James Mooney didn’t think he’d be back at Mount Saint Vincent after a one-year stint as an assistant coach in 2014.
That cameo appearance came after a storied four-year career as the star of Mount’s men’s basketball team between 2002 and 2006 when Mooney put together an impressive basketball resume that saw him leave the Dolphins as the school’s all-time leading scorer with 1,793 points.
But his career came and went without achieving the one thing he wanted most — a Skyline Conference championship and a trip to the NCAA tournament.
“I never even got close to winning a Skyline title as a player, and it was extremely frustrating,” Mooney said.
But now Mooney is back for another shot at the title, this time as the new head coach at Mount. And he couldn’t be happier.
“It’s almost like a dream come true,” Mooney said. “The fact that I got a college job and it being at my alma mater is special. I couldn’t embrace a challenge more.”
A Skyline championship is something The Mount hasn’t achieved since 1997, and the school couldn’t reach it during Mooney’s days because of the turnover in the job he has now.
“I had three coaches in four years, so there was a lot of turmoil,” Mooney said. “And with all the changeover, there was no culture set for us. So coming in here as a coach, I can instill that. I can instill a winning mindset, a winning culture, and really have more of a hand in the success of this program than I could as a player.”
Mooney — who was the head coach at Rye Neck High School the past two seasons after a professional career that took him to Ireland, England and Switzerland — inherits a team that went 8-17 overall last year and just 6-10 in the Skyline Conference. And although the Dolphins were picked eighth in the conference’s preseason poll, Mooney is excited to be getting his hands on the program and building it in his image.
“I told the guys we don’t deserve anything more than that, being eighth,” Mooney said. “We haven’t won here for awhile, and there’s a new coach now. What do you expect? You got to go out and earn the respect. No one is going to hand it to you.
“But I think we’ll be much better than people expect. I think we have a good strong unit.“
The Dolphins welcome Division II transfer Raiquis Harris, as well as the return of two of the team’s top three scorers from a year ago — Ammad Alkhulaidi and Andrew Curiel. But it’s his senior leadership that Mooney thinks could be the difference this season.
“I really enjoy our team,” he said. “They’re very close-knit, and our seniors are taking on roles that we didn’t even ask them to. Jose Maestre, he’s our senior point guard, and he has been a great mentor to Makai Johnson. They put their egos aside and they make our team better.
“You talk about a brotherhood and family and stuff, but that’s what I’m truly seeing from them, which is very impressive.”
The Dolphins are off to a 1-1 start this season, but it’s Nov. 30 Mooney has circled on his calendar. That will mark his first home game as head coach.
“I think that one I’ll be nervous for,” Mooney said. “I always thought with home games there was more pressure because all your friends are there and all your family is there.
Oh, about that family. The Mooney clan is about to expand a bit right around that home opener as Mooney’s wife Danielle is due to deliver the couple’s second child. And as much as he relishes the role as father to Kara, 2, Mooney hopes his home debut doesn’t come along with a home addition.
“I told my wife we play Yeshiva (Dec. 2) and you’re due Dec. 3, so don’t you dare play games with me,” Mooney said, laughing. “I got three games that week. Don’t you dare. I’m begging here, please don’t. These are two big conference games.”
Whenever the new Mooney addition comes along, it will just add to the good times the new coach is enjoying at his alma mater — A place he wasn’t sure he’d ever return to just a few seasons ago.
“I love this job,” Mooney said. “This is college basketball. This is athletics. It’s not a 9-to-5 job. I get to recruit the kids that I want and create relationships that could last a lifetime.
“There’s nothing more satisfying than being a coach or a teacher. There’s something about creating such a positive impact on someone’s life that’s so meaningful. I couldn’t be happier. I really and truly couldn’t.”