(Photo Credit: bgsufalcons.com)
By Chuckie Maggio @chuckiemaggio
On a late summer day in 2001, Jesse Fleming was one of 520 incoming St. Bonaventure freshmen to move in and start the SBU journey.
Last week, Fleming started a new chapter of that journey when he completed the climb from the women’s basketball team’s manager to its head coach.
The 33-year-old, who becomes the seventh coach in program history and the youngest coach in the Atlantic 10, said he was contacted by athletic director Tim Kenney very shortly after Jim Crowley accepted the Providence job.
Fleming worked under Crowley for 11 years, first as manager and then as an assistant coach after graduation. He coached Jessica Jenkins and Tiara Johnson, who are joining Crowley’s staff at Providence, as well as Andrea Mulcahy, who is staying on at SBU as his top assistant coach.
“The whole process was a whirlwind… it was a definite mix of emotions,” Fleming said. “There was excitement to lead a program that I deeply care about but there was sadness that my good friends on the St. Bonaventure coaching staff would be leaving.
“As I started to talk to Tim Kenney and (Associate Athletics Director for Internal Operations) Steve Campbell, their enthusiasm and vision really made me believe that it was the right time to come home.”
The Bonnies did not reach the postseason until his first season on Bowling Green’s coaching staff, but Olean Times Herald beat writer Jeff Madigan wrote last week that “some say Fleming’s tactics and strategy were the true mastermind behind the Bonnies’ rise to success.” While that claim is certainly subjective, Fleming credits Crowley with “so much” of his development as a coach.
“Role definition was a big thing I learned,” he said. “Coach was great at telling the players and staff exactly what they needed to do for us to be successful. Coach had a great work-life balance and I’m going to try to bring that with me as well.”
Fleming’s path is a rare one, as the progression from student manager to assistant coach to head coach doesn’t occur with the same school often. He credits a positive mindset and great mentors for the progression.
“For me it’s always been trying to keep my head down, work as hard as I can and as smart as I can everyday and hopefully that mentality would lead to positive things,” he said.
“I can’t thank the mentors I’ve had in this business enough. I was around people from a very young age in this profession that gave me massive responsibility. They also let me learn through my mistakes. The manager to head coach progression wouldn’t happen without those people.”
As with any sports coaching change, some fans will invariably begin to measure Fleming’s success at Bonaventure against Crowley’s success at Providence from the first tip-off in November, no matter how unfair that may be to Crowley, whose rebuilding project went 1-17 in the Big East last season.
Fleming won’t get caught up in the comparisons, but he will bring his predecessor’s teachings with him.
“The system, the behind-the-scenes operations… there’s a ton I’m going to take from coach,” he said, “because it’s the right way to do things and it works.”
Any new coach has to establish strong connections early with the team he inherits. Fleming’s first priority will be meeting with returning players and incoming freshmen.
Incoming guard Jalisha Terry was granted a release from her letter of intent, allowing her to re-open her recruitment, but is still considering Bonaventure. After forward Miranda Drummond announced her intent to transfer, there were rumors that other would-be returnees were looking to do the same, but it appears there will be no more turnover in that department.
“I have met or will meet personally with every player, incoming player and their families,” Fleming said. “I’ve had a great response from the families I’ve met with so far. Each player needs to do what is best for them and their family.
“I don’t want to get into specifics. I can tell you that I’m doing everything I can to put the best team on the floor for next season.”
Fleming’s main objective is to maintain the program’s culture, an environment that has led to six postseason appearances in the past eight seasons.
“My biggest goal is to keep the quality culture that is in place here. I want us to keep our toughness and I want to get us connected. My goal will always be that we are playing our best basketball in March.
“It’s a cliche, but I want our team and our staff to focus on doing the next thing right every day.”