Program Reviews: Slowly and steadily, St. Francis (PA) is becoming an NEC force

Tucked away in tiny Loretto, PA, a town of 1,302, sits one of the most unsung stories in college basketball. It hosts a program that hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1991, has won the regular season conference title once from 1992 to 2020, and sits in KenPom’s Program Ratings at 316th out of 353 schools. By all accounts, you would be forgiven for not thinking twice about this program. However, I think the college basketball world at-large should be taking a much closer look at what Rob Krimmel is accomplishing with the St. Francis (PA) Red Flash.

Krimmel’s story is remarkable in its own right: born in 1977, he played all four seasons of college basketball with St. Francis. After graduation, he did the only thing he could imagine doing: becoming an assistant on staff with St. Francis in 2000. Fast forward to spring 2012, and St. Francis is now in need of a new head coach after Don Friday’s retirement. Many options arise, but only one looks to make perfect sense for the university: a then-34-year-old alumnus sitting on the staff, waiting for his opportunity.

When Krimmel took the job, it could charitably be described as one of the least-memorable college basketball programs in America. The program cracked double-digit wins in a full season just once from 2005-06 to 2011-12, and they hadn’t won more than 10 games against Northeast Conference opponents since 1996. When you think of the NEC, you probably think of three schools: Robert Morris, Fairleigh Dickinson, and Long Island University. At that time, Saint Francis may have been the second or third-lowest school on the list.

Over the course of the last eight seasons, though, things slowly changed. A 16-16 run in 2014-15 represented St. Francis’ most wins since 1997-98. An 11-7 conference run in 2016-17 became the most successful season in conference play since 1995-96. They continued to slowly build upwards until this season, when they became something special: 22-10, 13-5 in NEC play, and a program-high #176 ranking in KenPom. The offense ranked 81st nationally, the highest-rated offense the NEC has produced in seven years. While they fell short of their ultimate goal of an NCAA Tournament bid, seasons like this make it obvious what many around the program would’ve said for years: Rob Krimmel is doing incredible work at a job that receives zero national coverage.

I talked to Coach Krimmel recently to discuss his program’s rise, what it’s like to spend your entire college and professional career at the same place, and how he plans to build on this special season going forward.

The below interview is lightly edited for clarification and time.

Will Warren: Describe your program philosophy in a few sentences.

Rob Krimmel: “The heart of what we believe is in development in a couple different layers. Developing basketball players, obviously, is a huge part. Of course, we also want our athletes to get their diploma. Another huge part is developing relationships. Getting guys to believe in themselves and each other is part of the development process. Two key words for us as a program are “development” and “believe.” When we first started this thing eight years ago, the biggest thing was how we could develop relationships with our guys. We’ve had very few transfers in the last eight years, and I think that goes to players believing in each other and developing as part of the program.”

WW: You’ve spent your entire professional and college career at St. Francis, from 1996 to now. You’re a true university lifer unlike just about anything we see in Division I athletics. What makes St. Francis such a special place to you?

RK: “The people. It’s one of the hardest things right now with recruiting – we can show recruits numbers, highlights, and various awards, but they can’t connect with the people on our campus. We have great people not just in athletics, but in our dining hall, our faculty and staff on campus, the campus police, the maintenance people, etc. Our campus is situated on top of a mountain in rural Pennsylvania. When you leave there after four years or four days, you get that sense of family. When you’re away from here, you realize how special that place is.”

WW: How did you land at St. Francis in the first place?

RK: “You want to hear a crazy story? My first trip up, I did not like Loretto. I went on an unofficial visit going into my senior year. I grew up in State College, where Penn State is. I was going to go to a school where there was lots of students and there were a hundred thousand people at a football game. This campus was the exact opposite – a small campus with not much around it, relative to State College. I’m driving down the mountain after the visit and I tell my dad, ‘I’m not going there.’ Couple months later, I went on my official visit and stayed with Tom Fox, my host. I committed that weekend and I never left. My son Thomas is named after Tom Fox, actually.”

WW: It’s been a long, slow build, but you’ve taken St. Francis from the NEC cellar to four consecutive top three NEC finishes, an NIT bid, and the second-most wins in school history this season. What’s been the most challenging, and rewarding, part of this job?

