Under Mike Fuline, the Mount Union men's basketball program has returned to the top of the Ohio Athletic Conference.
ALLIANCE, Ohio -- The University of Mount Union has long been known as a football school, but well before Larry Kehres was leading the Purple Raiders to 11 NCAA Division III National Championships, the small private school in Alliance was a basketball powerhouse in the Ohio Athletic Conference.
Mount Union won five of the OAC's first nine regular-season championships and shared a sixth title with Muskingum College during the 1925-26 season. However, in the 81 years since Mount Union won the 1931-32 OAC Championship, the Purple Raiders had won only three titles, and none since they split the crown with The University of Akron in the 1965-66 season.
That all changed when the Purple Raiders hired Mike Fuline three years ago.
In 2012-13, Fuline guided Mount Union to the OAC Tournament Championship Game despite a 13-15 overall record. This season, Fuline led Mount Union to the OAC regular-season championship after the team posted a 15-3 record in conference play and a 20-5 overall mark.
"It always will be about players," Fuline said. "As long as you have players, you have a chance to be successful. We're fortunate to have some great ones, two great seniors that have helped lead us, who have been through everything, and a lot of young guys."
Fuline earned the OAC regular-season championship with only two seniors, guard T.J. Gillespie and forward Jimmy Darnley, on the roster. That means that almost all of the players contributing to Mount Union's success are ones Fuline recruited.
And when it comes to pitching being a part of something special, Fuline has experience.
He was the head coach at Massillon Jackson High School from 2005-11, where he guided the Polar Bears to the 2010 OHSAA Division I State Championship, as well as 76 wins and two Federal League championships during his final four seasons.
"We basically stayed in Northeast Ohio, and it's nice," Fuline said of his recruiting strategy. "It's nice to have families connected, families here, especially during the offseason in the summer. These guys get together and play, and that's huge. It's a big part of it.
"From a high school perspective, we got so much better, as the years went by, in the summer times. Fortunately, with the guys staying on campus and sticking around, they've gotten closer and live together. They play together, and it's a big deal."
Mount Union's season came to an abrupt end after winning the OAC regular-season title when the Purple Raiders were knocked out of the conference tournament with an 83-81 loss to the John Carroll Blue Streaks last Thursday.
And much like they did from last season's loss to Marietta in the OAC Tournament Championship Game, Fuline expects his team to learn from the setback in preparation for the future.
"We've got good guys, and hopefully, they continue to improve and get better," Fuline said. "Just because you win it and you're young doesn't mean anything in this league. (John Carroll's) young too, and they'll be right back where they're at and we'll have some battles, I'm sure.
"We learned from that loss last year. Hopefully, we can learn from this one. We took a huge step, winning the league, and hopefully, now, we can take a huge step from this loss in the offseason. I think our guys will be hungry, at least, I hope they will be."
Although the Purple Raiders fell short of making the NCAA Division III National Tournament after not being awarded an at-large bid by the selection committee, they did earn something valuable, the respect of their peers.
"They're a very scary team," said John Carroll coach Mike Moran, a 22-year coaching veteran in the OAC. "Coach (Fuline) does a great job. You don't win a championship in the OAC being a dog. They deserve it, and I've always said this in the past: 'I've always felt the hardest thing to do is win the regular-season championship.'
"I really believe that, and I also believe that team should get into the NCAA. We've been on that side of the coin a few times where we've won in the past, won the regular season. It's such a long, hard grind and then, you've got to pray that some committee might select you. That's bull. I think they've proven how good they are as a team by winning that. That's a great Mount Union team."