Back in the early 1980s, the then-called St. Peter’s College men’s basketball team featured a new head coach in Bob Dukiet and a style of play that wasn’t exactly going to win any beauty pageants, but nevertheless, the Peacocks won their fair share of games.
It was a defense-first mentality that Dukiet instilled into the program and that mentality carried over into the Ted Fiore regime that led to two Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championships and trips to the NCAA Tournament.
Over the years since, the Peacocks have lost far more games than they won.
Other than the 2011 season, when they won the MAAC Tournament and went to the NCAA Tourney (losing to Purdue in the first round), St. Peter’s University, as it is now called, hasn’t enjoyed much success, despite the hard work of current coach John Dunne.
Dunne, now incredibly in his 11th season at Harvard on the Boulevard, has busted his rump to make the Peacocks prominent again with a current team that resembles the Dukiet and Fiore-led squads.
The Peacocks are currently 11-9 overall, but more importantly, they are 7-3 in the MAAC, which is good enough right now to sit second in the league behind Monmouth, trailing the Hawks by just one game.
And this is a team that will certainly not win style points. They’re not winning pretty at all. But they’re winning.
Ask the coach and the players and they all have one common thread.
“We just have to continue to grind it out,” said senior point guard Trevis Wyche, the St. Peter’s Prep product who just recently scored the 1,000th point of his Peacock career.
“We have to just keep grinding,” said senior power forward Quadir Welton, who also joined the Peacocks’ 1,000-point club last Saturday in a loss to Niagara at Yanitelli Center.
Ask the coach and you’ll get the same response.
“We have to just keep grinding it out,” Dunne said.
When told that his players said the same thing, using the term “grind,” Dunne reiterated the point.
“That’s the one word we use,” Dunne said. “We just have to be mentally tough. We have to be ready to play every night. No one feels sorry for you in this league. You have to worry about injuries and the schedule.”
Ah, the schedule. For some reason, the powers-that-be in the MAAC gave the Peacocks an absurd stretch of games where they played six games in 12 days, five games in 11 and four games in nine. These are college athletes who are asked to attend classes, maintain a manageable grade point average, practice infrequently and oh yeah, play games.
Dunne refused to comment on the schedule, but could have used the “grind” term as well about that. There’s no other way to survive a stretch like that, but to grind it out. That stretch is nothing more than a grind.
“I think it’s going to happen to a lot of MAAC teams,” Dunne said of the schedule. “It’s just that it’s happened to us for two straight weeks.”
Maybe fatigue was a reason behind the 57-55 setback to lowly Niagara last Saturday, but the Peacocks rebounded two days later to defeat cross-state rival Rider by a 56-51 margin.
Again, the Peacocks had to grind out the win over Rider. They managed to win even though they shot just 32 percent (17 of 52) from the floor overall and 36 percent (seven of 19) from 3-point range. They shot 33 percent from the floor and 3-point land in the loss to Niagara.
“We didn’t make enough shots to win,” Dunne said after the setback to the Purple Eagles. “I’m proud of their effort. I’m not making any excuses because we’re still playing team-first basketball. You can call it what it is.”
It’s called winning ugly.
The actual origin of the term is not known. Former tennis standout and current television analyst Brad Gilbert once said that it was the way he won as a player and even wrote a book about it. The Chicago White Sox used it as a team motto and rally cry in the 1983 season. The Rolling Stones have a song called “Winning Ugly” on the “Dirty Work” album.
That’s what this St. Peter’s team is doing, somehow leapfrogging its way over perennial favorite Iona into second place in the MAAC standings.
The Peacocks don’t shoot the ball well, but they do play nose-to-the-grindstone defense. They don’t have a flashy scorer who will earn All-MAAC honors at season’s end, but they could very well could be playing for a league title in Albany in a few weeks, gunning for a trip to March Madness.
And for an athletic program that has seen nothing but turmoil and strife in recent years _ not a single team at St. Peter’s, other than the men’s basketball team, has a winning record _ it needs to have the Peacocks carry the banner for the entire school.
That’s a lot of pressure to place on these hard-working basketball players, but they’re willing to try.
Just watching Welton play is enough inspiration. Last Saturday, Welton was knocked to the floor an incredible 21 times by the Niagara big men. It meant that Welton had to pick himself up off the hardwood, dust himself off and go back in there for more of the same.
“They were big and physical,” Welton said after scoring 14 points and grabbing nine rebounds. “I just had to keep playing through that and try hard not to get frustrated. I had to keep my emotions in check.”
And keep on grinding.
The schedule now gets tougher. The Peacocks have three straight road games against Marist, Iona and Monmouth upcoming. They have seven road games remaining and only three more at home. Just how was this schedule devised? It’s tough in an 11-team league. There’s no perfect balance. But this is more than a grind.
One thing’s for sure: Dunne, who has now managed to remain at St. Peter’s longer than any other men’s basketball coach other than the immortal Don Kennedy, will definitely deserve consideration for MAAC Coach of the Year, because he’s done a masterful job this season.
And even if the Peacocks are winning ugly, they’re enjoying it, because, hey, it’s winning.
“It’s been a fun experience,” Welton said. “I’ve grown a lot here. It’s helped me improve off the court.”
That’s all anyone at St. Peter’s could ask for.
Now, since former athletic director Belinda “Boe” Pearman is gone, unceremoniously removed from her position last month, can the program work on getting the old banners back up on the walls of Yanitelli?
The old felt banners signifying championships of the past were taken down by Pearman and never seen again, replaced by a host of placards that appear to have been printed at Staples and slapped up under the baskets.
A lot of the school’s alumni and former athletes would love to see the old banners put back in their proper place.
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com. This week, Jim’s blog features a past encounter he had with the new President of the United States Donald Trump.