Mike Strong retires after 815 career wins

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Scranton recently celebrated Mike Strong's 800th career win, most among Division III women's basketball coaches all-time.
Scranton athletics file photo 

In a career that included 815 victories, eight Final Four appearances and an NCAA Division III national title, Mike Strong accomplished pretty much everything one could hope to as the head women’s basketball coach at The University of Scranton. On Wednesday afternoon, he put a cap on his storied career by announcing his retirement, effective Friday, Sept. 19.

“I appreciate all of the help of the administration here at the university, my assistant coaches and, of course, the kids who played for me,” Strong said. “The University of Scranton is a great institution and I’m thankful that they gave me the opportunity to work here for 43 years.”

“I’ve had an awfully good run, well beyond my wildest expectations,” he added. “And now I wanted to make sure that I go out on a high note.”

Strong served the university for more than four decades in numerous capacities, and leaves a lasting impression throughout campus.

Going Strong and going long

 Mike Strong had one of the most accomplished coaching careers in all of college basketball.  Some of those accomplishments include:

 * 815 wins: Most in women's Division III basketball history

 * 8 NCAA tournament semifinal appearances, including the 1985 national championship

 * 26 NCAA tournament appearances with a record of 55-29

 * Three Landmark Conference titles and 16 Middle Atlantic/Freedom Conference titles

 * 26 seasons with at least 20 wins

 * 15 conference players of the year (four in the Landmark, 15 in the Middle Atlantic/Freedom Conference)

 * Three selections as D3hoops.com first team All-Americans (Kelly Halpin '00, Taryn Mellody '06 and '07)

 Numbers compiled by Scranton Sports Information Department

“Mike Strong has been an integral part of the rich history and tradition of Royal and Lady Royal athletics during his distinguished 43-year career here at the university,” said University of Scranton president Kevin P. Quinn, S.J. “He played a major role in the men’s basketball team’s NCAA title as an assistant coach in 1976 and built our women’s basketball program into a widely recognized program that culminated with a national championship in 1985, just five years after he took over as head coach. He has diligently served The University of Scranton community in countless ways as a coach, faculty member, mentor and friend, and his dedication, compassion and love for others has greatly enhanced all those whose lives he’s touched.”

Athletic director Toby Lovecchio announced that former Lady Royals standout and former assistant coach Deanna (Kyle) Klingman has been named interim head coach for the 2014-15 season.

Strong’s announcement puts a cap on a career at Scranton that started in 1972 when Strong was hired as an assistant men’s basketball coach under then-head coach Bob Bessoir, and has continued ever since.

“I’m very grateful and deeply appreciative for the dedication and hard work Mike has put in to develop our student-athletes into successful young women, both on and off the court,” said Toby Lovecchio, athletics director. “Mike built our women’s basketball program into a national power by recruiting the type of student-athlete who thrives at Scranton by embracing the ideals of a Jesuit institution. His development of those student-athletes is why his teams were so successful on the court, and why his players have gone on to be successful after their time here at The University of Scranton.”

After three years as head men’s basketball coach and head men’s soccer coach at nearby Keystone Junior College (now Keystone College), Strong began his career at the university in 1972 as an assistant coach on the men’s basketball team under then-head coach Bob Bessoir, including helping the Royals win the national title in 1976. In 1979, he took over the Lady Royals and never looked back.

2005 file photo

“I got some good breaks along the way,” Strong said. “Dr. Michael Mould first hired me at Keystone, and then Bob Bessoir brought me here. And then when I went into women’s basketball here, it was already a good team.”

In 34 seasons as the Lady Royals’ head coach, Strong accomplished things nobody else has. He is the all-time leader in career victories in NCAA Division III women's basketball history with 815. He set the record on Dec. 17, 2011, with his 789th career victory, a 46-43 win over Cabrini. He is also the only women's coach in NCAA Division III history and only the second in all of NCAA Division III to win 800 games. He retires with an overall record of 815-182 (.817).

