The small-town community of Loretto isn’t for everyone. Nestled on the western edge of the Appalachian Mountain trail that carves vertically through central Pennsylvania, the isolated, pine tree lined town of approximately 1,200 people can be a shock to the system of a high school athlete considering Saint Francis University as their next home. That much seemed apparent for the 17-year old Rob Krimmel, who at the time had a bevy of quality college institutions – Bucknell, Navy and Cornell, to name a few – vying for his talents on the hardwood.
Krimmel’s initial visit to Loretto in the spring of 1995 left much to be desired. As a high school basketball star who lived about one hour northeast in State College, Loretto was the polar opposite of a town that was home to a massive football school known as Penn State University.
“Truth be told, my first trip to Loretto I didn’t like,” Krimmel, now arguably the face of Saint Francis, ironically said before admitting, “but I was looking at all of the wrong things at that time.”
Tom McConnell, the Saint Francis head coach at the time, laughs at the notion of Krimmel coming away unimpressed with the small, private university that bestows Franciscan values. McConnell was recruiting Krimmel hard back then, given his need for a sharpshooter well versed in a Princeton style offense. But in the midst of watching the high-motored Krimmel light up the high school circuit – he finished with 1,698 career points and 164 triples at State College High – McConnell couldn’t find a single negative associated with the humble kid who came from a great family.
“He had the entire package,” McConnell said glowingly of Krimmel. “He was committed to the classroom, and just had a work ethic and sincerity about him.”
The rest, of course, was history with Krimmel committing to Saint Francis shortly after his official visit later in the fall. Tom Fox, the student-athlete who hosted Krimmel and entertained him that evening with a Rocky III viewing, vividly remembers Krimmel’s visit. It was the start of a close friendship that continues strong to this day after more than two decades. Krimmel even named his second son Thomas after McConnell and Fox.
Back then, Fox and Krimmel’s blue collar and uber competitive personalities were a natural fit. “We used to run Cresson Mountain in the preseason with Tom McConnell and my freshman year before Rob came, I broke the record,” Fox recalled of conquering the unforgiving, 2.2 mile course that ascended straight uphill. “Well then Rob Krimmel and his ten lungs show up and he just destroyed my record, it didn’t even stand for a year.”
It was this competitive mentality, as well as a close knit family atmosphere that McConnell championed, that would later serve Krimmel for years to come. As a freshman, Krimmel also met junior frontcourt star Eric Taylor, which, unbeknownst to either party at the time, was the beginning of a partnership that would be critical in restoring Saint Francis basketball.
“My relationship with Eric was I thought I worked hard when I got to college and then I met him, Sotiris Aggelou and Tom Fox and those guys and my idea of hard work was completely changed,” Krimmel said of his teammates and Taylor, a three-time NEC all-conference selection as a player.
Through humility, dedication and perseverance, Krimmel eventually earned a spot onto McConnell’s starting rotation as a sophomore and was elected co-captain as an upperclassman. Given Krimmel’s on and off-the-court attributes, it didn’t come as a surprise to his coach that he stood out as a leader among student-athletes.
“He was like a sponge and he was always the hardest worker on the floor,” McConnell, now a prominent women’s basketball coach at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, said. “He just would literally run through a brick wall for his team.”
Those upperclassmen seasons became more fruitful statistically for the 3-point marksman, as he averaged 9.3 points per game while draining more than 40 percent of his long distance attempts. As a senior, Krimmel’s 3-pointer in the final moments of the regular season’s second to last game at LIU helped the program clinch a spot in the 2000 NEC tournament.
“He hit this triple that basically won the game for us,” Fox reminished from that pivotal moment, of which he set a high ball screen for Krimmel, freeing the senior up for the open look. “I just remember us (afterwards in the locker room), tears of joy.”
But despite Krimmel’s on-the-court achievements and the litany of student-athlete awards he received during his playing days – the NEC’s 2000 Men’s Basketball Scholar-Athlete of the Year and the university’s Mr. Frankie Award perhaps as the most impressive – the shooting guard looks back most fondly on the comradery he developed over his four seasons in Loretto.
“The big thing that I remember are the relationships that I had with my teammates,” Krimmel answered when asked about his greatest memories as a player. “The atmosphere created by Coach McConnell was one that was very embracing, very family oriented.”
Little did Krimmel know that this family atmosphere, one that promoted togetherness, community service and rich Catholic values, would serve as the backbone of his recruiting philosophy in the years that followed.
In the meantime, the central Pennsylvania native graduated with a nearly perfect grade point average – Krimmel admits to getting a “B” in two classes – and would immediately take to assistant coaching after McConnell’s successor, Bobby Jones, offered him a job.
It had been several years since the Saint Francis men’s basketball program operated near the top of the Northeast Conference. The program missed out on the NEC tournament altogether in five of the previous seven seasons, a far cry from the university’s glory days in the 1990s.
As a result, the university’s leadership was eager to shift the program in a different direction in the spring of 2012. When Dr. Frank Montecalvo, Jr., a key decision maker in selecting the Red Flash’s next head coach, was brainstorming candidates with colleagues, long-time player and assistant Rob Krimmel jumped out as an obvious fit.
