Over the last few years, something has been brewing down the Jersey Shore. I attended Monmouth University from 2004-2007, and the school had a pretty good athletic program during my time there. The men's basketball and football teams were powerhouses in the Northeast Conference. The basketball team even pushed number one seed Villanova to the brink in their NCAA Tournament matchup in 2006 after winning the play-in game against Hampton (see Chris Kenny's finger guns).
Monmouth Moves Conferences
Since that time, Monmouth switched conferences (Big South for football and the MAAC for all other sports except field hockey in the America East and bowling in the MEAC). The Big South switch still boggles the mind geographically but was necessary as the Hawks wanted better competition than the NEC. The big question was how Monmouth would fare playing against the higher competition in both the Big South and especially the MAAC, where they would play local programs such as Iona, who ruled the conference in basketball.
Since the move, Monmouth has matured into one of the top college programs in New Jersey, arguably surpassing schools such as Rutgers, Seton Hall, and others as the gold standard of college athletics in the state. In June, the Hawks picked up its sixth MAAC Commissioner's Cup after winning six conference regular-season titles in men's basketball, men's tennis, softball, men's lacrosse, and both men's and women's track and field.
"We are all proud to win our sixth overall and fifth men's MAAC Commissioner's Cup," Monmouth University Vice President/Director of Athletics Dr. Marilyn McNeil said. "This is always a goal of our athletics department, and it is a direct result of the amazing talent, perseverance, and competitiveness of our student-athletes, coaches, and support staff across the board. We will celebrate this incredible accomplishment, and I am confident we will continue to raise the bar and strive for excellence in the future."
Monmouth has won two consecutive Big South football titles in a conference that features major FCS programs such as Kennesaw State and Charleston Southern. The Hawks have also reached the FCS Playoffs three times and are considered favorites to return in 2021, either as winners of the Big South Conference or through an at-large bid. To say that Monmouth has stepped their game up would be an understatement.
The key to success for Monmouth is that the head coaches have been at the helms of their sports long-term. In an era where coaches change schools constantly and buyouts in contracts are a conversation, Monmouth does not have that problem. Seven coaches have been at the school for more than ten years, while three have over 20 years of service at the school:
Football - Kevin Callahan: 27 years
Baseball - Dean Ehehalt: 28 years
Women's Soccer - Dr. Krissy Turner: 24 years
Along with those coaches with long tenures with the school, Monmouth is setting a foundation for the future with the hiring of Ginny Boggess as the new women's basketball head coach earlier this year and the recent hires of Mike Nelson in Track and Field (2019) and former All-American Jordan Trautman to lead women's lacrosse (2017).
Change At The Top
With all the success comes a new era for Monmouth as longtime Athletics Director Dr. Marilyn McNeil announced her retirement after 28 years leading the school's athletic programs. Jeff Stapleton, the school's former Deputy AD, took over on July 1. However, with the athletic department running at such a high level, Stapleton will not need to do much to retain the high standard established by Dr. McNeil.
This article will create some debate among many current and former students of other New Jersey schools. While many schools, including many that I have covered, are good at select sports, it seems that Monmouth's resume is diverse top to bottom. From football to soccer to swimming and even track and field, West Long Branch is becoming a destination for athletes to achieve their athletic dreams and pursue a degree. It may be time for the other state schools and others around the country to step their game up to get on Monmouth's level.