Strong led the Lady Royals to at least 20 wins in 19 of the last 22 seasons and 26 times overall. Those accomplishments pale in comparison to his NCAA Division III championship in 1985 or his seven other teams that reached the Final Four (1987, 1993, 1997, 1999, 2000, 2005, 2006), not to mention a semifinal appearance in the now defunct Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) national tournament in his first season in 1980.

Overall, he has led Scranton to 26 NCAA tournament appearances, to 16 of the Lady Royals’ 19 Middle Atlantic/Freedom Conference titles, and three Landmark Conference championships (2008, 2009, 2014). He's never had a losing season, and the fewest victories he's ever posted in a year were 16.

This past season, he led the Lady Royals to a 26-4 record and an appearance in the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 after capturing the Landmark Conference championship. He had three players earn all-Landmark Conference honors, including first-team choice Meredith Mesaris, who was a first-team All-Region selection by D3hoops.com.

“I’m leaving the cupboard well-stocked,” Strong said. “This is such a good team, and that’s part of why I’m doing this, because the program is in such a good position. Yes, I’m leaving quite a good team, but also when I took over, that first year we went to the Final Four (of the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women tournament). So I also took over a very good team. I guess it’s a case of what goes around comes around.”

Last season was just one in a long list of succesful seasons for Strong. The 2004-05 season was a prime example of his coaching ability. The Lady Royals entered the season hard hit by the graduation of All-Region guard Kate Pierangeli (2003, 2004) and Katie Dougherty (2004), who led Scranton to a four-year record of 95-18 (.841), including two Freedom Conference championships (2002, 2004) and three NCAA berths, including Sweet 16 and Elite Eight appearances in 2002 and 2004, respectively.

In what was anticipated as a rebuilding season, 2004-05 turned out to be a 29-3 campaign, which included a 29-game winning streak, a No. 1 ranking late in the season by D3hoops.com, and another trip to the Final Four.

Behind the play of all-Americans Taryn Mellody and Allison Matt and the senior leadership of Erin Healy and Kelly Lewandowski, Scranton returned to the Final Four again in 2006 and finished third en route to a 31-2 season. Mellody and Matt capped outstanding careers in 2007 by leading Scranton to a 27-3 record and a No. 8 final ranking.

Strong hit the ground running when he took over the program in 1979. He guided the Lady Royals to a 26-7 overall record, a Middle Atlantic Conference championship and a semifinal berth in the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, the precursor of the NCAA for women’s athletics. Five years later, he led Scranton to a 31-1 season and its first-ever NCAA title in women's basketball, thanks, in part, to the play of Deanna (Kyle) Klingman, the national player of the year, along with a supporting cast that included future University of Scranton Wall of Fame inductees Mary Leedy, Shelley Parks and Shelley Ritz-Buntz.

Parks would be the spark to a 31-2 season -- the second of four 30-or-more win seasons under Strong -- in 1987. Like Kyle in 1985, Parks was named the national player of the year after Scranton advanced to the Final Four and finished third. In 1993, Scranton would once again reach the 30-win plateau and place third nationally.

Strong's eye for talent continued in the mid-1990s. He recruited Jennifer Nish out of nearby Pocono Mountain High School and watched her develop into the University's first three-time All-American and a Wall of Fame inductee. She led the Lady Royals to a four-year record of 105-14 (.882), including four straight NCAA tournament berths and a Final Four appearance in 1997. Strong took a sabbatical in 1994-95, but Scranton didn't miss a beat under then-head coach Sue Serafini, going 24-2, winning the Middle Atlantic Conference Freedom League title and advancing to the NCAA regionals.

Nish would not be the last three-time All-American that Strong would develop. Kelly Halpin earned that distinction by leading the Lady Royals to a four-year record of 103-20 (.837) from 1996-2000, including Final Four berths in 1997, 1999 and 2000. Halpin concluded her brilliant career as Scranton's all-time leader in assists and second in scoring and steals. Mellody also earned that distinction in 2007 when she was named a D3hoops.com All-American for the third consecutive season. All told, 18 players earned All-America honors during his tenure.

Recently retired as an associate professor in the university's Exercise Science and Sport department, Mike and his wife, Linda, reside in Paupack. The couple have two children, Scott and Chris, and three grandchildren.