Friar Basketball

Friarbasketball’s Postseason Catch-up with Ed Cooley


It has been fourteen months since Ed Cooley came and flipped the Providence College press conference on its head.  In the fifteen years since the Friars last went on an NCAA Tournament run, Providence fans had heard all about the limitations of the program – and they heard about it time and again.  Providence is a small school in a massive conference.  There isn’t the local talent base.  They play in an off-campus arena.  The campus isn’t diverse enough.  Some of the facilities could use an upgrade.  You can’t get top 50 kids to come to Providence.

The message from nearly every head coach at Providence post-Rick Pitino was not so subtle, but abundantly clear: don’t blame me for the shortcomings of the school.

The excuses ceased the day Cooley stepped up to that podium as the new head coach of the Friars.  Perhaps even more refreshing than his vow to bring Big East and National Championships to Providence was his own not-so-subtle message: I don’t want to hear what you don’t have, but what you do.

For a fan base that has waited fifteen years to see an NCAA Tournament win, and been told throughout that they have expected too much of their head coaches, what was most encouraging wasn’t that Cooley broke records at Fairfield, or any X’s and O’s he might have drawn up in the past, but that Providence finally had a coach who wasn’t afraid of high expectations — he set them.

Fourteen months later, Craig and I had the opportunity to sit down with Cooley to get his thoughts on the past season and take a look ahead towards what many believe will be brighter days for the Friars.

In a job that many coaches said wore them down mentally after a while, nothing has changed outwardly for the current head coach.  And like his initial press conference last April, you leave his office knowing you just spoke with someone who doesn’t have a shred of doubt that the expectations he initially set will be met one day.

Cooley knew that when he took over, this was a process, one that started with changing the mindset of this group, both on and off the court.  On the court, he believes the mentality is changing, “Our style of coaching is about [instilling] toughness. We fear no one, but we will respect everyone.  We will coach intensity.  We will coach fearlessness.  Teamwork, intensity, playing with a chip on your shoulder — that’s part of the coaching brand we want to have here.  Some people have it, others have to be taught it.

You look at Bryce Cotton for example.  Cotton made 14 threes on the year last year, and then he goes and makes 77 his sophomore year.  We coach confidence, we coach swag — not arrogance.  We want you to walk on that floor like you belong with anybody in America.  It doesn’t matter who we’re playing.  And some kids just need to be told they’re good.”

Yet, how much of that can you instill in a player versus it being inherent, I wondered.  Can you teach toughness?  “It’s just like a lesson plan.  Teachers have a lesson plan.  Our practice plan has ‘coach confidence’ every day on it.  And then you have to follow up on that.  When kids make a mistake, what is the reaction of the coaches?  There are going to be times when coaches are upset, but it’s how you’re upset that makes the difference.  I can be upset at you and say ‘I know you’re better than that’ versus ‘you [stink].’  There’s a message in there: ‘I believe in you; play at the level I know you can play at.’ ”

Playing at their peak came and went for a Friar team that, to the surprise of few, won only four Big East games a season ago.  Yet, Cooley believes this group was a break or two away from three or four more wins.  His ability to instantly recall the specific plays that led to losses in each is either the result of a coach who has watched and re-watched these games, or spent a lot of sleepless nights wondering what could have been.

How did they blow a 19 point lead at Villanova?  “I did an awful job coaching in that one.”

The loss to West Virginia in overtime?  “Make a free throw or grab a rebound and that game’s over.”

It didn’t help against South Florida that the Friars were victims of “the worst call in the history of college basketball” according to the coach.  Hyperbole, maybe, but when he spent the next few moments explaining how South Florida’s Ron Anderson “flopped like someone shot him” and the follow out from that play, you got the sense that for as much game film as he watches, there have been more than a few sleepless nights wondering what might have been.


Changing a Culture

For all of the details he shared about games from Bryant in December to Big East wins and losses in late February, Cooley spoke proudly of the steps made in re-branding a program that just a year prior was a borderline embarrassment off the court.  Cynics could say “borderline” may not even be a necessity there.

Between multiple arrests, academic issues, mass transfers, de-committing recruits, and losing an ace recruiter to a conference rival, only to replace him with one who faced allegations of asking players to throw games, it’s easy to overlook just how quickly Cooley has reshaped the image of a program that badly needed a leader.

“You hope to build a brand for yourself and your school where people see positive change.  You look at just our academic side, because I’m a big believer that these young men need to graduate and not just have one degree, but they probably need multiple degrees when you look at the ever-evolving global economy and the competitiveness in the workplace right now.

If you’re not a professional player, you’re going to need a professional job.  Those are the culture changes that we are talking about.  This is the first time in many years, knock on wood, that our players are in a great academic situation where summer school is not used as an enhancement, but a place where they can get ahead a bit.

Our grade point average has jumped tremendously in a nine- to ten-month span.  I’m appreciative and thankful of our staff for staying on top of our players and keeping them accountable.”

It’s a staff that he raved about when asked more about them.  “I put my assistants before me.  I feel we have four head coaches on our staff and they do a phenomenal job.  We have guys who have been around the block and seen a lot of basketball.  Obviously, Andre being the most recognizable having won national championships.

Brian Blaney was basically born on a basketball court, and he has great knowledge and an ability to connect.  Bob Simon is a terrific recruiter and is great to have in practice.

