LORETTO - Only one question really matters for a basketball program that's had just five winning seasons in the past 34 years: Is it possible to win at St. Francis?
New head coach Rob Krimmel is as mild mannered, polite professional as they come. Even when pressed earlier this year about the nepotism controversy that popped up when he was hired by his father, SFU athletic director Bob Krimmel, Rob always remained calm and poised on that touchy subject.
But recently, Rob got a little testy when asked the question above and admitted it irks him when that subject is brought up.
"You can absolutely win at St. Francis in men's basketball," Krimmel said Monday during the Red Flash's media day luncheon.
Saying it is one thing. Proving it, as history shows, is quite another for a program that's made only one NCAA Tournament appearance (1991) and more often than not fails to even qualify for its own conference tournament.
The Red Flash went 6-23 overall last season and 5-13 in the Northeast Conference, which got coach Don Friday forced out after four years and with believed to be one year remaining on his contract. The younger Krimmel, who bleeds red and white after playing at St. Francis and spending the past 12 years as an assistant coach, was hired by his father and university officials a day after Friday was ousted and without a coaching search.
Coach: Rob Krimmel (first season as head coach; former St. Francis player who spent past 12 seasons as a Red Flash assistant)
Record last season: 6-23 overall, 5-13 Northeast Conference
Starters returning: G Anthony Ervin, 6-3 Sr. (11.2), G Stephon Whyatt, 6-1 So. (7.2), F Earl Brown, 6-6 So. (6.0), G Kameron Ritter, 6-3 Jr. (4.8); also G Umar Shannon, 5-11 Jr. (26.0 in one game last year before ACL injury, 15.8 in 2010-11)
Other key returning players: G Ollie Jackson, 6-3 So. (6.3, 12 starts), F Tony Peters, 6-6 Sr. (2.5), C Storm Stanley, 6-11 Jr. (1.4)
Notes: Krimmel replaces Don Friday, who went 32-86 in four seasons at SFU. ... Freshman forward Ronnie Drinnon (6-6, 234) expected to be major contributor. ... The Red Flash were picked to finish last in the NEC. ... St. Francis opens Nov. 9 at Penn State.
Record prediction: 9-20 overall, 7-11 Northeast Conference
- Cory Giger
Krimmel said he's received great support from the St. Francis community since the firestorm that surrounded his hiring, but he admitted one thing is different.
"There is more pressure," said Krimmel, whose team was picked to finish last in the NEC in the preseason coaches poll.
Whether Krimmel can win with the Red Flash remains to be seen. Whether any coach in America could win consistently at the tiny, isolated school - one of the smallest in Division I - also is questionable.
One item that's not questionable, though, is that if St. Francis is ever going to become a solid program, it must be able to do one thing drastically better.
"We have to win road games," Krimmel declared during his opening statement to Flash fans Monday.
St. Francis traditionally has been good or at least competitive at DeGol Arena, yet woeful away from home. The numbers:
n 5-8 at home, 1-15 on the road last season
n 7-5 at home, 2-16 on the road two years ago
n 9-5 at home, 2-14 on the road three years ago
n 4-8 at home, 2-15 on the road four years ago
It's tough to win on the road for most Division I teams, but despite a 25-26 record at home, St. Francis' four-year road record of 7-60 is nothing short of appalling.
"We know sometimes when we're on the road we seem soft, but when we're at home we're just fine," senior guard and co-captain Anthony Ervin said.
Krimmel pointed out the team simply needs to defend better on the road. That kind of toughness is a state of mind, and the Flash players have long had problems with it.
"It starts in practice, being mentally tough," Ervin said. "That's something that we preach every day, being mentally tough."
But is there more to it than just defense? There has to be for a program to be so Jekyll and Hyde home versus away.
Can something different be done on the bus ride, at the hotel, at meal time, during the shootaround, during pregame warmups or anything else to get the team better prepared mentally and physically to play?
"The routine is fine. All that's fine," Ervin said. "It's defense. It has nothing to do with eating, what you did all day. Like Coach Krimmel said, defense. That's what's going to win you games in basketball is defense."
The Flash suffered a big blow last year when standout guard Umar Shannon went down with a season-ending ACL injury in the final minute of the opener at VCU. Shannon was a second-team all-conference player two years ago (15.8 points per game) and certainly could have helped the team win a few more games, and he'll be counted on to lead the Flash in scoring most nights.
"Any time you have a kid like Umar out there who is going to draw some attention, it's going to make it easier for the other guys," Krimmel said.
Shannon was available only briefly on media day because of his class schedule, and he avoided two questions about how things might be different for him this season with a new coach.
"Practice is going very well for us as a team" was all Shannon would offer.
The coaching change in April caught the players by surprise, Ervin said, but they have familiarity with Krimmel and know what he values on the court from a basketball standpoint and off the court from a personal standpoint.
"Once we realized and saw ... who we were going to get as head coach, we were fine," Ervin said. "We were, 'All right, well, we all want to play, let's stay here, keep doing what we have to do and let's get better.'"
St. Francis has four starters back and a solid duo in Shannon and Ervin (11.2 points), but the departure of that fifth starter, forward Scott Eatherton, came as a surprise. The improving 6-foot-8 junior decided to transfer to Northeastern after the coaching change for undisclosed reasons.
Krimmel wouldn't say specifically why Eatherton left, only that it was for "personal reasons" and that "it wasn't just about basketball."
Whatever the reason, losing a skilled big man who averaged 14 points and seven rebounds is a blow to the team.
"Eatherton, he got better over a year," Ervin said. "Everybody in this locker room has gotten better over the summertime and over practice. ... You'll see a lot of different things happening and a lot of different guys stepping up."
One of those players who's expected to step up is freshman forward Ronnie Drinnon, a 6-6, 234-pounder who enrolled early in January and practiced with the team last season.
"Drinnon is a tough kid," Ervin said. "Drinnon brings a lot to the table, especially for a freshman. You wouldn't think he would do certain stuff that he does sometimes."