RK: “The most challenging part is building each year. Under the current state of college basketball, kids at our level are leaving. However, I think that’s also the most rewarding part – when those kids stay for four years, get their diploma, and see it out. You get to see kids progress. They grow as people and as players. Kids like Keith Braxton and Isaiah Blackmon, there’s a challenge of keeping those kids motivated. Keith becomes Freshman of the Year, then first-team All-NEC as a sophomore, then Player of the Year as a junior. How do you motivate that player for his senior year? Same thing with Isaiah, who was this year’s Player of the Year. To see those kids progress here instead of leaving for somewhere else, that’s special. Something else worth noting is our staff continuity. Our associate head coach was an assistant when I played here. Eric [Taylor] has been an assistant with me for eight years and we played together. Umar [Shannon] was a senior my first year. Luke [McConnell]’s dad was my college coach. It’s been rewarding to have that group together to see this steady rise.”

WW: This particular St. Francis team was fun to watch offensively – a team with several quality offensive players that hammered the boards and limited their own mistakes. Why do you think this particular offense was so successful?

RK: “A couple of things. Number one, we had an experienced group – we had five seniors. At our level, you need experience, and that’s why we have the challenge of recruiting four-year guys. The other thing is having good players. Isaiah Blackmon and Keith Braxton are the last two NEC Players of the Year, which makes my job a lot easier. We were also a little bit better defensively this year, which helps us on the offensive end. If we can control the glass and keep teams to one shot on us, that’s a great thing. We don’t want to play fast, we want to play efficient. We also really understood how to play in transition off of those stops. One last thing: we spent a lot more time on underneath OOB plays this year and we were much more efficient on them.”

WW: Both Isaiah Blackmon and Keith Braxton were clearly excellent players, with Blackmon winning the NEC POY award and Braxton being KenPom’s pick for the best player in the NEC. What sets these players apart from others you’ve coached?

RK: “They’re both extremely talented kids, and both have a chip on their shoulder. Isaiah went through two ACL surgeries and was always kind of an afterthought to most. Sometimes, he’d play well for stretches and then disappear. He wanted to prove to the league that he was the best player. Keith had that chip on his shoulder from the time he came in. No one in D-1 was interested in him other than us. He wanted to prove everyone wrong. They both work extremely hard, too. At the bottom of it all, they’re great kids from great families. The way they were able to connect and co-exist is a credit to who they are as young men. We’re gonna miss ‘em.”

WW: What’s your favorite win you’ve had as a coach?

RK: “Oh boy. Singular? After 25 years? I think I can narrow it down to a couple. Obviously, the buzzer-beaters are memorable, and the buzzer-beater Keith hit to beat Wagner in 2016-17 to send us to the NEC championship game was big. When you think of monumental wins, you think of ones that kind of turned the tide. One was my second year when we beat Bryant in the conference tournament. We were the first lower seed to win on a home court when we beat them. The next year, we had a winning record for the first time in ages and beat Rutgers. We got to be a part of a couple buzzer-beaters this year. The St. Joseph’s game this year was neat, because we have a huge alumni following in Philadelphia. The Jacksonville game in the CIT [in 2017] was awesome. Andre Wolford was the MVP, and when we got back home, we offered him a scholarship. He would’ve gotten it either way, but for him to do it in that fashion was pretty cool.”

WW: This was the best team to play at St. Francis in nearly 30 years, and you do return several players for next year’s squad. What’s the next big step for the Red Flash as a program?

RK: “The next big step, obviously, is to win the big one! We’ve checked every other box – regular season title, NIT appearance, various awards, 20+ wins. It’ll be neat for our next crop of kids to hopefully experience that. Any one of them could be the next Isaiah Blackmon or Keith Braxton. It’ll be a fun and different group to coach – we’ll be a lot bigger than we’ve been in the past. Next year, we have to raise the bar and show people we’re one of those top mid-major teams come March.”

WW: What’s your go-to entertainment during the quarantine?

RK: “My kids! I’m daddy-teacher right now, so from 8:30 to noon, it’s school. It’s neat, because I’m usually not home much during this time of year. Every day is a different challenge, and that’s my entertainment.”

Below is a video with some of my favorite plays from the games I sampled.