House on the Hill: A Loyal Leader
Feb. 10, 2014
Before Fran O'Hanlon analyzes game film or ventures to a high school gym hundreds of miles away to sit on wooden bleachers for a two-hour display from a prospective player, he has to get the full story on the player's grades.
“Our pool is not big,” the Lafayette College men's basketball coach said.
And he wouldn't want it any other way.
“I like the idea of an academic environment where kids just aren't making decisions on the type of sneaks you wear,” he said. “It's based on the long-term goals.”
At Lafayette, those long-term goals must include a short-term goal of not just going to class, but doing well without the coach and his staff having to constantly remind players of their academic responsibilities.
“I don't think for kids going to college, you should be chasing them to go to class and having to talk to them about doing homework,” O'Hanlon said. “School should be their first priority, and right behind that we want you committed to the basketball program. They are committed to the classroom and the court, and it's nice to be around that."
It's something O'Hanlon has been around for almost two decades, and it's the place he's grown to love. In his 19th year at the helm, the 65-year-old is the Patriot League’s all-time winningest coach, and is just three wins away from being the leader for conference victories.
O'Hanlon can tie former Bucknell University coach Pat Flannery's record (126) this week with wins over Loyola (Md.) on Wednesday and American University on Saturday. Both games are at Kirby Sports Center. If the Leopards win those contests, he can break the record at Holy Cross on Wednesday, Feb. 19, with his 127th PL victory. He is one of seven coaches to have won two Patriot League Tournament championships.
Don't expect O'Hanlon to get sentimental about the upcoming record. He's better at downplaying the honor than accepting congratulations for it.
“If you stay around long enough, that's all it is,” O'Hanlon said. “There are and have been a lot of good coaches in this league. Some moved onward and upward. I've been fortunate to have some good players and assistant coaches.”
Those players include Ted Cole '99, who gained so much respect for Lafayette and O'Hanlon while he was playing there from 1995-99 that he still attends nearly every home game. This year, he missed only the game against Army because the game time was changed at the last minute because of snow.
“He's a true father figure,” said Cole, who was on the 1999 PL Tournament championship team that played Miami in the NCAA Tournament. “He's going to take you under his wing and teach you everything you want to learn. He doesn't force-feed you. You go to him, and if you want to learn, he'll give you everything you can handle. That goes beyond basketball and into life. He always said to do the right thing. He knew we were kids, but he told us to put ourselves in the right situation. If something doesn't seem right, get away from it; don't do it.”
One of the few things O'Hanlon never did and has always wondered what it might have been like was be a head coach in his hometown of Philadelphia. He graduated from St. Thomas More High school before playing at Villanova, where he part of the Class of 1970. Although he was an assistant women's coach at Temple, the head boys coach at Monsignor Bonner High School and an assistant men's coach at the University of Pennsylvania under current Temple coach and close friend Fran Dunphy, O'Hanlon hasn't been roaming the sidelines of a Philadelphia school or university since wrapping things up at Penn in the 1994-95 season.
His father still lives there, as do his four sisters and one brother, all of whom, among other friends and family members, have tried to convince him to return to his roots in the City of Brotherly Love.
“Everybody is thinking that's what's best for you and telling you that you belong back in Philly, and that made it very hard,” he admitted. “And I had opportunities. The tough part for me was when you recruit kids -- and I know it happens all the time -- they ask you, 'Are you planning on being here?' You tell them one thing and [then many coaches] do another. My loyalty got in the way. Lafayette gave me an opportunity, and I was loyal to the kids I was recruiting and I had a tough time leaving. They would have gotten a good coach here, but it wasn't my makeup to leave.
“And my kids were born in Easton and they started to make friends, and that also made it harder. They didn't know Philly; they know Easton.”
And they still do. O'Hanlon's kids, Timothy and Gigi, go to Lafayette. Timothy will graduate next year and Gigi is on schedule to finish in 2016. Although both live on campus, O'Hanlon, who has been voted the PL coach of the year three times, loves that he runs into both around campus and that Gigi is a part-time manager for the basketball team.
“They wanted to look at other schools, and we took them around, and at the end of the day, they compared everything to College Hill, where they grew up,” O'Hanlon said. “I thought that was such a great decision and it made me so happy that they were comfortable enough. I think it's pretty cool that they didn't want to get away from me.”
At this point, O'Hanlon can't imagine getting away from College Hill. He's grown to love the camaraderie that comes with Kirby Sports Center, the crowds the Leopards draw from the community even when they're not having their best year and the number of students who support his team.
“We have a surrounding community, which is different from many campuses,” O'Hanlon said. “People can walk to us on a snowy day. We love the basketball on College Hill. I think it's a different type of crowd and more of a community. People have been following Lafayette basketball for years, and there's a special pride there. Our kids even come back, and it's not like they're out into the cold afterward. It's a neat, little environment that's been built up, and it's a huge reason we wanted to live on College Hill.”