Cooley brings unique perspective to Providence coaching gig
New Providence coach Ed Cooley was the clear choice to succeed Keno Davis
Top '12 recruits Kris Dunn, Ricardo Ledo made verbal commitments to Providence
Cooley wants top-five recruiting classes to become the norm, not the exception
Even before new Providence head coach Ed Cooley has coached a Friars game, he already knows what it's like to win there.
Cooley was a member of the 1987 Central High basketball team that won the Rhode Island state championship. That spring, in the office of then-mayor Joseph Paolino Jr., Cooley and his teammates stood virtually elbow-to-elbow with Rick Pitino's Friars, who also were being feted after their stunning run to the Final Four.
"Seeing Billy Donovan and Jacek Duda and [Ernie] 'Pop' Lewis, it was an exciting time," Cooley recalled this week. "We felt like we won a national championship even though we won a state championship because that day we were in the same breath as Providence College men's basketball."
That unique perspective is why Cooley was the only choice to succeed Keno Davis when Davis' mediocre three-year run came to an end last spring. More so than his years as an assistant in the Northeast or his strong five-year performance as the head man at Fairfield University, Cooley's candidacy was defined by his ability to look people in the eye and tell them vividly what the city is like when the Friars are winning.
So far, the sales pitch seems to be working. Cooley is already making an impression with boosters and in the recruiting world, and maybe -- just maybe -- Providence is the latest Big East Catholic school ready to reclaim some of the glory that seemed permanently in its past.
"When Friar basketball is rolling, it just gives our city and state a different vibe, a different buzz," Cooley said. "It drives the market with our restaurants and our businesses in the area. I've lived through it. It's an incredible feeling when [things are] rolling and it is my hope and our goal to get that back to that point."
The Friars' most memorable success came a couple seasons after the Big East's most famous accomplishment, when three of the then-nascent conference's teams (Georgetown, St. John's and eventual national champion Villanova) made the 1985 Final Four. Much like the Friars, who made a surprise appearance in the 1997 Elite Eight under Pete Gillen, those schools had some continued success in the '90s before fading as the split between major college football haves and have-nots started to become clear.
The '85 trio has been resuscitated in recent years through savvy coaching hires. Both Jay Wright at Villanova and John Thompson III at Georgetown have taken their programs back to the Final Four and Steve Lavin jolted St. John's back into prominence last year in his first season with the Red Storm. So why not Providence, which owns the market in its mid-sized city and can likewise offer the challenge of Big East basketball?
Cooley's message clearly is being heard. While he and his players cannot specifically mention recruits who have not yet signed with the program, the Friars rattled the landscape this summer by nabbing verbal commitments from Class of 2012 standouts Kris Dunn and Ricardo Ledo. In an instant, the program that finished 14th last season in the Big East despite having scoring machine Marshon Brooks at their disposal reestablished its national credibility.
"[Cooley's] a pretty likable guy and I think he's put an emphasis on recruiting and really gotten out there and been visible," said Scout.com national recruiting analyst Evan Daniels. "[Dunn and Ledo] are two guys who aren't that far away from Providence. If they can keep some of these local guys home, that would be a big boost for their program."
Before worrying about what the 2012-13 campaign might bring, there's this season to play and there's reason for optimism with a still-young core that already has garnered a ton of valuable experience. Six of the Friars' top eight scorers from last season returned, and none of them are seniors. The hope is that the frustrating lessons learned under Davis's freewheeling offensive system can be applied with the help of Cooley's more rigorous defensive approach. Preseason work is centering around the breaking of some habits the team picked up during successive 4-14 league campaigns.
"The Big East, you're going to lose some games," said junior lead guard Vincent Council, who averaged more than 13 points and six assists a game last season, "so when you lose a game, you just have to keep your head up. As a young team, sometimes you don't know how to bounce back from losses."
Cooley doesn't plan on getting used to too many defeats. As an assistant coach, he was a main factor in Boston College's strong run under Al Skinner, and in his half-decade at Fairfield he led the Stags to 92 wins and two postseason appearances. Just the other night, at a dinner with some boosters, Cooley proclaimed that top-five recruiting classes were to be the annual plan, not the exception. He laughed when asked about that, but didn't necessarily back off from the overt ambition.
"I'm pretty sure I said that," Cooley said, "but what, you're gonna get up there and say 'We want the worst class in the country'? [Yearly top-five classes is] our goal. That's absolutely our goal, whether or not we can sustain it, but you gotta make sure to sell your product."
Sales work best when the salesman knows the product inside and out, so who better to entrust with the rebirth of a program than a man who grew up with it, lived through its glory, and is reminded every day about what the Friar experience -- on and off the court -- can be like? Cooley, who graduated from Stonehill College outside of Boston, says some of his closest friends are Providence graduates, and he uses their personal successes as the other half of his recruitment pitch.
"I have a deep conviction about Providence itself because I was born and raised here. I can talk about experiences and things I've seen and the development of the entire city and talk about the educational value that Providence College has for alumni," Cooley said. "[I have] the ability to sell a [recruit a] dream and become part of that dream, part of that quest [on the court], and just the belief that I have that I can sell these young men that they can become more than just basketball players. They can become complete people."
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