In his latest coaches interview, CHN writer Jon Teitel spent some time with former Rider head coach Kevin Bannon, who led the Broncs to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances in 1993 and 1994. From Lawrenceville Coach Bannon went on to Rutgers, where he coached four season before being fired in 2001. Now working in broadcasting as well as two different Mercer County (NJ) commissions (Park and Sports & Entertainment), Coach Bannon has even won an Emmy Award for his broadcasting work.
Jon Teitel: You spent seven years as coach at Trenton State (now The College of New Jersey), where in 1989 you made it to the D-III title game (an eight-point loss to the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater). How close did you come to winning it all, and what was the feeling like in your locker room afterwards?
Kevin Bannon: My seven years at TCNJ were fabulous. I was only 25 when I accepted the job, and it was a great place to work and I had some terrific mentors. It was so rewarding to build a Top-10 program at that level, where the kids are receiving no scholarship money and making great sacrifices just for the love of the game. We almost won it all in 1989 but came up just short. We were 30-2 that year and won 25 straight games. Losing in the final was tough, but it was a special season.
JT: That same year you were named D-III Coach of the Year. What did it mean to you to win such an outstanding individual honor?
KB: It was a nice honor to receive but I viewed it as an award to be shared by all, as there were so many people who were helpful in the building of that program. We had unprecedented community and campus support. It was unheard of for our fans to sleep out overnight to secure tickets, particularly with the all of the D-I teams and pro sports in our area.
JT: What are your memories of the 1993 NCAA Tournament with Rider (lost to #1-seed Kentucky behind 17 points from Jamal Mashburn)?
KB: My experience at Rider was very similar to the experience at TCNJ (and just down the street!). Building the program to the point of reaching the NCAA tourney was really something special considering that our Sagarin rating when I accepted the job was only 292 (out of 296). The loss to Kentucky was tough, as we were overwhelmed in so many ways, but it did not take away from the great ride enjoyed by our campus/community that year.
JT: What are your memories of the 1994 NCAA Tournament (lost to #2-seed Connecticut after being tied at halftime)?
KB: That year we were much more confident in the tourney, even though we were up against a terrific Connecticut team. We were tied at the half and hung in there to the end, which validated another step forward by the program.
JT: In 2001 you were fired from your job as head coach at Rutgers after being there for four years. How did you handle the situation?
KB: There were enough successes at Rutgers and positive experiences that I moved on a long time ago. Nobody wants to go through a public firing, but I was not the first (nor the last) coach to not be able to go out on his own terms. Rutgers paid me every penny they owed me, and I was able to enjoy a sabbatical that I really needed. I was only 44 years old but had been a head coach for 20 years. After some tough times (including bypass surgery), I chose to move on to another career vs. jumping back in to coaching, and I do not regret it one bit.
JT: You borrowed from fellow Jersey guy Pete Carril's philosophy at Princeton by using a spread offense that drove defenses crazy. Why did you choose that offense, and what made it so successful?
KB: Pete could not have been nicer and more gracious. I learned a great deal from him, and it goes well beyond X's and O's. He is a genius as far I am concerned; he got every ounce out of his players and teams. His system is superb, but more than just about any other coach I know, he set the highest standards for his players in terms of what is a good drill, a good practice, a good day for that matter! As a result, his teams overachieved on a regular basis.
JT: Following your college coaching career, you earned an Emmy Award as a color commentator with CN8 Comcast Sports. Why did you go into TV, and what did it mean to you to win an Emmy?
KB: I wanted to stay involved in the game in some capacity and I enjoyed being an analyst. I did not do it much, so I still have a lot to learn. I stopped doing TV when I accepted my current position; however, this year I will be jumping back into broadcasting by doing radio for Rider basketball, and I hope that I can do some TV in the region as well.
JT: You currently serve as executive director of the Mercer County (NJ) Park Commission. How do you like the job, and what have you been able to accomplish so far?
KB: I could not be happier professionally than I am today. I manage a very diverse Park Commission with 300+ employees and 5,000+ acres of open space/parks/athletic facilities. We have the Yankees Double-A team in our stadium (the Trenton Thunder, who just signed on for a new 15-year lease), the Olympic Rowing teams training on our lake, an equestrian center, a living history farm, a wildlife rehabilitation center, a skating rink, and countless fairs/festivals/concerts/athletic events. We host the NEC tennis championship, MAAC rowing/baseball games, and high school tournaments in virtually every sport in our facilities.
JT: You also serve as VP of the Mercer County Sports and Entertainment Commission. How do you like the job, and what have you been able to accomplish so far?
KB: We established the Sports Commission about eight years ago, and have had huge success. It has been extremely rewarding to pull in people from throughout the community to help attract and assist with events that fill our hotels/restaurants and improve the quality of life in our county. We have had the Women's NCAA First/Second Round and Regional tournament games, many large shows and events like triathlons, lacrosse tournaments, soccer tournaments, and a few ethnic festivals as well. The sky is the limit, as we are in a superb location for events.
JT: When people look back on your career, how do you want to be remembered the most?
KB: I have been very fortunate in that I had the pleasure of working at four schools within 50 miles of each other (St. Peter's, TCNJ, Rider, and Rutgers). I am honored to have been inducted into 3 Halls of Fame, and I try to stay as involved as I can at each school. I am particularly lucky to have been able to stay around my family and friends, as well as tons of ex-players who still live in the region. My wife and I celebrated 25 years of marriage this year, and my son will head off to college next year. Things are great; college basketball owes me nothing.
Kevin is also on Jon's list of best coaches in MAAC history.
Canisius: John Beilein (1992-1997) 89-62, one NCAA Tournament appearance, one conference title, one-time conference Coach of the Year
Fairfield: Fred Barakat (1970-1981) 160-128
Iona: Pat Kennedy (1980-1986) 124-60, two NCAA Tournament appearances, three conference titles, one-time conference Coach of the Year
Loyola (MD): Emil "Lefty" Reitz (1937-1944, 1945-1961) 349-227
Manhattan: Ken Norton (1946-1968) 300-205, two NCAA Tournament appearances, four conference titles
Marist: Dave Magarity (1986-2004) 253-259, one NCAA Tournament appearance, three conference titles, three-time conference Coach of the Year
Niagara: John "Taps" Gallagher (1931-1943, 1946-1965) 465-261, six conference titles
Rider: Kevin Bannon (1989-1997) 131-103, two NCAA Tournament appearances, three conference titles, two-time conference Coach of the Year
Siena: Fran McCaffery (2005-2010) 112-51, three NCAA Tournament appearances, three conference titles, one-time conference Coach of the Year
St. Peter's: Don Kennedy (1950-1972) 323-195