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 Northeastern’s Bill Coen becomes winningest coach in CAA men’s basketball history

Coen, in his 18th year at Northeastern, set the record Saturday with an 84-72 win at Elon University.

Bill Cohen speaking while signing a piece of paper.
Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

The inevitable breakthrough was recorded Saturday night in Elon, North Carolina. 

Longtime Northeastern coach Bill Coen acted as though it were just another victory as the seconds counted down on the Huskies’ 84-72 win at Elon University. But his players knew better. They surprised Coen with a locker room celebration of the record-breaking victory that made him the winningest coach in the 46-year history of the Coastal Athletic Association.

With 184 regular season and conference wins during his 18 seasons at Northeastern, Coen moved past Jim Larranaga, the former coach of George Mason University, which departed the conference in 2013.

“We hid in the showers and when he walked in, we sprayed him with water,” said Chris Doherty, who led the Huskies with 10 rebounds and 7 assists to go with his 12 points. “It was awesome to see the expression on his face — there may have been a couple of tears. 

“It was cool to see how he reflected on his time as Northeastern coach and talked about the past players, the past coaches and what it means to be a Northeastern Husky. It was awesome.”

Such moments are becoming a habit for Coen, whose overall record at Northeastern is 278-275. In 2021 he moved past Jim Calhoun to become Northeastern’s all-time winningest coach in men’s basketball — a program now in its 104th year.

“When you reach any milestones in life it’s a time to think back and be grateful for all the good people that contributed to those good times, and I shared that with this group,” Coen said. “I thought it was fitting that we played really unselfishly in the victory. Really I was just overwhelmed with a feeling of gratefulness.”

Coen is known for scheduling difficult non-conference opponents in the early weeks of the season with the goal of strengthening his teams for conference play, a strategy that has paid off with a CAA-record 19 tournament wins. The Huskies have reached the quarterfinal round without fail during Coen’s tenure and have gone 13-7 in the CAA tournament since 2015.

“I talked to our guys about these [basketball] experiences — they build you a lifeboat that’s going to serve you throughout your lifetime,” said Coen, who has led Northeastern to two postseason appearances each in the NCAA Tournament and the National Invitation Tournament. “In that lifeboat is going to be everybody that’s helped you along the way, all the teachers, all the coaches and assistant coaches, all the support staff, everybody that’s had a hand in. And those to me are the biggest victories; the ones on the court are really just a byproduct of those relationships. 

“I just feel very fortunate for my journey and all the people who have helped me from my time as a young boy, playing the game, falling in love with the game; coaches that have helped me, inspired me, kept me on the right track, and then led me on this path to maybe do that for others.”

Coen starred as a guard at Hamilton College, which he helped lead to three conference championships and a Division 3 national ranking under legendary coach Tom Murphy (who has turned the tables by assisting his protegé at Northeastern). Initially Coen tried to break away from his sport by working in Boston for three years as a software engineer at Raytheon, the aerospace and defense manufacturer, while coaching fifth-grade basketball on weekends.

At 25 he quit that job to coach basketball at Canajoharie High School in upstate New York — “one of the best years of my life,” Coen has said.

After 19 years as an assistant at Hamilton, the University of Rhode Island and Boston College, Coen was hired to lead Northeastern’s program in 2006.

“He’s always there for you,” said Doherty, who transferred to Northeastern from Notre Dame in 2020. “He’s somebody that will listen to your issues. He’s a constant in my life.”

The Huskies (3-3 in the CAA, 8-11 overall) are hoping for a strong second-half run around the leadership of graduate students Doherty (13.1 points per game this season) and Luka Sakota (10.5). In a sport dominated by the transfer portal, Northeastern has been revitalized by a deep group of homegrown sophomores led by Masai Troutman (who scored 17 points in the record-breaking win), Harold Woods (20) and Rashad King (a career-best 22 points).

With three wins in their last four games, Coen is optimistic for the Huskies as they build toward the conference tournament in March.

“We’re kind of two steps forward, one step back sometimes,” Coen acknowledged. “But our sophomore class is growing up and taking more ownership, and we’ve had obviously great leadership at the top with Chris and Luka. Now we’re gaining some momentum and we’re doing it by getting closer together and relying on each other more, energizing each other and playing unselfishly and tough together. From a coaching standpoint you couldn’t be more encouraged when you see those signs and now it’s just a matter of trying to be more and more consistent with that and knowing that’s the way we need to play in order to be successful.”

The relationships and experiences he found himself revisiting Saturday night have turned out to be far more profound than he could have imagined at the launch of his career.

“I told the guys in the locker room that the idea of coaches’ victories is a little silly to me, that I didn’t score any points, grab any rebounds, throw any assists — the players do it all,” Coen said. “I get to travel along in their wake and I’ve been very fortunate to have the very best student-athletes come through — guys that are and were talented basketball players but — more importantly — extraordinary people. 

“When you’re around guys like that it’s inspiring. And it’s hopeful, when you look at the future and you see the impact that those guys can go on and make and the families they have and the relationships they’ll build. So I’m just grateful for my path and all the good fortune that I’ve had.”