Riding along I-91 in Connecticut in a charter bus en route to the team’s next opponent, Andy Toole just seems like one of the guys. He trades jabs with the players and other coaches. He scrolls through his Twitter feed to see what’s trending. He shares memories from his own playing days with the University of Pennsylvania.
But then, as we arrive at the gym for the team’s scheduled practice, something changes. Suddenly it’s all business. “Let’s go!” he says to the players as they scramble to get changed and get out on the court. “Get your energy up! It’s time to work!”
Toole’s passion for his job is unmistakable. As head coach of the Robert Morris University men’s basketball program, his intense competitiveness, which helped him find success as a player, now drives him to be the best coach he can be. Intelligent beyond his years, he sees and hears everything, and he can analyze and adapt to situations in a flash. He is the thinking man’s coach, even at the tender age of 33.
“I know how fortunate I am to have an opportunity like this at my age,” says Toole. “I’m thankful for that, and I try to show my appreciation through my passion and my commitment to the team.”
Toole learned a lot from his coaches during his own playing days and also from those he’s worked with over the years. But feels his particular coaching style is unique. “I’ve had some good and bad coaches,” he says. “And I’ve learned from both.”
One advantage is that, at his age, he can still remember his college career clearly and honestly. “The further you get away from those times, the more you start to think you were perfect, when, in actuality, you really weren’t. I can relate to what his players are going through. I made mistakes like anyone else, and I learned from them. I try to relay that knowledge onto my players.”
Toole is the first to admit that his passion causes him to be a little hard on his players at times. And that’s just fine with him. “Sometimes I’ll try to get under a player’s skin in order to motivate them, if I feel that’s what will work for that particular person. Each player is different. Maybe I’m a little harder on the younger guys, but everyone’s got to show their level of commitment. I’m tough on you until you can prove your worth; your commitment to the team. The older guys understand what needs to be done. It’s a maturation process, really.”
He also encourages player leadership, believing that some things are more meaningful when they come from teammates rather than from “the guy who ruins their day every day.” “It has a lasting effect,” he says. “The best teams police themselves.”
When he’s recruiting new players, Toole says he tries to have energy and intensity, and he lets them know that he will be brutally honest with them. “I’m realistic with my players about their strengths and weaknesses. My parents didn’t sugar-coat things, and that’s how I run my program, too.” He also lets recruits know that he will care about them and be relentless in coaching them, both on and off the court. “I’ll push them to be the very best person they can be, even though they won’t always like it.”
Take Gary Wallace ’11, for example, a former player of Toole’s who’s now playing for the Tromso Storm in Norway. Wallace has sent thank-you emails to his former coach, saying that it wasn’t until he graduated that he really understood what Toole was trying to do teach him. “My players might not understand what I’m saying or doing until five or ten years down the road,” says Toole. “I just make sure to tell them the important stuff over and over and over—that’s what my coaches did for me.”
And he isn’t just talking about basketball. Toole tries to show his players how to be successful not only on the court but in life as well. “I always tell them, if you treat people well and if you work hard, you’ll have a good chance at being successful in anything you try.”
And they already are.
Velton Jones ’13 was a star guard for the Colonials. “Coach Toole is a very intense coach,” says Jones. “Demanding. A real player’s coach and someone you love to play for. He knows how to get everything out of you and push you to your limit. He’s very loyal. He wants to treat you like a man; he’s not going to baby you. He will help you, but he lets you do your own thing and will guide you in the right way. He’s a great guy.”
Chris Shovlin, RMU’s play-by-play announcer for 28 years now, has one word to describe Toole: intelligent. “Andy is really, really sharp,” says Shovlin. “Andy doesn’t miss a trick. He’s wide awake. It’s amazing how much he knows about his players.”
As for his legacy, Toole says he’d love to have great success and maybe even coach in a Final Four one day. But more important, he wants to be remembered as a coach who cared for his players and pushed them to be their very best. “ESPN analyst Jay Bilas played under Coach Krzyzewski at Duke, and he said that he and the other players ‘got Coach K’s best, every single day.’ That’s what I’d like my players to say about me.”
Written by Valentine J. Brkich