In six years as Tennessee State’s coach, Cy Alexander failed to put together a winning season, let alone get the Tigers into the NCAA Tournament.
In one season at North Carolina A&T, he has managed to do both. Plus, he already has led the Aggies to the first NCAA Tournament victory in school history after nine losses.
After holding on for a 73-72 win against Liberty in a battle of 16 seeds on Tuesday, A&T (20-16) heads into Thursday’s matchup with No. 1 overall seed Louisville in Lexington, Ky.
Getting to the tournament is nothing new for Alexander. During 16 years at fellow Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference foe South Carolina State, he reached the tournament five times — but never won a game.
“I don’t feel any different as far as having won. I think I was a pretty good coach prior to,” Alexander said on Wednesday. “From the university standpoint, the chancellor came up to me [Tuesday] night and said, ‘You made history and we're so very, very proud.’”
He wasn’t the only one beaming with pride. As Alexander headed into Rupp Arena for practice on Wednesday, he received a congratulatory phone call from A&T grad Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr.
“Obviously this is a pretty big deal for making history,” Alexander said. “I think this run, two things it will do for our university. One, it is going to be a tremendous boost for our recruiting, and, two, it is going to be a tremendous boost as far as overall student applications. This is a very good school academically, engineering and technology. So hopefully everybody can benefit from the success that the men’s basketball program is having.”
About the only place Alexander didn’t enjoy success was at TSU.
A few weeks after Alexander led S.C. State to its fifth NCAA Tournament in 2003, he was announced as TSU’s new head coach. But in a more balanced Ohio Valley Conference, Alexander couldn’t match the success he had in the MEAC. The Tigers lost more than 20 games twice, never won more than 15 games and reached the OVC Tournament championship game just once — in 2008.
He was fired after the 2008-09 season.
After a three-year hiatus, he returned to the MEAC and was named A&T’s new coach last April. The Aggies hadn’t had a winning season since 1996-97. It didn’t look like that streak would end this year as they headed into the league tournament with a 15-16 record. But with an animated Alexander on the sidelines — and the top seed falling early — A&T ripped off four straight wins, claimed the conference tournament title and made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1995.
“When I got the job we talked about trying to win a championship for our seven seniors,” Alexander said. “I told them that they had to play a heck of a lot harder than I saw them playing on film. They bought into my philosophy of playing hard, playing smart, playing together, and playing with confidence, and defense.”
As a result, Alexander is back to his winning ways in the MEAC.