Ever since he took over the job as the head men’s basketball coach at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Jim Engles would always hear one question when he approached possible recruits.
“A lot of the kids I recruited always asked me first, ‘What conference are you in?’” Engles said. “I had kids come here knowing that they might never get a chance to play in a conference tournament and have a chance at the NCAAs. It’s been hard, dealing with the fact that we couldn’t be in a conference.”
After two seasons toiling as the nation’s lone NCAA Division I independent, Engles no longer has to worry about saying the wrong things to recruits. And his players now have something to shoot for.
That’s because NJIT, the NCAA’s last independent among 351 Division I basketball schools, agreed Friday to join the Atlantic Sun Conference in all men’s and women’s sports beginning this fall.
NJIT will be immediately eligible to compete for all postseason tournaments that the Atlantic Sun has to offer, as well as the chance to earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
The NJIT men’s soccer team already had a commitment to be a working member of the Sun Belt for the 2015 season, but the Highlanders will join the Atlantic Sun for soccer in 2016.
The Atlantic Sun now has eight members after Northern Kentucky left the Atlantic Sun to join the Horizon League, beginning July 1.
The announcement was made last Friday at a press conference at the school’s Weston Architectural Gallery, a press conference that was attended by Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, former New Jersey Gov. Richard Codey and New Jersey State Sen. Paul Sarlo.
Atlantic Sun commissioner Ted Gumbart admitted that the move to secure NJIT as a league member was hastened by the departure of Northern Kentucky.
“We always have to be aware of future possibilities,” said Gumbart, who already had a relationship with NJIT in men’s and women’s swimming and diving. “We’re building winners for life. That’s our conference motto. Part of the great fit that NJIT brings is the academic success the school has had. The door was always open for NJIT to prove it belonged with us. This is a celebration for us as it is for NJIT.”
However, for all intents and purposes, it was more of a party for NJIT, which gained Division I status in soccer in 2004 and the rest of the school’s programs in 2006. For a brief stint, NJIT was part of the Great West Conference, but the league did not have an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament and subsequently disbanded in 2013, leaving NJIT as the nation’s lone independent.
That’s all now a part of the past.
“This is now the future,” Engles said. “The past is behind us.”
NJIT still holds the dubious distinction of holding the record for the nation’s longest Division I losing streak, losing 51 straight games from 2007 through 2009. The Highlanders snapped the streak with a win over Bryant, then lost the final 12 games that season, going 1-30 during Engles’ first season.
But Engles worked diligently to get things going, improving every season, going from 10 wins in Engles’ second year to last season, when the Highlanders shocked the college basketball world by knocking off then No. 17-ranked Michigan at the Crisler Arena.
It was a win that helped to put NJIT on the map and no question helped to catch the attention of the Atlantic Sun people.
The Highlanders went on to win 21 games, including three wins in the College Insider. com Tournament, reaching the tourney’s semifinals.
Gumbart admitted that the Highlanders’ late season run helped their cause to get in the league, as well as the school’s general proximity to New York and the promise the school has made to build a $100 million Wellness and Events Center that should be ready in 2017.
“It’s all part of the whole, but no question, the new facility opened our eyes,” Gumbart said. “Reaching into the New York market was huge, but I think a lot of our Florida markets will be valuable to NJIT.”
NJIT athletic director Lenny Kaplan said that the deal with the Atlantic Sun “was 10 years in the making,” yet all came together within the last six weeks.
“It was fast paced for the last few weeks,” Kaplan said.
“It was a sprint to a marathon,” Gumbart said.
“The biggest thing we missed over the last 10 years was the benefit of having a conference,” Kaplan said. “We’re proud that we now have a challenge to be part of the Atlantic Sun. We’re no longer representing ourselves. We can now take the next step.”
Winfield Willis, who will be a senior guard on the Highlanders’ basketball team in the fall, was ecstatic with the news.
“I honestly wasn’t even thinking about it anymore,” Willis said. “It was the last thing on my mind. I didn’t think it was going to happen. Now, we’re going to be able to compete for something on another scale. You can definitely feel the excitement here.”
Engles said that the conference affiliation “makes my job a lot easier.” Over the past two seasons, while other teams were playing a regular season conference schedule, the independent Highlanders had to fill their schedule in January and February with games against NCAA Division III opponents.
“You can’t put a price tag on this,” Engles said. “We now have the opportunity to do some special things. It’s hard to put this all into words, but it was hard being the only one. I have to thank all those Division III schools for coming to play us the last two years. They helped this happening as well. These were friends of mine over the years who decided to come here and play us and they helped this happen.”
The Highlanders join Jacksonville, Stetson, North Florida and Florida Gulf Coast from Florida, as well as Kennesaw State of Georgia, South Carolina Upstate and Lipscomb of Nashville as members of the Atlantic Sun.
Florida Gulf Coast enjoyed that Cinderella run to the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 two seasons ago, putting them on the basketball map.
Now, NJIT hopes for more of the same. At least the Highlanders now have a league. Soon they’ll have a new home. Things are certainly looking up in Newark.
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Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer
Sports Writer Jim Hague was with The Observer for 20+ years — and his name is one of the most recognizable in all of sports journalism. The St. Peter’s Prep and Marquette alum kicked off his journalism career post Marquette at the Daily Record, where he remained until 1985. Following shorts stints at two other newspapers, in September 1986, he joined the now-closed Hudson Dispatch, where he remained until 1991, when its doors were finally shut.
It was during his tenure at The Dispatch that Hague’s name and reputation as one of country’s hardest-working sports reporters grew. He won several New Jersey Press Association and North Jersey Press Club Awards in that timeframe.
In 1991, he became a columnist for The Hudson Reporter chain of newspapers — and he remains with them to this day.
In addition to his work at The Observer and The Hudson Reporter, Hague is also an Associated Press stringer, where he covers Seton Hall University men’s basketball, New York Red Bulls soccer and occasionally, New Jersey Devils hockey.
He’s also doing work at The Morristown Daily Record, the very newspaper where his journalism career began.
During his career, he also worked for Dorf Feature Services, which provided material for the Star-Ledger. While there, he covered the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets.
Hague is also known for his announcing work — and he’s done PA work for Rutgers Newark and NJIT.
Hague is the author of the book “Braddock: The Rise of the Cinderella Man.”