Sunday, November 13, 2011

Cooley's Game Vs. Stags An Emotional Tug

One of the most-emotional non-league games one can imagine takes place tomorrow (Monday) night at the Webster Bank Arena at Harbor Yard in Bridgeport, Conn.

It's the night Providence comes to town to play Fairfield.

The emotions will be flowing with the return of Providence coach Ed Cooley to courtside, albeit the other end of the scorer's table from the seat he so capably occupied over the previous five seasons at the arena arena.

Cooley ran the Fairfield sideline from 2006-07 through the 2010-11 season, a tenure that will go down as one of the school's most-successful in its lengthy history. He took a team mostly mired in mediocrity for years, one with a 9-19 record before his arrival, and built the Stags into a unit that finished 25-8 last year, the program's single-season best victory total.

This year could be every bit as good, but Cooley's only first-hand look will come tonight when he's coaching Providence against his former team,, one made up almost exclusively of his former players.

Coaches are always grateful for their first chance to be a head coach, and Fairfield gave that to Cooley.

But once they move on coaches aren't so quick to bring their new team back to their former locale for a game.

John Beilein never brought any of his teams back to Buffalo to play Canisius, Tim Welsh never brought Providence back to Iona for a game and it took Paul Hewitt 11 years before he brought the Georgia Tech team he once coached back to the Albany, N.Y., area to play against Siena. And, even 11 years removed from being on the Saints' sideline, Hewitt emotions were tugged considerably when the Yellow Jackets played at the Times Union Center in Albany last season.

And so it is magnified all the more for Cooley, whose last game as Fairfield's coach was less than eight months ago, a March 20 loss to Kent State in the second round of the NIT.

Two days later Cooley was introduced as Providence's new coach.

And, now, in his second game coaching the Friars Cooley gets to deal with the fresh emotions of a game not only against his former team and players but on the Fairfield home court where he coached 80 games over the past five seasons.

No coach wants to return "home" that quickly, but Cooley had no choice.

To get Fairfield to agree to release Cooley from a contract that still had years remaining, Providence had to agree to play a game at Fairfield this season. So it is that Cooley returns home Monday night.

"To be perfectly honest, I didn't want this to happen," said Cooley, in a recent telephone interview. "Those kids ... I'm not even a year removed from being in their living rooms. It's tough ... I love those guys. I'll always have a life's relationship with them, and them with me.

"I'll be very happy to go back to Fairfield, and very happy afterwards. But, for those 40 minutes ... those will be tough."

Cooley said he has nothing but fond feelings for his former school.

"I have nothing but happy memories," he said. "You always look back fondly at the first place that allowed you to be a head coach."

Certainly no one begrudges Cooley, or any mid-major level coach, from moving on, particularly when a Big East program comes calling. And, most particularly, when the one calling is truly home.

Cooley was born and raised in Providence, and aspired to play there before attending college at Stonehill and, then, beginning the rise through the coaching ranks with a year at UMass-Dartmouth, a year at Stonehill, a year at Rhode Island and nine years as an assistant at Boston College before becoming Faifrield's head coach.

And, now, he's back home.

“I love Providence College,” he said. “I always wanted to be here as a player, but I wasn’t good enough. Hopefully, I do a great job as their head coach.”

If he can duplicate at Providence what he did at Fairfield he will indeed be doing a great job.

And while Cooley love for Providence is strong, his emotions for Fairfield are similar, which makes the return to his former home a difficult one.

At Fairfield he recruited every player but one on the current roster, convinced high-profile transfers Rakim Sanders (from Boston College) and Desmond Wade (Houston) to join him there. He developed relationships with players there, became their surrogate father and mentor, coached them every day in practice, became their advisor, their confidant. Their friend.

They are relationships hard to break, and certainly hard to forget less than eight months removed.

And, now, he has to coach against all of that. He is trying to do at Providence, what he did at Fairfield. Trying to take a program that has struggled in recent years (14-17 last season) and turn things around. In the second game of that project he has to go against his former team, one that he built into something grand, and one against which he'll have a tough time getting a victory.

His old program, he knows, is in good hands.

"Sydney Johnson (Cooley's successor) is a great coach ... one of the best in the country, and I'm very happy for him," said Cooley.

The old Fairfield coach is reminded that Johnson will probably have considerable success on the sideline this season because Cooley left plenty behind there.

And Cooley chuckled, the deep bass-timbered laugh coming through the telephone wires.

"They're a good group, and they're lucky, too, to have a coach of Sydney's caliber coaching them this season," added Cooley.

Cooley, now, gets to see just how good his former program remains, less than eight months after his move to Providence.

It should be a nice night all around, a reunion of sorts for Cooley, his former players and hundreds of others within the Fairfield community who became close to the former coach over the past five years.

Cooley will surely enjoy all the trappings ... except for those 40 minutes when he has to coach against his former players.

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