As coach Drew Kelly went over a few key teaching points after a recent Harcum College scrimmage, George Mason University head coach Paul Hewitt sat courtside in the cramped Our Mother of Good Counsel gym. Soon enough, Hewitt was joined by Temple University head coach Fran Dunphy, who’d pulled into the church parking lot about 10 minutes after practice started on this sun-dappled late-September afternoon.
That Dunphy, Hewitt and a host of other coaches are finding their way to Bryn Mawr to watch some ball is the curious by-product of Kelly’s ability to build Harcum into a junior-college powerhouse. Ten years ago, the school didn’t even have male students. Now, it’s home to a hoops team that has won 20 games in each of its eight years of existence, has had a record of 193-53 (.785) during that time, and boasts a 2013-14 roster with as many as seven Division I players. “They’ve been here from the ACC, Big East, Pac-12, Big 12, Conference USA and Atlantic 10,” says Kelly, ticking off the leagues who’ve sent emissaries to eyeball Harcum’s talented roster.
Programs to the west and south dominate the junior-college basketball world, making Harcum something of an oasis, even if its 250-seat CYO home doesn’t exactly have the feel of a refreshing haven. But the program is certainly fertile—and can be restorative for big-time teams in need of talent. Harcum is the only Division I (top level) junior college in Pennsylvania. That doesn’t help the team’s travel time to road games, but it’s certainly appreciated by four-year schools looking for an infusion of experienced talent.
And the Bears have talent. Since Kelly took over, 15 players have signed with Division I schools. Among the destinations: Connecticut, Maryland and Seton Hall. Six players from the 2009-10 squad made that jump. That team finished 26-3, won 25 games in a row at one point, and reached the top spot in the national rankings. Last season, Harcum had what could be considered a down year. It went 20-11.
As much as Kelly and the school enjoy the victories, the real goal of junior-college ball is to prepare players for the next level, be it a major program in a power conference or a spot on a Division II or III roster. The vast majority of Harcum’s team is comprised of players who’ve failed to qualify academically for four-year schools and needed to drop down a level to get their studies in order before taking another shot. Their games may be quite attractive, but their transcripts don’t look quite so good.
“I was supposed to go to Fairleigh Dickinson after high school, but some of my grades didn’t clear,” says Ibn Muhammad, the Bears’ starting point guard. “I’m here getting ready for the next level.”
On this particular Friday, that meant hearing Kelly deliver an assessment of the team’s performance a few days earlier in an intrasquad scrimmage. The message wasn’t presented as a high-decibel rant. Instead, the coach spoke for about 10 minutes, going over the basics of the team’s fast-paced, pressing scheme. The 2009-10 squad averaged a scoreboard-sizzling 110 points per game. He spoke at length about the value of the power forward participating enthusiastically on the fast break. This forces the defense to guard him, opening the floor for shooters. And, speaking of shooters, “I like any three-point shot, and I really like corner threes,” Kelly reiterated.
With his pleasant Irish face, Kelly isn’t a commanding presence. He stands about 5-foot-7, weighs maybe 165 pounds, and has a voice that doesn’t exactly rattle the rafters. But Kelly is in complete control—and not just because he’s also Harcum’s athletic director. He has the double benefit of a substantial track record and the ability to improve his players’ lives by helping them get eligible and seen by coaches like Hewitt and Dunphy. That’s why his style of play is so attractive. “We have athletic guys, and we want to showcase our athletes,” says Kelly.
Drew Kelly’s introduction to college basketball came during a four-year stint as team manager at Villanova University while Steve Lappas was head coach. He graduated from Nova in 1997 and spent time as an assistant at both College of New Jersey and Haverford College. In 2002, he was hired to direct the program at Bucks County Community College, leading the team to a 15-7 record his first year there—quite a turnaround from Bucks’ several previous seasons.
But Kelly had issues: The program was underfunded, and he was spending too much of his time on the job—particularly with a pregnant wife at home. He’d earned his master’s degree in counseling, so he had to decide whether to pursue his dream or take on something more stable at the high school level. “I was wondering, ‘Will I succeed in college coaching?’” says Kelly.
In 2004, a college friend, Bill Cleary, told Kelly that Harcum was starting a men’s program and president Charles Trout wanted to meet him. Suddenly, Kelly was in charge of building a men’s program at a school that hadn’t become officially coed until late 2003.
He spent the first year doing nothing but recruiting. In Harcum’s first season, 2005-06, the Bears went 21-10 as a Division II program playing in Harcum’s Klein Hall Gymnasium—a “bomb shelter,” as Kelly puts it. After two seasons there, Kelly read that OMGC’s school was closing and showed up at the rectory door. “Father Jim [Martinez] answered, and I said, ‘I want to rent your gym,’” says Kelly.
The Bears have gone an impressive 61-5 on their home court, and Kelly is understandably attached to his creation. When asked whether or not he has aspirations for a bigger and better job, he pauses. As unglamorous as it may seem to mop the floor, drive the team van, and do a lot of things coaches at larger programs delegate, Kelly isn’t so keen on moving on and up.
“I’ve got a lot of blood, sweat and tears here,” he says. “I’ve been here nine years now and turned this into something that’s much bigger than I thought it would be. I’m also the AD, and that makes this something bigger. It makes it tough to leave. You never say never, but it would have to be a pretty enticing offer.”
Speaking of offers, that’s what the Harcum players are after. Muhammad says Harcum is helping him by “taking care of me and making sure everything is going all right,” while fellow sophomore guard Quindell Brice is receiving interest from Division II schools and warming to the Harcum experience.
And as the Bears continue to thrive, they’re performing before larger crowds. Harcum played before 5,000 fans at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas, and has traveled to Florida and Missouri. “That was a good tournament,” Brice says about the trip to Missouri. “There were some good games.”
As for this year’s Harcum team, it has all the components necessary to win—size, speed and experience, among them. The backcourt of Brice and Muhammad is talented and dangerous, and a front line with 6-foot-9 Jordan Goodman and 6-foot-10 Ivan Uceda could be dominant. “I’m optimistic,” Kelly says with a smile.
As he speaks, the balls bounce, the players prepare, and the other coaches arrive. Harcum basketball may not be playing on the biggest stage, but you’re going to like the show.