And so, the deed is done.
With it, an era spanning nearly 1/3 of Drexel’s existence as a Division 1 member comes to a resoundingly uneventful and supremely frustrating thud.
Let’s start off by being clear, Drexel is not an easy program to have success with. Start with the late arrival to the Division I ranks and with it, missing the opportunity to celebrate 60 years of the Big 6 this year instead of the Big 5. Add to that a dash of student and alumni apathy and bake it in an old gym that just finally moved out of the Stone Age and offers lumbar support for those who actually do come out to catch a game.
This is the base recipe handed to James “Bruiser” Flint when he was introduced as the head coach on April 5, 2001. Through 15 years of tinkering with various ingredients and a huge promise that the university wasn’t able to deliver on (cough, Armory), he was never quite able to achieve a dish worthy of a grand ball, but he did tease us on several occasions with veiled whiffs of opulence that seemed to promise a satiating of the palette. After the bitterness of losing Coach Herrion (he of three straight NAC (A. East) titles, 7 conference title games in 8 years and the school’s only NCAA win against Memphis St. in 1996) to East Carolina and 2 unremarkable seasons under Herrion’s successor, Coach Steve Seymour, that’s all that was really expected to start.
"It's going to take a couple years in the CAA to really be competitive"
Those couple of years turned out to be, carry the one, zero. A fourth place inaugural CAA season was followed with a third place finish and a trip to the CAA Tournament Finals in year 2. That finish resulted in Drexel’s first postseason appearance in six seasons as the Dragons snagged an NIT berth and snagged Bruiser the first of his contract extensions. The following seasons also saw NIT berths following 2nd and 4th place finishes. In the first four years played in a more formidable conference, Coach Flint had three NIT berths, four top four finishes and the third most CAA wins, two behind both UNCW and VCU.
Breathing Fire, City Champions and Heartbreak
After the hot start to their CAA tenure, the 2005-06 team cooled off a bit in their fifth season. That’s not to say that the season didn’t have its share of highlights. Prior to the season, Drexel was selected as a participant in the Pre-Season NIT . Thanks to an upset, the Dragons were able to host Sam Houston State for the right to advance to the Semis at Madison Square Garden. In front of a national ESPN2 audience and a frenzied and packed DAC, the Dragons dispatched the Bearkats to chants of “we want Duke!” Drexel is what the #1 Dookies got at the World’s Most Famous Arena, as the Dragons kept the game within two possessions through 3/4 of the game before running out of steam and falling by ten. The consolation game saw a matchup with the Bruins of UCLA. Once again the Dragons fought tooth and nail against a ranked opponent, before losing in heart breaking fashion.
Those close losses in 05-06 would provide the setup to one of the, if not the, most magical months of Drexel basketball history the following season. The opening month of the 2006-07 season saw the Dragons get off to a 3-2 record, losing to Penn and Rider. December, however, was a completely different story. It started with a convincing victory against St. Joe’s at the Palestra and continued with wins at Villanova, at Syracuse and at Temple before ending the month at home against previous season Final Four participant, George Mason. The Bru Crew were making major news not just at home, but across the country as well. The familiarity of conference play brought the Dragons back down to earth a bit as they finished the year 4th in the CAA and lost in the Semis to eventual champion VCU.
The week between that loss and Selection Sunday will go down as the most excruciating week for Dragon fans. For a week we were subjected to Drexel’s resume being sliced and diced on whether it was worthy for inclusion to the Big Dance as an at large team. With CBS cameras documenting the team during the Selection Show, 65 teams were announced and none matched the only Dragons in Division 1 sports. Drexel would have to settle for the consolation of a home NIT game against NC State.
Sharp Decline and The Incident
The success of the 06-07 season led to very lofty expectations for the 2007-08 squad, but a combination of younger players not growing to meet expectations along with the failure to find a second piece to compliment senior forward Frank Elegar, saw the Dragons stumble to their worst finish since joining the CAA and Bruiser’s first 20 loss season. The following two seasons saw a return to .500 and respectability, as well as the player who would turn out to be the cornerstone of the next great Dragon team in Samme Givens, who arrived on campus for the 2008-09 season.
After the second .500 season in 2009-10, the Dragons seemed to have a very strong returning cast and incoming recruiting class to be contenders again in 2010-11. However, scandal struck the program before that team was able to take the court. In late July of 2010, two members of the team were charged with an attempted armed robbery in an apartment right off of campus. One was the presumed senior starting point guard, while the other was a reserve junior forward. It was a shocking development that had never been seen before or since with the program and seemed poised to derail the program just as it seemed ready for a breakout season and a return to the upper echelon of the CAA.
Surprise and The Year of the Dragon
If you want to know when Bruiser Flint was at his best as the head coach of the Drexel men’s basketball program, I would submit that it was the 2010-11 season. Following the player dismissals just three months before the start of the season, Bru was able to regroup and use a trip to Turkey to integrate a new freshman point guard, freshman forward, and two very late freshmen Serbians. That early start of practice allowed the Dragons to compile a surprising 8-2 OOC record, including an upset victory of Louisville that bestowed upon the Dragons the answer to the question to the trivia question "Who handed the Cardinals their first loss in the new KFC Yum Center?" The Dragons would finish 5th in the CAA and lose a heartbreaker to VCU in the quarterfinals to finish the year 21-10 and the early favorites to win the CAA the following year.
