Providence’s Cooley RulesPosted by Patrick Prendergast on December 12th, 2011
When Providence hired Keno Davis as head coach in April 2008 its president, Reverend Brian Shanley, called him a “Godsend.” As they say, God works in mysterious ways. While mysterious is not the word most Friar fans would use to describe Davis’ tenure, that is just what happened. Shanley turned out to be right. Just not quite as intended. Davis was a Godsend because his hire and tenure represented the mistake Shanley, along with Athletic Director Bob Driscoll and the other decision makers at Providence College, learned from. It was a painful and public lesson, but one that led to Ed Cooley.
The Friars, albeit against a soft non-conference schedule, at 9-2 are off to an encouraging start under Cooley. Providence was predicted to finish near the bottom of the Big East, and while wins and losses always matter, the overall record may not carry its customary weight this season. It is about progress. Player development is important but the cultivation of young men is paramount. It is about discipline. It is about defense. It is about bringing relevance and respect back to Providence College basketball and Ed Cooley is the face of the resurrection. Cooley’s compelling story will be recounted during virtually every Providence broadcast this season. He grew up in a tough section of Providence, seemingly raised by the neighborhood. As an All-State performer for Central High School, he won a state championship in the building where the Friars still play their home games. He was a Friar fan, aspired to wear the black and white as a player, and calls the Providence head coaching position his “dream job.”
Although he may not have known the full extent of it, Cooley knew he was inheriting a program in shambles. In his first season, Keno Davis took a veteran team comprised of Tim Welsh recruits to an expectation-meeting 19-14 campaign that included a win over #1 Pittsburgh and was capped off by a loss to Miami in the first round of the NIT. It was the next two years that exposed Davis’ shortcomings as a coach, and more importantly. as a leader. On the court the Friars put up back-to-back 4-14 Big East records and became a defensive laughingstock, giving up 75.3 and 82.2 points per game over the last two years. They put up similarly swollen numbers on offense (75.8 and 82.4 PPG) but there often appeared to be no structure or flow on offense other than to get shots up early and often.
While the play on the floor was ugly, it was like Angelina Jolie compared to what was going on outside of basketball. In April 2010 two players who had just completed disappointing freshman years, Johnnie Lacy and James Still, were arrested and subsequently expelled for the brutal beating of a fellow student in a despicable act of senseless and random violence. Then a month later, star forward Jamine ‘Greedy’ Peterson was dismissed for his participation in unspecified incidents that took place during an on-campus party. The wheels had officially fallen off of the wagon that spring but Providence retained Davis for reasons mostly believed to be financial. They had inexplicably given him an extension after the 2008-09 season, locking him up through 2015-16. In addition to the publicized disasters, it was clear there was little overall discipline under Davis’ watch as many players were rumored to have academic issues and an overall lack of comportment when it came to representing themselves and the school properly. When things did not improve last season, Providence brass decided to eat their losses and cut ties.
Cooley, then the head coach at Fairfield University, was identified early as the lead candidate. The prior search that had ultimately landed Davis was a long and arduous one, with a number of candidates such as current Miami head coach Jim Larranaga, formerly of George Mason and a Providence alumnus, and Oklahoma State’s Travis Ford, then at the University of Massachusetts, turning down the job. There was even a brief dance with former Providence coach Rick Pitino. As previously mentioned, this time around Shanley and Driscoll had learned their lesson. They were not in search of a name, nor were they looking for a tactician with only a strong X and O repertoire. Providence needed someone who could re-build and lead a program. They needed a CEO and Ed Cooley was their man. While Davis had just one year of head coaching experience at Drake prior to taking the Providence job, Cooley had a proven track record. In his five years at Fairfield, Cooley had guided the Stags to a 92-69 mark, capped off by a school-record 25 wins and an NIT bid last season. More impressively, Fairfield’s win totals increased in each of Cooley’s five years including back-to-back 20-plus win seasons.
Off the court, Cooley built a great staff at Fairfield, ultimately taking assistants Bob Simon, Brian Blaney, and Carmen Maciariello with him to Providence. Maciariello subsequently left his Director of Basketball Operations position to take an assistant coaching position at Boston University. In his first recruiting triumph, Cooley lured long-time Connecticut assistant Andre LaFleur to an associate head coach position too. LaFleur received significant publicity last spring during UConn’s National Championship run as he was widely acclaimed for the recruitment and development of star guard and championship catalyst Kemba Walker.
Coming in there were questions about Cooley as a recruiter, which seem dubious because in addition to the talented players that included Boston College transfer Rakim Sanders he brought in at Fairfield, he had ten years of experience as an assistant under Al Skinner during successful runs at Rhode Island and BC. Honestly, all you have to do is listen to Cooley talk to know he can relate and sell. A quick-witted quote machine, Cooley bleeds personality and charisma while not appearing to embellish or be a phony. He has a straightforward, tough-love approach to which kids and their families seem to easily relate. Beyond that, Cooley quieted any remaining detractors by signing a top 10 nationally-ranked recruiting class for next year in Ricardo Ledo, Kris Dunn, and Joshua Fortune.
Since Cooley’s hire in March, the Providence program’s journey toward a 180 has been swift and palatable. In addition to the early recruiting success, he has put his stamp on everything, including literally going out and selling tickets. The transformation began with Cooley’s remarks during his first press conference. Despite all of the program’s ills at the time, Cooley came right out with a prediction: “not only do I believe we are going to win here. We are we going to win here and we are going to win big,” he said “We want to become the most dominant, most physical, most disciplined team, not this year, not next year, every year… I promise we will get there.”
Cooley was forced to put his no-tolerance money where his mouth was right away as he suspended his top returning big man, forward Kadeem Batts, indefinitely for an unspecified violation of team rules. Batts has yet to play this season, leaving the Friars with just eight, mostly not too tall, scholarship players (freshman guard Kiwi Gardner is suspended for the season by the NCAA due to a high school academic issue). And to top it all off, Providence has no seniors on its roster. Given the lack of depth and experience, four Friars have seen a ton of minutes: junior guard Vincent Council (17.1 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 6.5 APG) is the team leader and one of the most underrated players in the Big East; sophomore guard, Gerard Coleman (15.5 PPG, 6.2 RPG), was a highly touted recruit landed by Davis and provides scoring and athleticism; another sophomore guard, Bryce Cotton (16 PPG, 46.9% 3PT FG), who has enjoyed a break-out year, including a career-high 34 points on Saturday in a win over Bryant; and freshman forward LaDontae Henton, who already boasts a Big East Rookie of the Week honor and someone who Cooley called upon to make big shots in a close win over Boston College last Thursday despite being a freshman.
It seems every Providence coach in history has lamented the difficulty of the job. No recruiting base, no resources, one of the smallest schools playing high-major Division I basketball, always looking upward in the Big East, off campus home court, aging fan base, bad climate and where and what exactly is Rhode Island anyway? You name it and a coach has already cited it as an obstacle. So why would Ed Cooley come into a challenged Providence program, perhaps at its lowest point ever, and promise championships on day one? Because he understands this job perhaps better than anyone. He knows Providence basketball is Rhode Island’s damaged main attraction and he is the guy “sprinting home” to make it right. Ed Cooley has his dream job, and he has a plan.