Eaton at the controls in Vermont

Knight Time for Eaton as St. Michael’s Starts a New Era

By Karl Heck

St. Michael’s Eric Eaton begins his head coaching career in his hometown on Opening Weekend after 23 years as an assistant coach. The 46-year-old Worcester, Massachusetts native and his Purple Knights open play at the Assumption tournament, down the street from the church where he got married. His first weekend will also feature a reunion with former recruit and fellow freshman coach Evan Conti, who has officially taken the reins at New York Tech. It’s quite a debut.

“I used to try to sneak in the gym at Assumption back in the Jack Renkens days when Assumption was really good,” said Eaton, who later spent a season as an assistant coach with the Greyhounds in 1999-2000, when they won the conference title. Eaton, who played his college basketball at Division III UMass-Dartmouth, has been a Division I assistant coach at another hometown school, Holy Cross, as well as at UAlbany, Quinnipiac and Iona. He was named by in 2016 as one of 30 assistant coaches ready to take over his own program, and Colchester, Vermont is the place where that dream will materialize.

Mentioning his former recruit Conti, whom he coached at Quinnipiac, Eaton recognized the close-knit nature of Division II East Region basketball. “It will be tough to face him in my second game as head coach,” Eaton said. “One of us will have to lose. “ Eaton said that he believe Conti will do a great job with New York Tech, instilling toughness and a winning attitude for the Bears. (Conti will be the subject of a future coach’s feature.)

“I am blessed and fortunate to be here at St. Michael’s,” said the high-energy Eaton. “Head coaching jobs at places where you can win are very hard to find, and St. Michael’s has a history of success.” The Purple Knights have had 12 NCAA tournament appearances, the most recent being in 2000-'01, when they went to the Sweet 16. While the program has had a significant NCAA tournament drought, the Purple Knights did win 18 games both in 2013-'14 and 2014-'15, finishing on the tournament bubble both seasons.

Eaton, who is married to wife Alexis and has twin 13-year-old boys (Evan and Owen), is enjoying the Burlington, Vermont area and believes his new program can mirror the success that the University of Vermont has had across town in Division I’s America East Conference. “Burlington is a college town,” Eaton said. “And it’s a great place to recruit players to come develop their minds and skills,” while also noting that St. Michael’s has a passionate fan base and the resources necessary to build a winner there.

Eaton’s personal style is intense. Iona Coach Tim Cluess told the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, “Coach Eaton is a tireless worker, extremely driven and has a great mind for the game. Perhaps his greatest qualities are his authenticity and integrity. The success of the programs he has mentored as a Division 1 assistant coach speaks for itself.” Eaton told us that he has never seen a coach win that left the office at 5 p.m., and that long hours of intense work and high visibility are needed in order to achieve success in a very competitive conference. Despite winning only seven games each of the last two seasons, the Purple Knights did upset NCAA Tournament foes in both seasons. They are testament to how tough the NE10 is. In the last 18 seasons since St. Michael’s last NCAA appearance, the team has had just three winning seasons in conference play while compiling a 52-28 record against non-league opponents.

As for the players, Eaton is not currently naming a captain, electing to see if anyone emerges as a leader, and potentially tabbing a captain during practice if he sees the right mindset and time. And that player could be in any year in the program. “People say seniors lead,” Eaton said. “I think leaders lead, and I am waiting to see that emerge in my team.” The coach also says that unlike recent St. Michael’s teams built around stars such as Matt Bonds and Levi Holmes III, he is not looking for “one specific guy” to lead the way, and that the team will need to adapt to what is happening on the floor. Feeding the hot hand and having the resiliency to adapt to changing situations are critical for success.

Eaton noted that the caliber of NE10 coaching is very high, and the variation of experience and consistent excellence of the league makes moving up the standings particularly difficult. But it is a challenge Eaton relishes. “We are building the toughness and work ethic that we are going to need to succeed with our players.”

Eaton promises a more up-tempo style with games regularly in the 80s. “I challenged our players to be in the best shape they can possibly be in for the season,” he said. “A lot of coaches say they play fast, and then their team scores 72 points a game. We want to be a team that has three or four 20-point scorers on a good night.” The Purple Knights may feature a longer bench as time goes on and players buy into the new system and develop. Eaton already believes his players are in better shape than they ever have been going into the 2019-'20 season. Being the last coach in the East Region to be hired this year, Eaton only met most of his players when classes started for the fall semester. He said he has been working closely with all 12 at practices, in the halls, during meals and any other time they have available to bond.

Eaton hopes the fun brand of basketball his team will play not only produces wins but helps with attracting talent, being “a lot more visible in recruiting, at prep schools, in the summer, in the spring, and in every season, building relationships we don’t currently have.” In the very limited time he has been on-campus, Eaton was able to bring in one new player.

When asked what is different about being a first-time head coach, Eaton said that as an assistant, “you make suggestions and can put ideas out there. When you move over a chair to the head coaching position, you have to think about your vision for the team and how larger decisions put your stamp on the program. Even smaller decisions can make a ripple that helps set the tone for the program and its success.”

So what does the new coach think a successful first season would look like for the Purple Knights? “Instilling the work ethic and winning mindset with the players is key,” according to Eaton. “If we arrive in September 2020 with returning players in better shape and with a winning mindset, we will be in a much better place. Games aren’t won in the 2 ½ hours of practice time. They are won with the commitment you make in your personal time. Players shooting in the gym in their off-time and training for success during the rest of the week are critical to the team’s success.”

Making strides forward from back-to-back 7-19 overall and 4-17 NE10 seasons is the challenge that Eric Eaton is working every day to meet in Vermont. And as he embarks on this new journey, he can take comfort in the fact that it all begins with a homecoming.