?
“I’ve got to watch my mouth,” he said.