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Bill Coen has brought consistency to Northeastern

Northeastern head coach Bill Coen never takes credit for the success of the team, but deflects the spotlight onto others.
Northeastern head coach Bill Coen never takes credit for the success of the team, but deflects the spotlight onto others. Daniel Lin/Daily News-Record Via AP/The Daily News-Record via AP

When scouts were knocking on his door back in 2006 trying to land a 6-foot-8-inch powerhouse with a basketball IQ as high as his reach, Manny Adako had no reason to buy into Northeastern as a brand.

The Huskies didn’t necessarily have one.

But he could buy into a person.

Of all the coaches that came calling, Bill Coen’s name stood out because of how much respect it carried.

“When you get recruited, every head coach always asks, ‘Who else is recruiting you?’ ” Adako said. “You might say another school or this coach is recruiting me and they might throw a slight jab. But any time they said anything about Coach Coen, they always had something nice to say. If someone’s saying that about somebody they’re competing with, that means a lot.”

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Coen is professionalism personified. Spotlight-averse, environment-oriented, absolutely no frills.

But at the heart of his 13 seasons at Northeastern is consistency.

Now, as an assistant under Coen, Adako can say Coen’s been the program’s metronome.

“He was the same person when I first met him, he’s been the same person since,” Adako said.

In many ways, the Huskies are a reflection of Coen. In the Colonial Athletic Association, they’ve never been a pushover. They’ve had a winning record in all but three seasons. They’re perennially one of the toughest outs in the conference tournament, reaching the semis six times, and getting to the championship game three of the past six years. (They open tournament play Sunday against an oppponent to be determined.)

It’s a product of the consistency established at the top.

“It’s culture over strategy,” Coen said. “You try to attract student-athetes that fit your personality and fit your vision and you just try to create an environment. You can’t always control the really really highs and really really lows because adversity happens, but what you can do is be consistent and I think that consistency — whether it’s how you go about practice, how you go about your job — if you knock on that door each and every day, you’re going to have your fair share of success.”

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The question is semi-loaded but very valid: Has Coen ever taken credit for anything?

“I’ve never heard him take credit for anything,” junior guard Bolden Brace said. “It’s unbelievable. He is one of the most selfless people that I’ve ever met.”

For Coen, in most cases, there’s no reason to.

“I’ll say this, I haven’t scored a point or grabbed a rebound in many, many years,” he said. “So I don’t know what I can take credit for.”

But generally, it’s not a part of Coen’s make-up.

“He’s extremely, extremely humble,” Adako said. “He’s just about the end result. I don’t think he likes to brag about himself, he’s just all about the end result and that’s winning.”

Coen just wants to make sure the spotlight is on the right people.

“He’s always going to try to find some type of way to defer to his assistant coaches, his players, his family, his friends and all the people around him that helped make him,” said former guard Chaisson Allen said. “He’ll defer it to them to make sure that he’s not in the limelight.”

What never gets lost at Northeastern is the bigger picture.

“The one thing with him, of course basketball is important — and for every one of us, it’s maybe the most important thing in life — but he still puts how we feel [first],” said guard Vasa Pusica. “He wants us to feel good when we come here. That’s most important for him and then focus on basketball. You can’t play basketball if you feel bad. He’s trying to help guys. He’s not only looking at your basketball skills. Character is important for him and the relationships.”

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First impressions have a way of sticking.

When former Boston College coach Al Skinner was looking for an assistant during his days at Rhode Island, he was introduced to Coen.

One thing stuck out.

“He wasn’t the most energetic guy,” Skinner said, laughing at the thought of it. “But I felt comfortable with his demeanor. I thought that he had the potential to learn.”

But Coen’s diligence was undeniable.

“He was the kind of guy that came to work every day, was going to do his job and he was going to be thorough,” Skinner said. “And every day he walked out of the office, he could feel like it was a job well done. That’s probably one of his biggest attributes. He’s like a marathon runner: one steady pace.”

