May 29, 2013
Cunningham brings 'Boiler grit' to Carroll
Carson Cunningham admits to adding his own bit of flare to his coaching style.
And that wouldn't be surprising, considering the fashion in which the former point guard played at Purdue, with an eye toward flash on the offensive end. But, as the new coach at Carroll College in Helena, Mont., admits, it's difficult to stray far from the teachings of Gene Keady - and other Boilermakers - as well.
He learned the way of Purdue in his three seasons as a Boilermaker, playing under Keady while helping the Boilers to two Sweet 16s and an Elite Eight from 1998-2001. He'd like to replicate similar success for the Fighting Saints now.
"Hopefully, we'll be able to bring a little Boiler grit to the great state of Montana," Cunningham said Tuesday afternoon.
For Cunningham, it's his first dive into college athletics as a coach. A five-year coach at Andrean High School, Cunningham beat out more than 200 applicants for the Carroll job, including, he's been told, six who had previous Division I coaching experience.
But Cunningham's overall résumé, which includes far more than basketball, won out. He has a doctorate in history from Purdue - and is completing his master's at DePaul in business administration - while teaching history and cinema and media departments the last six years at the Chicago school. He's authored three books, including a couple on the history of basketball and one on the Chicago Cubs.
But the itch to further his coaching career came on strong in this last season, following a stretch in which he led Andrean, his alma mater, to four straight sectional titles.
"My original path was professional historian and I've certainly enjoyed that," said Cunningham, who helped Andrean win 43 of its last 50 games. "I loved working at DePaul, loved working on books, but even you could tell by my first book 'American Hoops History: US Olympic Basketball' I still maintain a rather strong passion for basketball.
"When I started to coach, as the years went by, I realized that, as much as I really enjoy teaching, this past year in particular, I really felt like I might just give this a go at the college ranks. Sure enough, I was able to land a gig at a place like Carroll, which is really faltering and exciting."
At Carroll, Cunningham takes over a program that has been floundering somewhat, winning only one league game in the NAIA's Frontier Conference last season. But it returns all five starters, and he says the Saints have the resources to succeed. He can rattle off the school's academic and athletic reputation quickly.
"I knew with that combination of academics and athletics, and with it being a Catholic school - I went to Catholic high school and teach at DePaul, which is the nation's largest Catholic University - I felt like that was a good fit too," said Cunningham, who will likely teach a history class at Carroll, as well. "It's one that I really thought would be sweet if I could somehow land it. I managed to pull it off."
Cunningham's coaching influences are Purdue heavy; he cites Keady, John Wooden and Matt Painter as sources for his style, along with former AAU teammate Brad Stevens, the head coach at Butler.
"Obviously, the toughness and competitive fire that Gene Keady brought to the table is something that I've tried to implement as a coach," Cunningham said. "We design our practices a lot like our practices were at Purdue. I think that was a great experience for me to play there now that I'm a coach, to see how competitive our workouts were and how that translated during the games.
"I have my own creative touch that I like to throw into the mix, there's no doubt about it. I'll add my own personality and own ways as a coach. That's for sure. But Coach Keady had a great ability to stamp his fiery personality directly upon his team. And I hope to be able to do the same sort of thing."
Over the next month, Cunningham will be splitting his time, finishing up work at DePaul while starting at Carroll. Meanwhile, his family - wife Christy, a former Purdue volleyball player, and their four children - will make the move to Helena.
Cunningham hopes to make it a long stay.
"It's a very competitive profession, but I'm excited to be a part of it," he said. "We wanted to find a place where my wife and I could envision us being for a long time and we love the state of Montana. Helena is an awesome town, especially to raise kids and then you have that 1-2 punch with the strong academics and athletics and we just felt like it's a great opportunity. We hope we can make it work and the people of Helena and Carroll are as impressed with us as we are with them."
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