Ed Cooley receives Big East championship trophy after his Friars emerged unlikely winners at Madison Square Garden. (Photo courtesy of Jaden Daly)
Before anything else is said, the significance of the first championship in the restructured Big East Conference having been won by Providence College, whose former coach and athletic director, the late great Dave Gavitt, was the visionary responsible for organizing what has come to be recognized as the best pound-for-pound college basketball conference in the nation, should not be lost on anyone. In many ways, such a victory for the Friars should be interpreted as Gavitt's blessing for the league to survive on its own as a strictly basketball-oriented group, one whose quality may have gotten worse on paper, but proved to be just as strong on the hardwood.
Such divine intervention was not lost on his latest successor to the Friar kingdom, a man who traveled a long and winding road to get to where he sat shortly after 11 p.m. on Saturday night, inside a packed press room inside the bowels of Madison Square Garden.
"I hear Coach Gavitt," Ed Cooley began, "and I say, 'Thank God for him. Thank God for his vision. Thank God for what he's done for basketball in general."
The new generation of Providence fans may now be very well saying similar things about Cooley, who "sprinted home," in his own words, to take over a program that Keno Davis had run into the ground while Cooley had been building Fairfield from the ground up into a postseason participant. In three years, Cooley has already taken the Friars to two tournaments, first an NIT last season before his crowning moment Saturday night, while having to battle numerous issues both on and off the court, from lack of depth, to prized recruit Kris Dunn suffer two separate shoulder injuries in as many years, to highly touted prospects Ricky Ledo and Brandon Austin never even playing a single game in a Providence uniform due to incidents away from the hardwood.
Yet here he was, much more svelte than in recent years thanks to his offseason workout regimen, soaking in all the rewards of a journey that, at times, may have seemed longer than his 44 years of life.
"It means a lot," Cooley intonated, speaking from the heart when asked of the significance of Providence's first Big East championship since 1994. "It brings me back to where I was. I remember where I was sitting, I remember where I was standing. I remember being so excited for Providence College."
With a six-man rotation that unleashed its inner warriors while playing a zone defense that stymied Creighton and essentially took all-world superstar Doug McDermott out of his game in the first half, Providence had built a 26-17 lead going into the locker room, but the margin, much like the Friar roster, seemed to remain small.
"We may be small," Cooley reminded the media gathered in attendance, "but small is big in my world. If opportunity's knocking at the door, we don't want to ask who it is. We want to kick the door down and own the other side."
Own it, they did, even after an 8-2 Creighton run that trimmed the Friars' lead from 10 points with 9:04 remaining to just four a mere five and a half minutes later. Providence still owned the opportunity even after McDermott took matters into his own hands in the final three minutes with a pair of threes from Little Italy that brought the Bluejays back within two. Four straight points from LaDontae Henton, Cooley's first recruit after taking the job, closed the deal and returned the conference championship back to its birthplace for the first time since Rick Barnes was coaching on Federal Hill, back when Michael Smith was the center of attention, before Shammgod, before Croshere, before Gomes.
Now it is Cooley who stands atop the mountain, reaching a summit he admittedly was shocked to ascend.
"I've got to pinch myself," he stated, "because I can't believe this is the first time I'm going to the NCAA Tournament as a head coach. It's been eight long years to get to that blue carpet, and I feel gratitude to the school that gave me the opportunity to come home and coach their organization."
"I am so, so thrilled to be called a Big East champion," Cooley concluded, to a standing ovation from the throng of media assembled.
Providence fans are as well, and everyone around the Big East should be also. There truly are not many more deserving, or more of an embodiment of a winner than the man who received a testimonial that was long overdue.