Of the nine coaches in the history of the program, only three have taken the Huskies to the NCAA tournament — Jim Calhoun, Karl Fogel, and Coen. When the Huskies reached the tournament in 2015, it snapped a 24-year drought.

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The catch with success is that it comes with the thirst for more. Coen’s philosophy — duh — is to consistently put the program in position to knock on the door.

“Knowing how difficult it is and how the landscape is kind of skewed toward the Power 5 conferences, the opportunities and windows to gain entry into the NCAA Tournament are shrinking for mid-majors,” Coen said. “So what you have to do is try to create a pathway to that goal.”

The path Coen carved out is as straightforward as Coen himself.

It starts with a nonconference schedule that people will respect. The Huskies annually play the toughest nonconference schedule in the CAA. This season they beat Harvard at Lavietes Pavilion, played Alabama, Virginia Tech, and Davidson in the Charleston Classic, and went to Syracuse. The degree of difficulty can come with some lumps, but by the time the Huskies get to conference play they’re tested.

“If you knock it out of the park, it’s going to bring attention to it,” he said.

From there, the goal is to be competitive in the conference. The Huskies went 14-4 in the CAA this season. They’ve have won at least 12 conference games six times under Coen.

“Make sure that you invest in player development, make sure you invest in scouting and game preparation and make sure you can be competitive in your league and I think we’ve done that over the past 13 years,” Coen said. “We’ve given ourselves a chance in that.”

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The rest may be luck, but the model of consistency gives the Huskies the most chances to get to the dance.

“We’re hoping that the more you put yourself in that position, the more you can win a league title, you can compete for [a] title and finish second like we did this year,” Coen said. “That’s going to give you the best chance to win three games in March. That’s what everybody’s ultimate goal is. We’re hoping that consistency gives us enough times at bat where we can hit some home runs.”

Before Coen arrived, Northeastern was on rocky footing. They were riding the high of having one of the CAA’s most exciting players in J.J Barea, but a storm was brewing in the form of an NCAA probation for violations from 2003 to 2004.

“The thing is, to be honest, Northeastern has never been the program whether it’s in Boston or Massachusetts or New England,” Skinner said. “They’ve had their moments, but what he’s brought is some consistency. That is extremely extremely important. You know they’re going to be in the hunt, you know they’re going to be in the running. You just want to be part of the conversation and then eventually you’re going to get to the NCAAs, you’re going to win yourself an NCAA game because of the consistency that you brought to the program. That’s what he has been able to demonstrate throughout his career there.”

Between Boston College’s profile as New England’s Power 5 school and Harvard’s emergence as the class of the Ivy League, it was also easy for Northeastern to get lost in the shuffle.

But when the Huskies job opened up, Coen saw opportunity.

“There were a lot of people in basketball that thought this wasn’t a good job, that you couldn’t win here,” Coen said. “I had more than a number of people tell me, ‘You be very careful.’ But once you see the potential of this place from an academic standpoint, from an athletic standpoint and having lived and worked in Boston and knowing the landscape a little bit, I thought we could do it.”

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Occasionally, Coen will break character. It’s never in the public eye. It’s typically in a private moment with his team.

These days, he’s known to come into the locker room after a win and flip the switch.

“After a game he has this thing where he comes in the locker room and he bumps chests with one of the players,” Pusica said. “He picks a different player every game.”

It’s never without a reason.

“I try to get them a little bit fired up,” Coen said. “I pretty much hold my emotions close to my vest but when we’re in there, we’re family and we know we’re celebrating. It’s more a celebration of them and what they’ve done.”

When Coen looks now, he can see a tree of former players prospering. Allen is an assistant with the NBA G-League’s Capital City Go-Go. Matt Janning is in his fifth season in the Euroleague. Adako is on the Huskies coaching staff.

Allens said, “It definitely speaks to who he is and everything the program is about now.”