PROVIDENCE – It’s just not the players who burn with desire, clamoring to face the very best. Coaches too relish the opportunity to match wits and strategies whenever there’s a noted leader of the pack residing in the opposite corner.
Ed Cooley duly noted said sentiment. The softhearted nature of the normally intense Providence College head coach flowed easily from his lips like a river as Cooley expressed wishes that legendary Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun stood some 30 feet away from him on the Dunkin’ Donuts Center sideline Tuesday night. The 69-year-old Calhoun, who missed his eighth consecutive game and remains on an extended medical leave of absence, underwent successful surgery Monday to address a spinal condition.
“I’m a big Jim Calhoun fan for what he’s done for college basketball both nationally but more importantly of what he’s done regionally,” Cooley said. “I hope I can have any type of success that Jim has had and learn something from it.”
Cooley’s respect and admiration for the Hall of Fame coach goes beyond set-in-stone facts such as himself and Calhoun at one time waging hardwood battles within the same Nutmeg State confines. In the five seasons Cooley served as the lead coach at Fairfield, he faced Connecticut twice, both times the Huskies romping to lopsided victories –74-49 on Nov. 18, 2006 and 75-55 on Dec. 26, 2008.
Truthfully, the trait Cooley most admires when asked about Calhoun is how his UConn-led teams take the floor with a sense of pride and purpose. “I think he’s an unbelievable motivator; he gets those kids to play at a high level,” the PC coach said. “When you look at how he’s recruited young men over the years and developed them into his system within the concept of team, that’s saying something.”
Cooley stressed that it’s better to learn from someone in Calhoun’s position, citing that you can’t flat-out copy someone. “I don’t try to emulate anyone. I never will and I’ll never try,” he stated, conviction running deep in his tone. “I try to learn from what they do, trying to see the positives and negatives, but never will I try to emulate anyone. I think every coach has his own style that’s unique in its own way.”
Cooley says Calhoun took the time to reach out to him, offering guidance and advice when he first started out in Fairfield. To a degree the pair are cut from the same coaching cloth. Prior to transforming Connecticut into a national power, Calhoun cut his teeth at Northeastern, where success didn’t start materializing until later during his 14 seasons spent at the Boston-based school. (Northeastern had zero NCAA Tournament appearances in Calhoun’s first eight seasons with five trips to the Big Dance materializing over his final six campaigns.)
The lesson Cooley – now embarking on the next phase of his head coach endeavor – takes from Calhoun’s stint at Northeastern and the empire he’s built at UConn is that winning doesn’t happen overnight.
“When you do your research on him, it wasn’t the same UConn [when Calhoun took over the reins in 1986]. Actually it was probably the University of Connecticut. He and (women’s basketball head coach Gino) Auriemma turned it into UConn,” Cooley said. “He’s always been complimentary of the way we work, telling me to stay positive and humble. Along those lines, we’ve built a good relationship.”
Having such good terms in place between rival Big East coaches is reflective in the makeup of Cooley’s staff. Brian Blaney, a PC assistant who also served in a similar capacity under Cooley at Fairfield, is the son of Connecticut associate head coach George Blaney. Then there’s the case of PC associate head coach Andre LaFleur. He played for Calhoun at Northeastern in addition to spending 10 years in various coaching capacities at UConn.
“A lot of ties, a lot of familiarity,” Cooley noted. “At the same time, when the ball goes up, no one’s related. We all want to win.”
With each passing medical deterrent, the question of whether Calhoun will step aside only intensifies. Neither school officials nor the coach himself have suggested anything to the contrary, meaning Calhoun might finally earn the title of senior dean amongst Big East coaches – depending on when Jim Boeheim and Syracuse shift to the ACC.
“Jim has seen it all,” Cooley said. “One thing we can do as coaches is control what we can control, which is our players and giving them vision. However the Big East breaks up and however the teams come and go, that’s something for (league commissioner) John Marinatto to worry about. I’m worried about Providence College, but Jim Calhoun has done a phenomenal job. He’s a Hall of Famer for a reason.”