Only time will tell if new SIUE head coach Jon Harris is the right guy to push the Cougars beyond mediocrity on the basketball court.
But if the university administration's aim is to tie a stronger bond between the metro-east and its only Division-I sports program — and maybe put a few extra rear ends in the Vadalabene Center seats — it's hard to imagine a better fit than Hometown Harris.
He grew up in Edwardsville, was a star at Edwardsville High School and he's spent the last seven years being mentored by Cuonzo Martin, the East St. Louis native who now leads the Pac-10's California Golden Bears.
Harris is a metro-east guy.
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And based on what he said Monday during his official introduction as the eighth head coach in Cougar history, he intends to build a program that reflects who he is.
The message must be a refreshing one to SIUE Athletic Director Brad Hewitt, who has led a major investment in the university’s intercollegiate sports program that includes updated facilities and, of course, a transition to NCAA Division I. It’s an investment that has gone largely unnoticed by the region’s basketball fans.
As one of just two D-I programs in the St. Louis metropolitan area, the basketball Cougars draw from the Ohio Valley Conference's biggest market, yet last season ranked 11th in the 12-team league in average home attendance. There were nearly twice as many people in the Okawville High School gym for a Class 1A sectional championship than the 1,600 that typically show for any mid-major match-up at Vadalabene Center.
There are probably all kinds of theories for why that is. But I think it’s because SIUE still has a local reputation as a commuter school, where campus life goes lifeless at the end of the academic day. That does nothing to engender loyalty among the alumni or engage the surrounding community.
New campus dorms certainly will help, as will upgrades to Vadalabene Center and the athletic program's move to Division I.
The university has laid the infrastructure to change campus culture. Now it needs a messenger.
Enter Hometown Harris.
Hewitt insists Harris would have been considered for the job, even if he came from Timbuktu. But he can't deny that Harris' home-grown status gave him a leg up.
Harris likewise insisted that coming home wasn't his objective in applying for the job, yet made it clear he'll leverage his familiarity with the area to advance the program’s allure.
He’ll start with a staff of assistant coaches who are as entrenched in the metro-east as he is. They’ll collectively get to work rebuilding a roster that’s heavy on local talent, and will “put up a fence” to corral them if they have to.
"The recruiting footprint is enticing. The talent is exciting,” Harris said. “We have to build relationships and make these guys feel good about coming to campus."
Then, he says, he’ll dispatch his charges into the surrounding communities as visible representatives of SIUE basketball.
"I'm a firm believer that communities will support universities that support communities," he said. "We will take every day to entrench ourselves in the campus community and in the community of Edwardsville and greater St. Louis metropolitan area.”
Previous coach Lennox Forrester, whose contract wasn’t renewed at the conclusion of the past season, wasn't much older than Harris is now and had no more experience when he accepted the challenge to lead the Cougars through their conversion to NCAA Division I. He took on a tall task seven years ago and did the job well.
Now it’s time for Hometown Harris build on what Forrester helped to create and sell it to metro-east basketball fans.
On that front, he’s the right fit for the job.
"I feel like I'm connected in this region — in Southern Illinois and the St. Louis market. I've recruited a lot of times and grew up in the area. It's a relationship deal. You have to have the facilities, the environment and a very good basketball league. We have that.
"It goes back to relationships and I’m a relationship guy.”