By JONAH BRONSTEIN
Niagara Gazette — Jimmy Patsos took his team to visit Niagara Falls on Friday, an off day tradition for the Loyola Greyhounds during their annual "Buffalo trip" to play Canisius and Niagara.
It's uncertain if or when that tradition will continue.
The grand realignment in college sports hit the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference last summer when Loyola announced it was leaving for the Patriot League following this academic year.
The Greyhounds, who joined the MAAC in 1989 with Niagara, Canisius, and Siena, will be the first team to leave the men's basketball league since LaSalle in 1992.
The MAAC has already chosen Quinnipiac and Monmouth to fill the void left by Loyola, but it will be hard for the new schools to replace the tradition and competition the Greyhounds provided, and nearly impossible for them to replace the animated and outspoken Patsos.
"It's very bittersweet," Patsos said this week. "The Patriot League is a great league for Loyola University, but the MAAC was also a great league for us. Our commissioner, Rich Ensor, has done an amazing job."
"I hate seeing them go," said Niagara coach Joe Mihalich, who has been coaching in the MAAC since its inception in 1983, first as a LaSalle assistant. "They were a perfect fit for our league."
Patsos said a stronger academic reputation, easier travel, closer rivals, and better competition in some non-revenue sports made the Patriot League a better fit for Loyola, even if the conference is generally rated lower than the MAAC in men's basketball.
Boston University will also be joining the Patriot League, which currently consists of American, Bucknell, Colgate, Lafayette, Lehigh, Navy and former MAAC members Holy Cross and Army.
"It is an honor to join the Patriot League's distinguished member institutions, all of which consistently demonstrate a profound commitment to excellence both in the classroom and on the field," said the Rev. Brian F. Linnane, S.J., Loyola's president, in a news release. "That commitment is one we share at Loyola, and we see this move as a vital opportunity to continue to elevate our already outstanding athletics programs in keeping with our goal of becoming the nation's leading Catholic, comprehensive university."
Loyola won't play any non-conference games against MAAC teams next year, Patsos said, but he hopes to start a home-and-home series with Niagara in the future.
Patsos said he is "completely sad" that he will no longer make an annual trip to Buffalo, where he has grown fond of Kleinhans Music Hall, E.B. Green's Steakhouse, the various delis and pizzerias on and around Chippewa Street, locals complaining about the Bills and Sabres, and the intense games in the Koessler and Gallagher Centers.
"I love Jimmy Patsos," Mihalich said. "We're going to miss him. We're sad to see him go. It's what you'd call a business decision. He's a good friend, he's a great coach. Love his passion and his enthusiasm."
"Joe is the elder statesman of this league," Patsos said. "He's a great, great coach and I always go to him for advice."
For a few hours today, however, the two coaches won't be singing each other's praises as their teams meet at 3 p.m. in the Gallagher Center.
Niagara has won 10 straight MAAC games after knocking off Iona on Thursday — a streak that started with a win at Loyola on Dec. 5 — but can't afford a home loss in its quest to win the regular season conference championship.
Loyola, the defending champion and preseason favorite, has lost consecutive games to Canisius to fall into fourth place.
"The championship still goes through Iona and Loyola," Mihalich said Thursday. "They are the two teams that went to the NCAA tournament last year, so I consider them like co-champions. And until somebody else goes, they are the teams to beat."