There’s not much to be seen on the drive from Scranton to Binghamton. The hourlong trip on Interstate 81 goes mostly around hilly, rural terrain, which is scattered with lakes and the occasional rest stop. But for BU head coach Tommy Dempsey, the short drive played a major role in his desire to move on from his previous job as the head coach at Rider.
Like almost anybody else looking for a new job, BU head coach Tommy Dempsey set his sights toward home. He interviewed for the BU men’s basketball team’s head coaching position due in part to its proximity to his hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania.
“At that point, I thought it was the right time in my career to go and take on a professional challenge that was not only close to home, but had great potential,” Dempsey said. “Not only as an institution — but I knew the University had a great commitment to the program.”
Dempsey was only 36 when he was hired to take over BU’s basketball program. At Rider, he had been one of the youngest head coaches in Division I basketball. After a largely successful seven-year stint as a Bronc, he landed at BU in 2012. At the time, BU was marred by scandal and in desperate need of a rebuild.
Dempsey led Rider to two 23-win seasons after winning just eight games in his first year. When he took over at BU, he was familiar with how big the task would be.
“I had already been through a rebuild at Rider and I had been there as an assistant,” Dempsey said. “I knew Binghamton was coming off of a scandal and having a really hard time. The timing of it all meant a lot. I knew it was going to be a whole new regime and that President Stenger, [Patrick] Elliot and myself were all going to take this rebuild on together.”
But since then, things haven’t gone according to plan. While Dempsey has found success recruiting players, the win column next to his name has largely stagnated, partially due to unlucky injuries to key players at unfortunate times.
Nearing the end of his fifth year, Dempsey and his teams have recorded just 36 wins. Under Dempsey, BU has never won an America East (AE) Tournament game. This season, the results on the court have been largely the same. After winning a program-record nine games in nonconference play, BU has faltered against AE opponents.
Last Wednesday, Dempsey walked into the media room of the Events Center tired and weary-eyed from the late-night trip home following a disappointing loss to Hartford. Clutching a can of Monster, Dempsey sat down to discuss his tenure so far and the future of the program.
“We have a philosophy within the program that we’re like a big oak tree,” Dempsey said. “It takes many many years to grow, but just a few moments to chop down. You can lose ground quickly.”
Dempsey knew the building process would take a long time, but he also expected it to go more smoothly than it has. But even now, Dempsey remains optimistic about the future. Next season, redshirt sophomore guard J.C. Show will return after undergoing season-ending surgery to repair a ruptured left tricep. Freshman guard Tyler Stewart and junior forward Caleb Stewart will provide the Bearcats with much-needed size after redshirting this season.
“From a win-loss standpoint, we’re behind where we hoped to be,” Dempsey said. “But for who we are as a group, I think it’s great. We have great kids who work hard and represent us well on and off the court. We’ve done what we came here to do in so many ways, and we’ve always thought that the winning might come last.”
For BU, almost every season since Dempsey took over has looked similar. They all started out with a glimmer of hope, which quickly faded into the horizon. But Dempsey and his team still believe that next year is the one that will allow them to put all of their past troubles in the rearview mirror.
“When we look at it and look at the future, we still think we’re going to win here,” Dempsey said. “And we feel that we are going to win big.”