The irony couldn't have been lost on any of the 932 fans that braved the worsening weather Saturday evening and trekked out to the Gates Sports Center to watch, what is most assuredly, the best IPFW men's basketball squad since the program transitioned to the NCAA Division I level 13 seasons ago.
The Mastodons pulled away over the final 6:42 to grab a 77-64 Summit League victory over Western Illinois. The victory secured a place in school history, as IPFW (18-6, 6-1 SL) tied the program mark for most victories in a season at this level, while it also catapulted the Mastodons into sole possession of first place in the conference following North Dakota State's (5-2) loss to Denver. And the man that played a very significant part in this program reaching this juncture stood amongst the crowd wearing a purple tie in support of the Leathernecks, not the Mastodons.
Tommy Bell was the athletic director at IPFW until last year before he resigned to take the same position at Western Illinois. He was the man that chose to hire Tony Jasick as IPFW's coach in the spring of 2011 when Dane Fife resigned. So watching the Mastodons succeed to this level, but doing so against the Leathernecks (9-13, 3-4) was bittersweet for the longtime administrator to say the least.
“Tonight I saw an accumulation of what Tony said when I was talking to him about taking over this program,” Bell said. “How he was going to build this, how he was going to put this together, the type of players that he was going to get, the type of environment he wanted, the type of play that he wanted to have, and they have captured that.”
Two winters ago, that definitely was not the case.
During Jasick's first season at the helm, his team lost 13 of 14 games during a January to March stretch, and that negative momentum carried over into his second season, where at one point, IPFW had dropped 22 of its last 29 games. But neither Jasick nor Bell ever wavered in their belief that reaching a level of play, which was on exhibit Saturday, was not only possible, but would be achieved.
“You've got to look at what is going on in the program,” Bell said of the earlier struggles. “Has there been a serious injury? Has there been something that is going to hold them back? Because if you don't have the personnel, it's tough to make a change and (an athletic director) just has to have patience.
“You've just got to give coaches that time and don't put that pressure on them. Because they put pressure on themselves, you don't have to (place added pressure) as an athletic director. And you have to ask yourself 'Have you given them everything that they need to be successful?'”
In Jasick's case, he needed the time that Bell allowed him and he used it to his full advantage.
Over the last 18 months, IPFW brought in players like Pierre Bland (9 points, 3 assists, 0 turnovers in 37 minutes vs. Western Illinois), Steve Forbes (18 points and six rebounds), Luis Jacobo (23 points), and Mo Evans (5 points, 5 assists, 5 rebounds) and the IPFW coaching staff molded the culture of the program into what they all envisioned three years ago.
“My responsibility is to our 15 guys,” Jasick explained. “We make sure that we do everything on a daily basis to give them an opportunity to be successful.
“When you talk big picture and warm and fuzzy, we don't really get into all of that. And the main reason is, because there are so many people that have had far more significant impact on this program over the last 20 or 30 years than me. We need to make sure that everyone involved is feeling good about what we are doing, because no doubt, there are a lot of people that have done a lot more than I have to help each step of the way.”
Bell could earnestly attest to that.
“I'm very proud of that coaching staff,” Bell beamed afterward. “I'm proud of Tony and his accomplishments. I told (IPFW interim athletic director) Kelly (Hartley-Hutton) a few weeks ago, they're probably going to win 20 games. That's a big positive.”
With at least eight more games remaining, that's also a big undersell.