This past Saturday – while Big Ten football fans were eagerly awaiting a championship showdown between Ohio State and Wisconsin – the Michigan basketball team, then ranked No. 17, was busy losing at home to unranked NJIT.
That’s the New Jersey Institute of Technology, if you weren’t sure.
NJIT won, 72-70, stunning the Ann Arbor faithful.
“It’s been unbelievable,” NJIT coach Jim Engles said on The Doug Gottlieb Show, referring to the last couple of days. “The last time we had gotten any type of recognition was because we just won one game, which, if you can believe that, is crazy.”
Engles, who is in his seventh year at NJIT, inherited a program that went 0-29 the year before he arrived. He lost his first 18 games before getting in the win column – and snapping a 51-game losing streak in the process.
“We break a losing streak of 51 games, and everybody was like, ‘How’d you do it?’” Engles recalled. “And we’re on TV and everyone’s reaching out. It’s sort of humbling to beat a ranked team and come full circle in seven years. Before I just called into you, I’m trying to respond to emails and texts that I’ve gotten over the last three days, so it’s been fun.”
Engles has done a remarkable job at NJIT (3-5), which consistently finishes right around – or above – .500. How do you build a program from nothing to something?
“It’s like every other Division 1 program, every other college program,” Engles said. “We had to make some changes in regards to recruiting, and we made some changes expectation-wise. Everybody talks about culture and changing the culture, and we’ve improved that here. We’ve just made a lot of the infrastructure changes that you need to make to have a successful program. I have a really good staff. I have a very supportive administration. They’ve all allowed me to thankfully be able to do my job and make some lucky decisions and some good decisions, and it gets us to the point where we’ve been able to be competitive.
“The fact that we were able to beat a ranked team is really sort of surreal to me. It’s hard to explain.”
NJIT is an independent program, which means it’s very hard to fill a schedule, especially once conference play heats up.
“Scheduling is hard,” Engles said. “It’s very hard – because everybody wants to play in November and December because they have their conference that they have to focus on in January and February and March. So I have to be extremely creative. I have to find teams and find conferences that maybe have bye weeks. I have to rely on a lot of people.
“It’s a concerning thing because you walk a fine line,” Engles continued. “You beat a team like Michigan and no one wants to play us. I’m scared to death now because it’s almost like I got to tell my team, ‘Guys, we can’t win that many games here. If we win too many games, we’re not going to have a schedule next year.’ And I think that’s unfair. I don’t know why anybody hasn’t really helped us out with that.”
For what it’s worth, the Highlanders’ win was extremely popular in East Lansing and Columbus, as Michigan State and Ohio State fans bought T-shirts celebrating Michigan’s loss.
“I’ll take the marketing any way we can get it,” Engles said, laughing. “I think that’s tremendous, and that’s really what college athletics is all about.”
It’s also about the personal moment Engles had with his assigned security guard during the Michigan game. NJIT trailed by just five at halftime, and Engles noticed the security guard kept smiling. Eventually, Engles asked him why.
His response: “Dude, I went to Michigan State. This is awesome.”
“I have a very good understanding now of the rivalries in the Big Ten,” Engles said. “I think it’s tremendous. I think it’s a lot of fun. It was great to see a quiet arena as you walk out.”