“He was someone we knew right away that had the background and the depth to make a difference in that program,” Montecalvo, now a Vice President for Student Development at Saint Francis, said. “He brought integrity, he brought wisdom, he brought character into our program that leached its way into every aspect of the game.”
Internally, elevating Krimmel from assistant to head coach was an easy decision, and one the Saint Francis hiring brass made swiftly. The rapid transition, however, along with the fact that Rob’s father, Bob Krimmel, was the Red Flash athletic director at the time, opened up the university to criticism within the central Pennsylvania community, particularly in the local media.
For everyone that personally knew Krimmel and the values he stood for, they understood it was only a matter of time before the media would fully appreciate why Saint Francis went in the direction that they did.
Meanwhile, Krimmel was steadfast in attempting to solve the puzzle of bringing a Saint Francis program back to prominence coming off two consecutive 20-loss seasons. He naturally reverted back to the community and faith based model that McConnell had implemented years earlier.
“When I got the job I was trying to find something that I thought I could control right off the bat, and I thought we could build relationships better than anybody else,” Krimmel said of his initial recruiting approach. “I knew I wasn’t going to out X and O Howie Dickenman or some of the guys that were in the league at the time, so I had to find a way I think to create our niche.”
Krimmel’s first call after procuring the head coaching gig was to Taylor, who at the time was in Bonn, Germany attempting to get his player agency off the ground after a successful 12-year professional career overseas. For Taylor, dropping everything in Germany and heading back to Loretto gave him no hesitation whatsoever. The phone call was, in a way, meant to be.
“It was like a dream come true to come back and coach,” Taylor said when asked about that phone call. “It was something that I never thought I’d do after leaving Saint Francis in 1998, but the fact that me and Rob stayed in touch, it was almost like something that was developing over the years.”
Despite the new coaching staff’s tenacity and optimism, things remained rough in the early going, exacerbated by a couple of high profile players transferring out of the program in Krimmel’s first two offseasons as the program bearer. Losses continued to pile up – there were 39 setbacks in Krimmel’s first 47 games to be exact – yet everyone stayed the course, using their gym rat mentality and love and knowledge of the Saint Francis community to their advantage.
Eventually, the closely knit Red Flash squad turned things around, concluding the 2013-14 campaign by winning 7 of their last 13 contests. Of the triumphs, there was none bigger than the program’s road win in the NEC tournament quarterfinals over Bryant, the number-3 seed rife with accomplished veterans such as Dyami Starks, Alex Francis and Corey Maynard. The victory, widely considered to this day as one of the biggest upsets in NEC tournament history, turned heads and got the Red Flash noticed.
“It’s such a powerful emotion when you get a locker room to believe in each other, to believe in the coaches,” Krimmel said of his feelings after the victory. “That emotion is hard to describe and don’t know that there’s any formula for it.”
That pivotal season was also highlighted by the Red Flash’s commitment to community outreach and service which provided examples for the players to live by. Krimmel is clear in crediting Jorden McClure, a “signee” to the program as part of the university’s Team IMPACT initiative, for providing inspiration and hope for his team starting in what turned out to be a critical second season.
Since that fateful night in Smithfield, the Red Flash have continued their linear progression to the point where they are an annual league contender. Even more so now, the coaching staff is loaded with people who had prior ties to Saint Francis basketball, such as former all-conference guard Umar Shannon, Tom McConnell’s son and former Red Flash football player Luke McConnell and, of course, Taylor. Employing a staff that intimately knows the specifics of the Loretto community has been critical toward creating an atmosphere that players from all walks of life can fall in love with.
“We come from very different backgrounds,” Krimmel said of himself, Taylor and Shannon. “We come from very different high school situations. We come from very different parts of the country, but we all fell in love with this place.”
In building a squad that values the community in every sense, through athletics, academics and community outreach, Loretto has also become a bastion for the alumni to come back to. Fox, who lives nearby in Altoona and is a social studies teacher for its high school, is one of the regulars who frequently makes his way back to campus.
“I’ve had a lot of friends that played Division I ball, and not many of them have that sense of community,” Fox said. “(Saint Francis does) the alumni newsletter, we’ve done alumni get-togethers and Rob is very much in tune with that and that comes from Coach (McConnell).”
“He’s done a great job evaluating talent,” Anthony Latina, the Sacred Heart head coach and friend of Krimmel, said. “Whether it was Jamaal King, or (Keith) Braxton, or (Isaiah) Blackmon, those guys are really buying into the team concept and I think that is a credit to him and how he has built his program.”
A lot has been accomplished by Krimmel and company in his eight seasons leading the Red Flash, and there’s still work to do, with the team eying the NCAA tournament as its ultimate on-the-court goal. But the relationships and sense of community Krimmel has been able to garner, as well as developing young men into graduates, has been something that gives the Saint Francis coach tremendous pride.
“I want our guys to be remembered as great players, and that’s our challenge we are basketball coaches we want to develop great players, but at the end of it I want them to be remembered as even better people,” he said, before adding, “It’s been a fun ride so far and it’s been neat to see the program go in the direction that we all want it to go and keep it going in that direction.”
And to think that the kid from State College needed time to warm up to Loretto. Now, he’s Mister Saint Francis University.