Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Cooley High Harmony

Providence native Ed Cooley meets the media after being introduced as new head coach of Friars earlier today. (Photo courtesy of Providence Journal)

It is always exciting to see the beginning of a new era. From being able to introduce yourself to new people, to the promise of what lies ahead; there is a sense of optimism and eager anticipation of a bright future, and nothing can stand in its way. I was fortunate to be on hand at my alma mater of St. John's one year ago when Steve Lavin was introduced as the new leader of the Red Storm, and the one thing that stood out to me was how much Lavin embraced his new basketball family in Queens and wanted to be there to return the Johnnies to their former glory. One year later, Lavin has done exactly that after guiding St. John's to a 21-12 record highlighted by the Red Storm's first NCAA Tournament appearance in nine years.

Today, a new era started a few hours to the north of "Daly Dose" headquarters, as Providence College introduced their replacement to Keno Davis in a press conference that marked the same optimism and excitement that I was able to experience personally upon meeting Steve Lavin last year. Providence native Ed Cooley officially joined the Friars as their fifteenth head man in school history after five years at Fairfield where he took a program that had been panned by critics and insiders and turned it into the class of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, departing with a regular season MAAC championship and second round appearance in the National Invitation Tournament.

Upon hearing that the Cooley hire had become official last night, I immediately tried to find out as much as I can about the new leader in Rhode Island in order to start preparing for what will be my first interview with Cooley at Big East media day this coming October inside Madison Square Garden. Right away, the first person I reached out to was my friend Bob Heussler, the WFAN update anchor I had the pleasure of working with as an intern back in 2007 and 2008. Heussler is of course the radio play-by-play voice of Fairfield basketball, so I knew right away that he had a great deal of contact with the new coach at PC. When I e-mailed Heussler last night to get a feel for what kind of a person (never mind coach) he was, he offered this response:

"He's not a good guy. He's a GREAT guy."

Within minutes of watching Cooley's press conference today, (credit goes to the PC athletic office and CBS College Sports for streaming it free on friars.com) I was convinced that Bob Heussler said it best. Cooley seemed to hit all the right notes in his opening statement, an introductory speech in which the 41-year-old Ocean Stater said he wasn't "running from Fairfield University;" but rather sprinting home to the place where grew up in the inner city as one of nine children raised by a single mother.

Cooley comes to Providence in a move that also raises the diversity level in the strongest conference in college basketball. The native son of Providence is the Friars' first-ever African-American head coach, and joins Stan Heath, Oliver Purnell and John Thompson III as the fourth coach of color in the Big East. Based on my initial impression of him, Cooley definitely has the affability and humility possessed by Heath and a rich resume similar to Purnell's in that Cooley was an assistant under Al Skinner at both Rhode Island and Boston College before landing in Fairfield back in 2006. It should only be a matter of time before he reaches the success level enjoyed by Thompson, just four years removed from a Final Four appearance with Georgetown in 2007.

Before introducing the guest of honor, Providence athletic director Bob Driscoll and president Rev. Brian Shanley discussed their process of finding the right candidate to replace Davis, who had replaced Tim Welsh after a phenomenal first year at Drake in which he led the Bulldogs to a Top 15 ranking out of the Missouri Valley Conference and a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The top quality in the minds of Driscoll and Shanley was someone who could be "a coach in life" before being a coach on the hardwood. Said Driscoll of exactly what he desired: "I wanted somebody who had built something out of nothing. More importantly, his players love him and they respect him."

Coming from Italian heritage, I will tell you that respect, honor and pride are probably the greatest qualities that our culture values; so if I need to make an assessment as to how Cooley will fare at Providence, I will say that it looks like a solid choice made by Providence. Let's not forget the other Big East program in New England that hired a rising upstart from a mid-major in Boston back in 1986. Twenty-five years and two national championships later, Jim Calhoun has become a legend after leaving Northeastern to turn the University of Connecticut into one of the greatest college basketball programs in the nation. I'm not saying Cooley will take Providence to UConn's level right away; but if the chips fall in the right places, the "marriage" the new coach referred to today will be a happy one for a long time. Not only has Cooley already restored hope to a school that was at one time among the class of the Big East under coaches the likes of Rick Pitino, Rick Barnes and Pete Gillen; he already has fans dreaming big with him after saying the following:

"Not only will we win here, we're going to win and we're going to win big."

Now there's another man Charlie Sheen should take lessons from when he says he is winning.

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