Twenty two years ago, with the Wittenberg Tigers boasting an 18-0 record in head coach Bill Brown’s first season, their senior star told local reporters, “When you come to Wittenberg, you’re looking at league titles, and a national title is always in the back of your mind. I thought we would be this good, but there is a little bit of luck thrown in. Everything has fallen into place.”
That quote came from Matt Croci, who forever solidified his place in Wittenberg men’s basketball history by earning All-American and North Coast Athletic Conference Player of the Year honors in 1994. He averaged 18.9 points for a team that finished 30-2 and third in the NCAA tournament.
Everything fell into place then, and it has done so again for Croci in 2016. Croci, 43, was named interim coach June 2 when Bill Brown resigned after 23 seasons, and he had the interim tag removed Tuesday. He will be the 19th head coach in Wittenberg history.
“When I got into coaching,” said Croci, who was an assistant last season and has served as an assistant director of athletics since August 2014, “I never thought, ‘One day I’ll be the guy who can coach the program or take over for Coach Brown.’ It wasn’t like that. But now that the day is here, it’s really exciting.”
Here are five things to know about the hiring:
1. Big shoes: Brown stepped down in part because he’s moving to Indiana with his wife Kay to spend more time with their two sons, who live in Bloomington and Indianapolis. His final record stood at 483-167.
“It’ll be tough (replacing Brown),” Croci said. “He’s (Wittenberg’s) all-time winningest coach. I think he’s made a far greater impact off the court with 23 years worth of guys getting their degrees, getting jobs and now getting married and having kids. He’s put his entire life into running the program. We alumni are incredibly thankful for what he’s done.”
2. Second chance: This will be the second head coaching job for Croci. He coached at Kenyon, another North Coast Athletic Conference program, from 2004-10. He was 43-69.
Kenyon has had two winning seasons in the last 21, and Croci had one of them. The Lords finished 16-11 in 2008-09. The prior year, they were 13-13 and finished third in the NCAC at 11-5. He won the NCAC coach of the year award that season, becoming the first to own the conference’s player and coach of the year awards.
Croci left Kenyon because his wife, Patrice, a fellow Wittenberg grad, got a job in Fort Myers, Fla. When Patrice got a new job in Columbus, the Crocis and their children — Sophia, Cecilia, and Cameron — moved to Upper Arlington.
“Kenyon was an incredible experience,” Croci said. “I loved that place. I learned how to be a head coach, how to run a program, all the day-to-day things that go into it. It’s not just showing up for practice, leaving and then going to coach the games.”
3. Succession plan: Croci played a big role in recruiting this class. He and Brown explained to the new recruits the plan was for Brown to coach another season and then for Croci to take over the program. Brown’s decision to resign this season changed that timeline.
“None of those guys have had any issues with the transition,” Croci said, “and I’ve talked to almost all of our returning players in the last couple weeks, and all of them are excited. They’re bummed to see (Brown) go, and they’re all very thankful for the opportunity they got from him.”
4. Hiring process: Athletic Director Gary Williams reached out to three Wittenberg basketball alums — former coaches Larry Hunter and Bob Hamilton and former player Brian Agler — to get their opinions on Croci. Hunter, who led the Tigers to their last national title in 1977, is the coach at Western Carolina. Agler is coach of the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks.
All three coaches helped reinforce Brown’s thoughts on Croci and what Williams had learned about Croci in the last two years. Williams knew people were wondering if Wittenberg would conduct a national search for a coach after he put the interim tag on Croci, but a plan for Croci to succeed Brown had been taking shape since Brown’s longtime assistant, Travis Schwab, left the program in April 2015 to be the head coach at Muskingum.
“This decision did not just happen overnight,” Williams said. “It’s been a well-thought-out decision. Many factors played into this, which included who Matt is, what he means to Wittenberg and what he means to the kids in our program and then the work ethic I’ve seen since he arrived on campus. I didn’t make this decision in isolation. This decision was a collaborative effort between me, board members, the senior staff, alumni and our student athletes.”
5. Returning cast: The Tigers finished 14-12 last season and 9-9 in the NCAC. They return their top four scorers and eight of their top 10.
Wittenberg is also bringing in 13 freshmen recruits, including this year’s winner of the Clark County Mr. Basketball Award, Southeastern grad Jake Bertemes. It’s supposed to be one of the strongest classes in years.
“My job is to take this roster of guys and try to push them forward,” Croci said. “(Brown) has certainly not left the cupboard bare.”