After making the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in school history in 2010, the Red graduated six seniors – including five of their top six scorers – and head coach Steve Donahue left Cornell to coach Boston College. The man put in charge of making the most out of this situation is head coach Bill Courtney, who was hired in April 2010 after Donahue’s departure. Although clearly a tough task, if Courtney’s past has proven anything, it’s that he is more than capable of facing this challenge.
Courtney went to college at Bucknell University, where he starred on the basketball team, being named to the First Team All-Patriot League in both 1991 and 1992. As a junior, he averaged 20.0 points, 3 rebounds, and 3.6 assists per game. As a senior, he was the team captain and led the team to an appearance in the Patriot League championship game. He was elected to the Bucknell Hall of Fame in 2007.
“I had a great experience at Bucknell,” Courtney said. “I played for Charlie Woollum, a great coach and a great man who taught me a lot and recruited me before a lot of people noticed me. I had a great experience as a basketball player and a student and it helped me grow into an adult.”
After graduating Bucknell, Courtney continued his basketball career, playing for the Philadelphia Spirit in the USBL and playing in the NBA Summer League and attending training camp with the Milwaukee Bucks. After being cut, he played overseas in Hong Kong and the Philippines for two years before returning back to the USA to pursue his dream of coaching basketball.
“I could have kept playing if I knew… that [teams were going to start] paying more for American guards, but it worked out well because I got to start coaching, which is something I always wanted to do,” Courtney recalled. “I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to start my coaching career a couple years after college.”
After returning to the USA, his first coaching opportunity came from Lafayette College, a school in the Patriot League, who offered him just $2,000 for the year. To make enough money to support himself, he picked up a job at Chili’s on the side as a waiter. Eventually, American University offered him a position, paying him $16,000 a year, which he ultimately accepted.
He moved on to Bowling Green University to work under Jim Larranaga, who he followed to George Mason and helped turn the program into a powerhouse that led to a Final Four appearance in 2006.
“I followed Coach Larranaga, who’s my mentor, to George Mason, who had eight straight losing seasons and four straight last place finishes in the CAA,” Courtney said. “By our second year, we were in the NCAA Tournament; we built that school into a power in the CAA. It culminated in the Final Four Appearance in 2006, but [I actually left] for Providence [in 2005], after I recruited all those guys,” Courtney laughed off.
Courtney then made stops in Virginia, VCU and Virginia Tech before becoming the head coach of Cornell. Along his journey, he has learned a lot from his mentors.
“I’ve learned a lot from all the guys I worked for,” Courtney exuded. “Working for Larranaga, I learned how to run a program; he taught me stuff that I use every day in practice. He taught me how to run a program in a first-class manner, there’s so much more than just coaching your basketball team. Working for Dave Leitao [at Virginia], he taught me about toughness and working hard and how guys can be pushed to reach things they don’t even think they can. Seth Greenberg [at Virginia Tech] is just an incredible basketball mind; he’s taught me so much about the game, skill development and offensive execution. I’ve had success as an assistant and I understand what it will take to get there just from the guys who I’ve worked for.”
At Cornell, changing coaches from Donahue to Courtney and losing all those great players has been a process, but it has gotten easier as Courtney can recruit the players he wants.
“When you take over after the greatest run in school history and all those guys leave, it’s a rebuilding process,” Courtney said. “Now for the first time, we have the guys we’ve recruited — we have two recruiting classes now — so it feels like it’s our team now. Everybody understands what we’re doing a little bit better and the new guys … have raised our talent level and we feel like we can compete at a very high level this year.”
Something that Courtney has shown a great ability to do is recruit and something that will keep Cornell competitive and relevant as long as Courtney is the coach of Cornell basketball.
“My assistants Mike Blaine and Marlon Sears do a great job ... of identifying student athletes; guys who can do the work here but are also great basketball players,” Courtney explained. “Once he identifies those guys, he works very hard to get those guys in front of me. One thing about me as a recruiter — and the reason I’ve had successes — is that if I believe in something strongly enough, I’m going to sell you on it; I’m not going to sell you something if I don’t believe in it. We’ve got a great staff, some great … players and Cornell University speaks for itself. When I have a great product to preach about, it becomes pretty easy for me.”