By Howard Herman
LOWELL -- Pat Duquette is part of a pretty exclusive fraternity: The Dalton native is one of only 350 people in his position -- an NCAA Division I men's college basketball coach.
"That's the part that's really exciting for me," he said. "You're a part of it."
Duquette, a graduate of Wahconah Regional High School and Williams College, spent 20 seasons as an assistant coach at colleges in Division I, II and III, before he was hired on May 16, as the head coach at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. He is taking the school into Division I.
"Every night, since you were a kid, you watched ESPN and you die for the NCAA Tournament. Even though we're a long way from that -- we've got a lot of work to do -- we're in the game," Duquette said. "We're playing with the big guys."
Playing with the big guys has given the River Hawks an 0-6 record in their first year of moving from Division II. UMass Lowell is in the first year of a four-year reclassification period for its Division II teams that have moved up. Duquette's team, and the other D-II programs, will be eligible for the America East Conference title and an NCAA tournament berth in the 2017-18 season.
"My first impression of Coach Duquette is that I Iove him," said senior guard Akeem Williams, who played three years in the Northeast 10 Conference with Lowell. "From Day One, he's been completely honest with me with what the situation is going to be like."
Tuesday, Nov. 19, was UMass Lowell's home opener against Brown of the Ivy League. Duquette had taken his team to Ann Arbor, Mich., Boston, and Hanover, N.H., and came back with three losses.
That Tuesday started like most days, but maybe a little later, for the River Hawks.
Duquette arrived at his office in the Costello Athletic Center around 8:30 a.m. for the 9 a.m. pregame shootaround. Assistants Michael Harding, Biko Paris and Nick Leonardelli were already in the office watching video. Computers had game tape of the night's opponent rolling and there was tape of potential recruits.
By 8:50, the four coaches were discussing some recruits for down the road. The River Hawks had five recruits sign their letters of intent during the November early signing period.
Like many Division I coaching staffs, there is a connection between them that predates their gathering in the Costello office suite.
Harding spent three years as head coach at St. Michael's in Vermont and a one-time assistant at Stonehill. Duquette worked at St. Mike's for two years and Leonardelli was Harding's assistant for two years before going to Bucknell to work under Dave Paulsen. Paulsen, the former Williams College coach, was an assistant at Williams and recruited Duquette out of Wahconah. He later gave Duquette his first assistant's job at D-III St. Lawrence. Paris was recruited by Duquette and played for him at Boston College when Al Skinner was head coach.
"A hell of a lot better than I would," said Harding, when asked how his boss is handling the winless start. "He's smart, really patient and very experienced. He's very, very realistic about what he thinks our performance will be like in games and has a pretty clear vision, I think, about how he wants or team to play."
If anybody on the staff knows Pat Duquette well, it would be Paris, who graduated from BC in 2011 and played on teams that went 72-52. Before joining the Lowell staff, he was the video coordinator at Boston University for a season and played one year of pro basketball in Germany.
"He's pretty much the same. He's pretty laid back, and not a big yeller or screamer," Paris said of his boss. "He gives the guys a lot of freedom.
"When he does talk or get on these guys, they really listen to him."
The pregame shootaround begins promptly at 9 a.m. There are eight-minute segments put up on the scoreboard clock by a team manager in a gym that has six Division II national championship banners hanging from the wall.
The team runs through shooting drills and gets some last minute scouting tips about Brown before completing the practice at about 10.
On a non-game day, practice begins at 7:30, which means Duquette and his staff are in Costello by 6:30.
"At the beginning, it was tough for a lot of us to wake up," Williams said. "We were waking up, and it was still dark outside."
The morning practice, Duquette said, is based on the players' academic schedules.
"Sometimes, you've got to be creative in getting them going in the morning," he said. "I do think it sets up the rest of their day to get their work done and be productive."
Productive time is what the coaching staff begins after practice. While the four of them discuss what to expect from Brown and what to expect from potential recruits, cellphones go off every few minutes.
Duquette said each non-game day can be different, but in general he and the staff watch a couple of hours of tape both of his team and opponents. The staff will dissect three or four game tapes of each opponent.
On this day, the staff decides to resurrect its "draft board," a white board that in addition to having plays drawn on it now has a listing of six or seven potential recruitment targets.
As an assistant coach, Duquette's life was strictly basketball. As a head coach, he has many more responsibilities. That includes media obligations, and the head coach interrupts an interview to do a 15-minute radio spot on a Lowell station. It is, after all, the home opener, the gym has a capacity of 2,100, and there is a need to sell tickets.
"I catch myself sometimes falling back into an assistant's mindset," he said. "I've got to remember that it's different now."
Game day turned out to be another defeat, but probably the best overall game the River Hawks played. Lowell fell behind by as many as 23 points with 11:49 left in the second half against a Brown team that gave Big East team Providence all it could handle. But with 2:29 left in the second half, UMass Lowell cut the 23-point lead to seven, before losing 87-76.
The announced crowd of 851 in the 2,000 seat gym stayed from wire-to-wire and got excited when the River Hawks made their late run. The first-year head coach smiled broadly when he was asked about the crowd in the post-game press conference. He said it only bodes well for a future, which includes a fulltime move into the 6,000-seat Tsongas Center within a couple of seasons.
By 10:30, Duquette and his brother Brian locked up the office and headed out for the night.
"I always knew it was going to be difficult, I knew that," Pat Duquette said. "Until you go through it, you don't completely know what it's going to be like.
"The whole thing overall has been a lot of fun. It's been exciting. I've learned a ton."