In what turned out to be a stroke of marketing luck, 2012 truly was the Year of the Dragon in the Chinese calendar. It would also prove to be the same on the basketball court. After a slow start to the season as Chris Fouch returned from an injury, the Dragons took off in league play finishing 16-2 and taking a 19 game winning streak into Bruiser’s second CAA championship game appearance. Once again, VCU played the part of foil and ended Drexel’s quest to become the first former American East member to earn the CAA’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
The reasoning for Drexel’s first snub from an at-large bid in 2007 was stated to be due to Drexel failing to finish higher in the CAA standings. The reason given for Drexel not receiving an at-large in 2012 after winning 16 CAA games and winning 19 of 20 games to end the regular season was for a subpar OOC schedule in the eyes of the selection committee. Once again Drexel was required to take an NIT home bid as a consolation, this time winning two games – only the second and third postseason victories in program history.
After the season, VCU announced that they would leave immediately to join the Atlantic 10 conference and Old Dominion and Georgia State announced that they would transition to CUSA and the Sun Belt conferences respectively. The CAA, it seemed with the players Drexel would return, was finally ripe for Drexel’s picking. For winning 50 games in two seasons, Bruiser was rewarded, with a new contract extension.
Injuries and The End
With everything finally seeming to line up for Drexel to take control of the conference, it all came crashing down in a heap of injuries and loss of program identity. If the first 12 seasons under Bruiser Flint relied heavily on strong interior play on offense and tough man-to-man defense, the following years saw the offense become too overly guard-centric and the tough defense began to break down a little more each season. Ultimately, the talents of four of the top ten scorers in Drexel history would wind up with few returns. After the 2014-15 season the final knockout blow was landed when Damion Lee opted to use the Graduate Transfer rule to use his last year of college eligibility at the University of Louisville. After winning 50 games in two seasons, Bruiser and Drexel have only managed 46 in the four years since.
For the many things that Coach Flint was able to accomplish during his tenure, there was, and would remain, that nagging itch in the middle of your back that remains just out of reach. Namely, those fifteen netted backboards that hung in Richmond and Baltimore. Nobody could imagine that the first game loss down in Richmond way back in 2002 would be a harbinger of things to come, especially not after advancing to the finals in his second year. The truth is that first game flame-outs would turn out to be the norm and not the exception. Bruiser was able to lead his teams to victory in only 5 opening round tournament games out of the 15 he roamed the sideline for. He finished with an overall record of 7-15 in conference tournament games, never pulling a major upset when a lower ranked team and only being .500 when the higher seed separated by more than one seed ranking. In a generally one bid league, preforming that badly in the conference tournament is an insurmountable issue.
Those struggles, mainly in Richmond, also extended out to any game played in the state of Virginia. The 2007 semifinal loss to VCU began a 14 game losing streak in games that were played in the state; a streak that would span two full seasons and change. In a conference that had 5 of its 12 members located in Virginia, it was the utmost importance to handle your business against them if you wanted any chance of reaching the promised land. And he did, to a point, going 35-20 against JMU and William and Mary, but they weren’t the gatekeepers. Those would be the programs of the CAA's Virginia Big Three – George Mason, Old Dominion and Virginia Commonwealth. After UNCW fell on hard times, those three schools received all of the conference auto-bids and all at-larges. If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best, and Bru failed to deliver, posting a 22-33 overall record against them going only .500 at the DAC and an awful 8-19 on the road.
Beyond the struggles in the conference tournament and the games played in Virginia, there were also strategic deficiencies that would manifest themselves throughout the years with different players. The 2005 PNIT game against UCLA provides a very strong case of this. With Drexel up 2 and only 7 seconds remaining, UCLA hit two FTs to tie the game. Drexel was unable to inbound the ball and turned it over on a 5 second call. UCLA would be fouled with less than a second and hit 1 of 2 FTs to steal Drexel’s upset bid. Look at any Drexel fan in a close and late game inbounding situation and you will see the definition of "stressed". Botched inbounds would be a hallmark of the Flint Era. So too would be the slow-paced weave offense that many times would bleed the shot clock leading to a contested, off balance shot to beat the buzzer. That offense would still be utilized even when Drexel trailed and needed to score in a hurry. But it is the conference tournament record and these past four lackluster seasons that will weigh heavily on Bruiser’s legacy at Drexel in the early years after his dismissal. In many ways he was cursed by those 50 wins and receiving one extension too many, an extension that saw everything that could go wrong go wrong.
However, as the years go by James "Bruiser" Flint should be remembered more for the positives; as the all-time winningest coach in program history and his guidance in making Drexel respectable in games against Big 5 programs. This year he did become the first Drexel coach to have defeated all 5 programs during his head coaching career with the win at LaSalle. Not only was he able to have success on the court with Drexel's city rivals, he was also instrumental in getting three of the five (St. Joe’s, Penn and LaSalle) to agree to play the school in a true home and home series. He was also responsible for recruiting some of the best players that this school has ever seen don the blue and gold. For those above reasons, I wish Coach Flint and his family all of the best in wherever they may continue their journey next and thank him for the past 15 years of service and for being an excellent ambassador for Drexel University.