The McNeese Cowboys’ new head basketball coach Heath Schroyer has been somewhat akin to the CEO of a company going public on the New York Stock Exchange.
Since his hiring in March, Schroyer has engaged in his own road show of sorts, talking to anybody and any group; selling them on his program and then urging to buy stock (season tickets) for what he promises will be a better product than what Cowboys basketball fans (dwindling by all accounts) have seen over the last 10 years.
He’s a masterful salesman, and soon the buying public will see how good a coach he is when he unveils his basketball team to the region — albeit not in the debut he was hoping for in terms of location and venue.
Don’t get me wrong; Schroyer was ready for his Pokes to play their home opener against Loyola-New Orleans. But the plan was a duel debut of his team and the new McNeese basketball arena.
Cue Plan B, which stands for Burton Coliseum.
Delays in the final construction phases at the long-awaited on-campus Health and Human Performance Complex may force the Cowboys back to their old hardwood for the time being.
It’s a disappointment and setback for the university and Schroyer no doubt. But the show must go on. “No matter where we play, my job is to get my team ready to play. Whether we play on the asphalt in a park or Burton or in the new arena, my job is to get us ready to play. I can only control what I can control. Obviously, we are all very, very anxious to get in there,” Schroyer commented, as he and the rest of us waited on a definitive “official” announcement about whether the new arena’s opening could be fast-tracked for the Cowboys’ home opener.
According to McNeese University President Dr. Daryl Burckel, the new on-campus building did not pass a fire marshal inspection. As of press time, the building was expected to undergo a second review by the fire marshal’s office on Monday, Nov. 12.
With an approved fire marshal’s inspection, the structure would then go to state planning and facilities authorities for their review and approval. “There is a substantial punch list that must be completed,” said Burckel. “This is certainly not the way we wanted to open the facility. There is a great amount of momentum, and we do not want to lose that excitement.”
If the Health and Human Performance Center is able to pass final city and state inspections, then Burckel says a “soft opening” in time for the Friday, Nov. 16 Cowboys home game will be staged at the new arena. If not, then the McNeese-Loyola game will move to Burton Coliseum.
The McNeese Cowgirls were scheduled to open the new complex with their home debut. But that game was forced to move to Burton Coliseum, as well.
We are talking about a $42-million building that has taken years to construct. So it’s not as simple as just turning over the keys.
Official guys in hardhats have safety procedures and protocols to follow. Toss in concerns about parking, checklists, paperwork and making sure all the toilets flush.
Mother Nature and the never ending rain since late summer haven’t helped the construction schedule. But that’s an understood risk and reward in any major build such as this.
For Schroyer, the new arena was a major factor in his chasing of the head coach’s job to begin with. It has been at the center of his selling message to fans.
New coach. New players. New philosophy. New culture. New business plan. New arena.
“This community and this program is ready to put the past in the past. And Burton is part of the past. Everyone is ready to move forward to something new and different. The sooner we do that, the better,” Schroyer said.
You know what they say about best-laid plans. Opening on time or not, the important thing now for McNeese and the new arena sports complex is to make the best first impression possible.
If it’s not ready, don’t rush it. Pick up all the loose nails, sweep the sawdust, check the sound and video systems, make sure the ice makers make ice and the popcorn will pop, and then open the doors with a bang.
There is no delaying a basketball schedule, though.
Schroyer flew his Pokes out west to open the season in California and Arizona against two NCAA Tournament-tested teams.
This 0-2 start was expected against highly regarded St. Mary’s, 87-65 winners over McNeese, and Arizona State, which won by 28 points.
The 46-year-old Schroyer admits he hates to lose to anybody, anytime. But knows his newly assembled team wasn’t ready to really test high-level teams such as these two. He was happy to pull within single digits in the second half of both games before the leads stretched to 20 or more.
“For us, it was a great experience. Right out of the gate, go out and play two very high-caliber teams. Now we can see our strengths and weaknesses. We can tweak this and tweak that. Learn a lot about yourselves. We had a lot of guys grow up on this trip. It was nothing but positives. And I’m not a guy who likes to lose. I hate it. But at the same time, I do understand the process and the big picture of this program,” Schroyer noted.
That big picture included culling the roster from last season with the exception of two returnees in guards James Harvey and Jarren Greenwood. “Those two guys are really great kids and are working to grasp their roles,” explained Schroyer. Everyone else who wore the Blue and Gold has been replaced with new players.
