Whenever you think of Castleton basketball, ex-NBA coach Stan Van Gundy is usually the first name which comes to mind.But before Van Gundy led Castleton to consecutive trips to the NAIA tournament in 1984 and ’85, Matt Kilcullen left an imprint on the school’s basketball program.
Kilcullen, 53, spent three seasons at the helm for the Spartans and recruited most of the players that would lead Van Gundy’s tourney teams.
A standout basketball player out of Lehman College in New York, the Bronx-native jumped right into the coaching business after graduating. Lucky for him, his first job was only a walk away.
“When a friend of mine told me the grammar school team right next to us needed a coach, I said ‘what the heck, I’ll give it a shot’,” he said. “I found out that I really enjoyed putting a group of individuals together and working with them to become successful.”
All roads start in Castleton
While painting an athletic director’s house in Doylestown, Penn., the then-24-year-old assistant at Delaware Valley College received a phone call from a friend, who was able to get Kilcullen an interview for Castleton’s coaching vacancy.
“Whenever you remember your first head coaching job, you remember the people that made it happen,” he said. “I loved living up in Vermont and really enjoyed my time there.”
Kilcullen compiled a 28-48 record at Castleton and improved the team’s record each year. In his third and final season, he set a then-single-season record for wins with 14, which was surpassed by Van Gundy’s 26 two years later.
One moment that has stuck in Kilcullen’s mind was Castleton winning the Paul Bunyan tournament at Husson College and the long bus ride back.
“As a young coach, it gave me a great thrill to be able to go on somebody’s home court and win two games when nobody expected you to win and take home the championship,” he said. “But it takes us eight hours to get home from Maine in a blinding snow storm. We won the tournament and were very happy, and we get a very slow ride back.”
He left Castleton before the 1983 season to work at Siena College as an assistant under John Griffin, who was the youngest head coach in NCAA history at age 25.
“The assistants’ job opened up at Siena in Division I, which is the level you inspire to be at,” Kilcullen said. “But I thought that I left Castleton State College in pretty good hands because two years later they went 26-1 with the guys we recruited and went to the national tournament.”
His years working at summer camps with young players caught the attention of Digger Phelps, who hired Kilcullen as his assistant at Notre Dame. Kilcullen stayed in South Bend for six seasons and learned a lot from Phelps, who now works as a college basketball analyst for ESPN.
“Coach Phelps was very well-organized and did a great job at delegating responsibilities to assistants; I think those were the two biggest things. His preparation for games was unbelievable, and that really comes from his organization and delegation.”
Credit where credit’s due
Matt Dempsey, a Castleton Hall of Famer and key component to the team’s success from 1980-84, was the first player Kilcullen ever recruited.
“I met him at a basketball camp at Notre Dame; he was young and very energetic,” said Dempsey, now the assistant women’s basketball coach at the Naval Academy. “I learned a lot from him as a coach and actually chose my (coaching) style from him.”
Kilcullen still checks up on Dempsey and recalls first meeting his former player at the camp.
“Keeping in contact with Matt, you remember him as a 17-year-old, snot-nosed senior out of high school,” Kilcullen said before a brief laugh.
In a phone interview in November, Van Gundy accredited Kilcullen with changing the face of Castleton’s basketball program.
“The process really started with Matt and he brought in some really good players,” Van Gundy said. “The core of what he had brought played well together, and Jim (Casciano) and I were fortunate enough to take over a good group of players.”
Dempsey seemed to agree with Coach Van Gundy, and did not understand the lack of recognition Kilcullen has received for his time at Castleton.
“He’s the one who really turned the corner with the basketball program,” Dempsey said. “Matt should get a lot more credit for what he did at Castleton.”
Division I Basketball
Kilcullen’s first head coaching job in Division I sent him to Jacksonville University, where he took a Sun Belt Conference cellar dweller and made a competitive team out of them, finishing 1994 at 17-11.
Kilcullen was then hired at Western Kentucky and led the Hilltoppers to 27 wins and an NCAA tournament upset over Michigan in his first season at the helm. He has the rare honor of being the first coach in NCAA history to win conference coach of the year two consecutive years with two different teams (1994 with JU and 1995 with WKU).
Kilcullen was unexpectedly relieved of his duties at Western Kentucky after four seasons, but wanted to get right back into the coaching fold. After a season assisting at Manhattan College, he was given an opportunity to return to the Jacksonville area when North Florida offered him the head coaching job.
“It was very intriguing because we still kept our house down their; we had never sold it when we left, and instead just rented it out,” he said. “So that was something that was not only intriguing but exciting because how many places do you have the chance to go back to the same city and live in the same house with the same neighbors.”
While his record at North Florida currently stands at 87-138, Kilcullen is the school’s all-time leader in wins as a coach. He finished the 2006-07 season with a 3-26 record, but his Ospreys will enter only their third year in Division I next fall.
“I enjoy building programs where people think you can’t win for whatever reasons. I like being in that position right now, where an upstart Division I program is in transition and I think we have a lot to offer in terms of our University, academics, the campus, the people and the city of Jacksonville.”
Kilcullen and his wife Mary Jo have two children, Brianna and Michael. He takes trips with his family to Vermont, and shows them where he got started as a coach.
Notes: Another former Spartan head coach, Jim Casciano, has followed Kilcullen’s lead and is coaching New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) in its first season in Division I.Dempsey works at Navy under head coach Tom Merryott, a teammate of his while playing for Castleton.