With all due respect to Olympic medalists Marissa Castelli and Elizabeth Beisel — and, of course, the 2013 World Series Champion Boston Red Sox — there isn’t a better local story in SportsWorld than the Providence College Friars basketball team.
As you may be aware if you haven’t been locked inside a discarded refrigerator, the Friars shockingly won the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden on March 15, and thus earned a trip to the NCAA’s March Madness — aka the Final Judgment. The tourney kicks off right after the Phoenix hits the streets this week, and one can only hope that offering them praise here isn’t the kiss of death when they take on the mighty University of North Carolina in the first round.
The saga of this team of upstarts, which sounds more like it came from Hollywood than Our Little Towne, revolves around the head coach. Native son Ed Cooley came to PC in 2011 after coaching at Connecticut’s Fairfield University for five years. At that point, the PC program was a zombie — half-dead, hollow, and wreaking havoc in the community. The players, some of whom appeared to be total sociopaths, were welcomed with about as much enthusiasm as a band of Hell’s Angels at a church picnic.
Cooley had grown up desperately poor in South Providence, but he excelled for Central High School on the court, twice winning Rhode Island Player of Year. He then became one of the far-too-few who escape the Prov concrete jungle, going on after a prep school year to Stonehill College, where he continued making his basketball talents a ticket to ride. After he graduated he got into the big rinse cycle of coaching, which drains college assistants dry for about the same money you find beneath the cushions in your sofa (he worked with Al Skinner as an assistant coach at URI in 1996 and at Boston College for nine years). But he eventually climbed his way up to the top spot at Fairfield, and delivered well enough to have PC come a-knockin’. Hiring him was one of the smartest moves the Friar athletic department has made in recent memory.
Since then, Cooley has admirably stuck to his guns regarding the off-court behavior of players, whether it hurts the team or not. This year, after losing his starting point guard for the season to injury, he still had the guts to suspend two more valued players before Christmas for disciplinary reasons. This wasn’t something every coach would do, but it was clear the man has his principles, even if his future employment hinges on a win-loss record. The suspensions left his depth chart as thin as a wedding veil.
But these are just the basketball-related issues. As his team seesawed through the early part of the season, looking like heaven or hell depending on the night and/or the opponent, Cooley managed to stick to a weight-loss surgery program that weaned 100 pounds from his, how can we say it, rather rotund, 300-plus-lb. body. Then his East Greenwich house burned down. No joke.