Schroyer and his staff tapped all their contacts and traveled the country, recruiting and selling this program to players like U-Mass transfer Malik Hines, who led the Cowboys in scoring with 26 points versus St. Mary’s. Trey Touchet, a shooting guard from UTEP, joined the ranks. As expected, McNeese dipped heavily into the junior college ranks, signing Roydell Brown, Jeremy Harrell and starting guard Kevin Hunt.
Schroyer credits his staff for laying the recruiting groundwork for rebuilding the roster, citing their contacts and relationships across the country. “I’ve said this since I got here — that Lake Charles and the community is a great place to sell (to players). And obviously, with this new arena coming this year, I really believe we have the bones of a program to build something really special here.”
Rebuilding programs is nothing new for Schroyer.
He took over Portland State in 2002, and in two years went from 5 wins to a 19-9 record and a Big Sky conference. In 2014, he took a struggling Tennessee-Martin program to a 41-28 record over two seasons before accepting an assistant coaching position at much larger North Carolina State in the ACC.
McNeese went out of its comfort zone with a national search, and ended up hiring a veteran coach with no ties to McNeese, Louisiana or anywhere close, really. He’s a man with varied experience that has taken him from the west coast of California and Oregon, to the mountains of BYU and Wyoming, to the heartland of Tennessee and the rich basketball roots of North Carolina.
“My friends in the business think I’m insane because I take these rebuilding jobs. But I enjoy taking something from where it was to another level and reach[ing] its potential. I enjoy it,” says Schroyer, who talks about his work ethic — learned at an early age working on his father’s dairy farm in Maryland.
If you see Schroyer out and about, he is usually wearing some blue and gold attire with the Cowboys logo. He is a constant face of the program, and selling his message, which he says will turn a “long dormant” program into one that will “spark a new generation of basketball fans” in Southwest Louisiana.
The first-year head coach admits the older McNeese fans are still living on the memories of Joe Dumars and have had no good reason to come back to Cowboys basketball because of the lack of success on the court.
Schroyer has worked diligently to “cast a wide net” across the region to lure McNeese students, millennials, younger alumni and the diehard fans back to basketball. “We have to create our own generation of people coming to the games. And once we establish that the first couple of years, and we have some success, then that becomes what people do.”
Our society as a whole leans toward instant gratification; lacks patience when it comes to its sports teams; and wants more than just a game. They can watch games nightly on 80-inch surround sound TV/media centers in their dens.
Fans want and need to be entertained. That’s why Schroyer and athletic officials promise a light and sound show flush with music, sound effects, smoke machines and more to touch all the senses. It will be an indoor party from tipoff to final buzzer.
But that will only take you so far. You have to compete, play well, show improvement, and, yes, still win games to attract and put fans in the seats no matter how shiny and new those seats may be.
After 2006, under former coach Dave Simmons, the Cowboys posted two winning seasons and one Southland Conference title.
As the losses mounted, home game attendance got embarrassingly low, to a point that it seemed the assembled media, pep band, cheerleaders and dancers outnumbered the fans.
Schroyer is a serious basketball coach who says he is anchored in game preparation and analytics. “Our offense is centered on shots at the rim first, free throws and then threes. We will take mid-range jump shots. Analytically, that’s what I believe. Defensively, the same thing. We want to be able to defend the three and not put people on the free throw and make them beat us with tough twos.”
He went on to say his offense will go through Hines in the post position first with “an inside-outside” flow. “Teams will always evolve through a season. Injuries. Some guys improve and get better; some don’t. As a coach, you always try and put your team in the best position to win and not be so stubborn [as] to say, this is all I do.”
According to Schroyer, this is chapter one of the reconstruction of McNeese basketball. An entirely new staff and roster; new rules of law, discipline and culture. It’s a difficult road when you’re trying to change perceptions as well as the realities of a losing legacy so entrenched in the program.
With any novel, the first chapter sets the story line, introduces the main characters and lures the reader into the plot. This holds true for the Cowboys and their much-anticipated basketball season. It is one that Schroyer believes is the beginning of the forming of a mid-major power and an SLC championship coming sooner rather than later.
Rick Sarro’s perspectives and commentary can be heard on Soundoff 60 nightly, Monday through Sunday evenings, at 9 pm; broadcast on channel 4 on Suddenlink and is also broadcast on KSWL CBS Lake Charles on Saturdays before network SEC football coverage.