Everyone remembers the moment two years ago when they realized that COVID-19 was going to disrupt their lives. Mine just happens to involve Providence College men’s basketball coach Ed Cooley.
I was wrapping up my first year at the Globe, and I crafted the perfect con. I’ve always been a wannabe sportswriter – my super original sports blog, Dan’s Take, never quite took off – so I convinced an editor to send me to New York for the Big East Tournament to write about Cooley, the hometown kid who didn’t have the money to buy tickets to Friars’ games and is now a millionaire because of basketball.
My sneaky plan was to watch the Friars make a run through the tournament, and then write something so profound about Cooley making it from the South Side of Providence, winning two state championships, being chosen prom king at Central High School, and then coaching the most important sports team in Rhode Island, that he couldn’t possibly ever consider leaving the state for a bigger job.
Then an editor told me there was no chance that I could travel to New York because of this mysterious virus that seemed to be spreading, and I was angrier than Cooley gets at referees late in games. The bosses were right, of course; both the Big East Tournament and the NCAA Tournament were soon canceled, and the world pretty much shut down.
Two years later, we’re finally beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel for this pandemic, so it’s only fitting that Cooley is getting another chance to lead the Friars on a magical postseason run as seemingly all of Rhode Island – even his rivals down the highway at URI – are rooting him on.
And if there has ever been a team that embodies its head coach, it’s this group of Friars.
There are way too many national pundits who have written off this team, which went 24-4 this season and just won the Big East regular season title for the first time in school history, as simply lucky because it has won a lot of close games. They always seem to be just good enough.
Cooley knows something about overcoming the odds, and he’ll tell you that good enough doesn’t cut it. As one of nine children of a single mother in the 1980s, at a time when crack cocaine was devastating his neighborhood and taking too many hostages, Cooley found his own path.
It started by having the right team around him. Gloria and Eddie Searight took him in, giving him a place to sleep and eat when he needed it. Former state senator Harold Metts, Cooley’s high school basketball coach, jokes that the Searights “didn’t adopt him. He adopted them.” When Gloria died in 2010, her obituary listed Ed as one of her sons. And the Searight family continues to be Cooley’s biggest boosters.
While critics label the Friars as overachievers – fellow Big East coaches picked them to finish in seventh place at the start of the season – Cooley sees a group of veterans, like big man Nate Watson, who have repeatedly put themselves in a position to be successful by hustling, outworking other teams, and staying disciplined.
It sounds a lot like Cooley’s personal journey. When too many friends in Providence were falling into the street life, friends say he always seemed to have a mop in one hand and a basketball in the other. He’d clean up the laundromat on Broad Street for a few bucks here and there, and he even convinced the superintendent of Providence schools to allow him to work as a janitor – giving him access to a court any time he wanted.
He went on to be one of the greatest basketball players Central High has ever seen, and he was apparently quite the club volleyball player, too. But even then, it was his leadership that stood out to Coach Metts.
“He knew everybody’s position and everybody’s role, and when you stuck him in a role outside his main one, he was able to adapt,” Metts said. “He was an inspiration to his teammates.”
Metts loved all the winning Central did when Cooley was on the team, but “my proudest moment as a coach was when he invited me to his college graduation,” he said.
For all the winning the Friars have done this year, they still don’t get quite the respect they deserve.
Most bracket experts think the team will be somewhere around a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament, even if they win the Big East championship this week in New York. They’re also one of the few teams in the history of the conference to win the regular season title and not have a single player be named first-team all-Big East.
To a man, the players admit that they have a chip on their shoulder about the lack of respect.
Cooley was an underappreciated player himself, and the Friars didn’t recruit him as a high schooler. He had to sneak into the Civic Center to watch games, and he marveled at the special 1987 team that coach Rick Pitino brought to the Final Four.
Cooley would spend a year at New Hampton prep school in New Hampshire before enrolling at Stonehill College in Massachusetts. He became a teacher, but he had more to offer the game, so he got into coaching. It started with a stint at UMass-Dartmouth and a year back at Stonehill, but he learned his craft at the side of Al Skinner, first at URI and then at Boston College. He got his first head coaching job at Fairfield University before getting the Friars’ job.
Skinner says Cooley’s drive was always evident.
“He just had a vision for what he wanted for himself,” Skinner told me when we spoke in 2020. “He was going to do the best he could with whatever tools he had.”
On Wednesday, Cooley is widely expected to be named Big East Coach of the Year for the first time, and he’s in the running for national Coach of the Year as well. It won’t be long before you start hearing Cooley’s name tied to other big coaching jobs -- jobs that might pay more than the roughly $3.3 million a year he makes at Providence College.
The popular college basketball journalist Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports regularly tweets that Cooley is “The American Dream.” No matter what happens in New York this week, during the NCAA Tournament this month, or with Cooley’s career, he has already proven himself a Rhode Island legend.
Dan McGowan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan.