The milestone has been looming for some time. And yet its arrival may catch Northeastern fans by surprise, which is how Bill Coen likes it.
Coen is three wins away from overtaking Jim Calhoun as the university’s winningest men’s basketball coach of the 101-year program. Coen could equal Calhoun’s 250 victories this weekend in a pair of noon games at Matthews Arena against James Madison (televised by NESN on Saturday, and by NESN+ on Sunday).
“I would never dare to compare myself to Jim Calhoun—he’s a Hall of Fame coach, he’s won national championships,” Coen says of his predecessor, who won three NCAA titles with the University of Connecticut after leaving Northeastern in 1986. “I think it just means that I’ve been fortunate enough to be with an institution that cares about their student athletes, that’s allowed us to reach out across the globe and attract high quality individuals that will work with a team-first mindset and try to accomplish goals.”
Coen (248-218), who has led Northeastern to two postseason appearances each in the NCAA Tournament and the National Invitation Tournament, has done some of his best work over the last 12 months. Last March, just before the COVID-19 pandemic caused an NCAA shutdown, he coached the sixth-seeded Huskies to their third straight championship game in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament in Washington, D.C.
In the early days of this season—his 15th at Northeastern—Coen and Jeff Konya, the Northeastern athletic director, scrambled to find preseason opponents amid COVID-19 cancellations. The young, rebuilding Huskies were picked to finish seventh in the CAA, but they’ve surged to a 6-0 start in the conference, creating legitimate hopes of advancing onto March Madness. Northeastern’s current success is all the more impressive considering its 1-5 preseason against the likes of Syracuse, Georgia, and West Virginia.
“We told them that this is going to pay dividends, don’t focus on the results, let’s stay focused on the process and just get better today,” Coen says of the difficult non-conference schedule. “They embraced that.”
The versatile Huskies have been winning tight games despite their inexperience. Sophomore point guard Tyson Walker is providing dynamic leadership, guard Jahmyl Telfort has emerged as a top freshman in the conference, and guard Shaquille Walters has been scoring, rebounding, and defending at a high level.
“He’s a real student of the game, he’s always learning—every time I walk into his office, he’s always figuring out ways we can be better,” Walker says. “He’s allowed me to be more confident because I know he’s got my back. It’s a relationship that’s more than basketball, and everybody on the team has the same relationship with him, on and off the court.”
Konya understands the bond between Coen and his players.
“He’s very selfless, very giving, and he doesn’t have a huge ego,” Konya says. “The student athletes that come to Northeastern are grinders that have very high basketball IQs and a very high work ethic.
“As basketball coaches, you tend to recruit who you were as a player. And from everything that I hear, Bill as a player had that high IQ and work ethic and wanted to be part of a team.”
Coen didn’t take the direct route to coaching. He worked in Boston for three years as a software engineer at Raytheon, the aerospace and defense manufacturer, while coaching fifth-grade basketball on weekends.
“I missed my own playing experience,” says Coen, who had been team captain at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. “I decided to quit my job. I took a job at Canajoharie High School in upstate New York. I was 25 and had one of the best years of my life and in a really small, rural town with unbelievable people and a great team.”
His first team went 19-3 and Coen was named coach of the year. He found his way to the University of Rhode Island and Boston College—serving in both places as an assistant to coach Al Skinner—before Northeastern hired him in 2006.
Coen has had opportunities to pursue jobs elsewhere. Instead, he has followed the example of his legendary coach at Hamilton, Tom Murphy, who in 34 years at the school went 602-263 with 30 postseason appearances. Murphy has been assisting Coen at Northeastern for the past 14 years.
“That’s part of the coach Murphy influence on me, that you can’t really make a major impact unless you stay and build something,” Coen says of his long run at Northeastern. “He stayed for years and years at Hamilton, and the end result was a connection between decades of players and the Hamilton basketball family. Everybody thinks that the grass is always greener somewhere else. But if you’re going to be true, if you’re going to tell your players to stay in the fight and persevere and be resilient, you have to be willing to stay in there and fight with them.”
His players are looking forward to that imminent day when Coen becomes the all-time leader of Northeastern basketball.
“He’s a great guy, and he actually cares about you as a person,” says forward Jason Strong, a redshirt junior. “We’re all going to be happy for him. It’s going to be a fun couple of minutes in the locker room afterwards.”
And then it will be back to the work of improving.
“That’s how we do it,” Strong says.