Kevin Kurbec knows Providence College as well as anybody at the school, and Mike Jackson has fifteen years recruiting experience at really good schools in Purdue, Michigan and Dayton.

So, I think our staff is well rounded.  We all have a hunger because when we win here they all become head coaches.  And that’s a great parallel to what we went through at Boston College. Al Skinner told us when we win this thing our whole staff will become head coaches.”

And they all did, with Tim O’Shea taking over at Ohio before landing at Bryant, Bill Coen leading Northeastern, and Cooley at PC.

Like at BC when Skinner and Cooley started there in the late-’90s Providence is in the middle of its own rebuilding plan.  Are there similarities to be drawn there?  “The parallel is when we went to Boston College, we were picked last on numerous occasions and had to dig from the bottom up.  We are in the same situation here.  What I think is more unique about this place is Providence has a lot more passion and basketball tradition and is supported as the main sport as not only our school, but our state.  So the coverage that we get night in and night out puts added pressure on the head coach, but at the same time helps get added exposure.”


Reshaping a Roster

Where Cooley has made the biggest splash in Year 1 has been on the recruiting trail, with long-range sniper Josh Fortune (Kecoughtan, VA), 6’11 Wake Forest transfer Carson Desrosiers (Windham, NH), and Arizona transfer Sidki Johnson (New York, NY) complimenting McDonald’s All American Kris Dunn (New London, CT) and Providence native Ricardo Ledo, perhaps the most talented scorer in the class of 2012.

As Providence transitions from stabilizing itself off the court and in the classroom to looking towards results on the floor, Cooley knows that recruiting, and recruiting future professionals, is going to lift Providence from the bottom rung of the Big East. “You always want to swing and try to get a pro.  How many Final Four teams, National Championship teams have not had multiple pros?

If you’re going to compete for it all you’re going to need pros.  I thought the best team I ever coached was Boston College the year I left.  There were four pros on that team.  And unfortunately, Villanova hits a shot with three seconds left to beat us in Minneapolis.  Sean Wiliams was on that team. Jared Dudley was on that team.  Craig Smith was on that team.  Sean Marshall, Tyrese Rice, Louis Hinnant — those guys are all playing for significant money right now.”

When speaking about the kind of young man it would take to help rebuild, Cooley noted, “It takes a courageous kid to come in and help you try to build a program.  In the long run you want to get kids who are two, three, four year producers.  If you can do that you’re going to have sustainability.”

Does that mean Cooley would be against one-and-done types?  It sounded as though it was circumstantial, “If you look at a lot of programs who have taken one-and-done guys who are at the level we’re at, it’s difficult to sustain success.  I think Georgia Tech is a classic example of that in the ACC during Paul Hewitt’s tenure.  Paul did an unbelievable job.  Unbelievable recruiter and coach, but when you look at the one-and-dones he had, it’s hard to sustain that level of performance.”

An “out with the old, in with the new” mentality exists for most fans of college basketball teams coming off of a subpar season, and Providence is certainly no exception to that.  Players who fans clamored for when they were in high school are just as easily dismissed as their predecessors by fans who most likely have never seen the next-in-line recruit that they are penciling in for big minutes as a freshman.

The dynamic is different in Friartown this year, however, as both Dunn and Ledo have received multiple All American honors this year.  Dunn is widely regarded as a top two or three point guard in the class of 2012; ditto for Ledo at the offguard spot.

It’s ironic that Providence just celebrated the 1997 team, a group that struggled to meld the old guard with a talented new wave of recruits for much of the season, prior to coming together late and making it to the cusp of the Final Four.

The current players aren’t deaf.  Nearly every time Providence was on television recently a graphic flashed highlighting ESPN’s recruiting rankings of a class that is the best, on paper, that PC has seen in 20 years.

Yes, there will be far greater depth in 2012-13, but an underrated challenge for Cooley will be blending together the old guard with the recruiting class they’ve assuredly heard so much about.

How does Cooley plan on doing so?

“You’ve got to be consistent in your message in how to integrate the new with the veterans.  The veterans will get you over the hump.  The freshmen are going to make a lot of mistakes.

First, they have to learn how to go to school.  They have to learn how to be a student-athlete.  They have to understand what is it to go to class, what is it to be in front of a microphone all the time, what is it to sustain a high level of intensity in practice all the time.  Making sure you understand the mission of our school.  Those things are hard to learn.

You have to educate them on that, whereas your sophomores, juniors and seniors have been through it.  They [the newcomers] have to get familiar with all that and then they pick it up again.  So, there will be a transition there.

Someone has to have a number next to their name.  Congratulations, we’ve got a couple of them, but that doesn’t make them any better or worse than anyone.  That’s just someone recognizing them for the talent they have today.  Once they come to college those numbers don’t mean a doggone thing.  And I’m going to play our best players.”

And Cooley has a returning core that he believes took to what he and his staff were trying to accomplish in his first year.  “I’m really proud of how our group shaped up versus what I heard on the outside coming to take over a program.  Yes, there are some challenges in every program, especially when change is made.  I didn’t recruit 99% of the kids on the team, so to get them to buy in — some did, some didn’t — but to be able to compete at the level we did all year — I think we probably had three hiccups, and every other game we were in — that’s a credit to them because we had a limited rotation.”


Craig will soon write the second, and final, part of our sit-down with Cooley.  Expect to see that in the coming days.

Email Kevin at


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