If Dominique Buckley had chosen to leave town, most everyone would have understood.
Staring at sanctions from a mess he played no role in creating, the University of Toledo senior guard was presented with a free pass this offseason to transfer to another Division I program and be eligible to play immediately.
There was a second choice, a less appealing one, but one he preferred: Stay, absorb the punishment handed down by the NCAA, and remain faithful to the program during the healing process.
In addressing Buckley’s commitment, Toledo coach Tod Kowalczyk delivered a poignant, 107-word response that will forever best describe the faithfulness exhibited by his only senior and his only captain.
“I certainly have never had the feelings I have for Dominique that I’ve ever had in the past, and I don’t think I’ll ever coach somebody in the future that I feel more indebted to,” Kowalczyk said Monday after the team’s first practice.
“He [Buckley] had a lot of reasons to leave and nobody would have blamed him. And very few reasons to stay. He stayed because of his love for this community and his loyalty and love for our institution and our basketball program. As long as I’m coaching he’ll be one of my all-time favorites because I’m extremely indebted for what he has done for this program and the loyalty he has shown.”
Whew, that was intense.
Buckley, who will start at shooting guard, is at peace with the reality he will never experience the exhilaration of participating in the NCAA tournament. The high point of his college career might well be the one win the Rockets notched in last year’s CollegeInsider.com postseason tournament. In his first two years at Iowa State Buckley made it to the postseason once, losing in the opening round of the Big 12 tournament.
“Very happy to see him stay,” junior forward Rian Pearson said. “I’m impressed and I respect him for staying and sticking with it because we’re going to need him this year.”
Another teammate, Curtis Dennis, exercised the transfer provision afforded to all rising seniors and is now at Iona.
Buckley said his former AAU coach contacted him about transferring to Providence but that the phone call was brief.
"I decided to stay because I love it here,” he said. “I love the city, I love the coaching staff, and I love the players. The coaching staff took a chance when I came over here and I wanted to stay loyal to them because they were so good to me.”
Buckley has issues with the penalties administered by the NCAA, noting that no players or coaches still with the program were around when Toledo went through a multi-year spell of poor academic scores and attrition. Beyond their exclusion from postseason, which includes the Mid-American Conference tournament, the Rockets had to wait 10 days before starting practice. Their in-season practice time was cut by four hours — or one practice per week — and they will play three fewer games.
“At first it hurt because I knew we were going to be good this year,” he said. “I knew we had a chance, but it is what it is. We’ll just take it and roll with it.”
Buckley’s college career will come to an end March 8 or 9 in the regular season finale at Eastern Michigan. His legacy at Toledo will extend much longer. Not that he is seeking validation of his decision to stay, but a regular season MAC title would be a sweet conclusion.
“We have the city behind us,” Buckley said. “We’re going to come out, play hard for everybody, and I think we’re going to have a lot of excitement around the team this year.”