Toole's time comes early
Former Penn player Andy Toole fit for role as NCAA’s youngest head coach
March 2, 2011, 1:44 am · Updated March 2, 2011, 12:00 am·
Before 30-year-old Andy Toole was introduced as Robert Morris University’s newest basketball coach last spring, he had a “humbling” moment.
While showing his mother around campus, Toole was asked by an admissions officer if he was there for the prospective freshman tour.
His youthful looks have led to a number of humorous moments during his coaching tenure — including being mistaken for a player — but he’s no stranger to leading teams.
As Penn’s co-captain in 2002-2003, Toole guided the Quakers to an undefeated Ivy League record and their second consecutive NCAA Tournament berth.
Just seven years later, Toole’s responsibilities have grown — leading not just a team, but a program, as the youngest NCAA Division I coach in the nation.
No one who knows Toole was surprised he got the opportunity, though it might have come a bit earlier than expected.
“Age didn’t really factor into [his hiring],” said Craig Coleman, athletic director at RMU. “When you look at him, you think he’s 21. When you listen to him, you think he’s 40.”
That wise-beyond-his-years quality is something Toole’s been honing since he was five years old, when he started shooting hoops at the local YMCA.
As a high-school player at Christian Brothers Academy in Lincroft, N.J., Toole needed three years to crack the starting rotation.
But before ever making that start, he signed to play basketball at Elon University. Then, after two years in North Carolina, he wanted a change.
By chance, childhood friend and former AAU teammate Dave Klatsky was the starting point guard for Penn. Klatsky helped Toole get on then-coach Fran Dunphy’s radar.
After a campus visit to watch the Quakers win the Ivy title at the Palestra, Toole was sold.
“Coach Dunphy always said he was getting ready to start recruiting me and I committed [to Elon],” Toole said. “I don’t know how true that is or not, but that’s what he always tells me.”
In two years as a Penn starter, Toole racked up All-Ivy and All Big-5 honors each season, while leading the Quakers to a 6-3 Big 5 record and 47-13 overall.
Upon graduation, there was no question Toole would pursue hoops — the only uncertainty was in what capacity.
Despite an offer to play professionally in Turkey, he stuck close to home and helped manage facilities and organize tournaments for companies like The Hoop Group in New Jersey.
With such exposure to local talent, Toole created a network of basketball contacts and gained real-world experience that would pay dividends as a future coach.
“I tell people all the time it was almost like going to grad school for basketball,” Toole explained.
Maybe the most important contact he made was Mike Rice, current coach at Rutgers. In 2007, Rice landed the top spot at RMU, where he didn’t forget his old friend.
“When I got to Robert Morris, [Andy] was my first call,” Rice said.
Toole had spent a year as an assistant under Fran O’Hanlon — also a former Dunphy assistant — at Lafayette and jumped at the chance to work alongside Rice. In three years as a tandem at RMU, Toole and Rice won the Northeast conference each year, compiling 73 wins and two NCAA bids.
After Rice left for Rutgers, the RMU administration decided to keep the hiring process internal, promoting Toole to head coach.
“All those impressions that I had when he first started had been reinforced hundreds of times in those three years [under Rice],” Coleman said.
When Toole was introduced as coach in May of 2010, he was still 29. Though he was well aware of the age distinction, he insists it’s not something he thinks about, unless prompted.
“I can’t forget because every time I talk to somebody in the media, they always remind me,” Toole said. “It’s nice to have that distinction … but it doesn’t help you win any games, it doesn’t help you land any recruits.”
Handed a squad with just one senior, Toole has managed to steer the Colonials to a 16-13 record, while starting mainly freshmen and sophomores.
“Forget the youngest coach in Division I, we may have the youngest team in Division I,” Coleman noted.
Coleman lauded Toole’s work thus far and is optimistic about what’s to come. He’s not the only one.
“I think the future is as bright for him as anybody that I know,” said Dunphy of his former player. “He’s a good man and a good basketball man and [he’ll be] a terrific coach for a lot of years.”
Toole was described as relentless by his former colleague, Rice, who said his preparation is unmatched when it comes to practice or games.
With a wealth of experience at such a tender age, there is no clear precedent to predict how Toole will fare at the Division I level.
But a year after Butler went to the national championship with a 33-year-old coach, age is just a number.
“The goal is to continue to elevate the notoriety of Robert Morris basketball … and get to the NCAA Tournament as many times as we can,” Toole said. “I have guys that are willing to do whatever it takes to make our players and our program successful.”
Sooner or later, people will start recognizing Andy Toole.