Today is one of those days I most look forward to during a college basketball season…weather permitting.
I have been going to basketball games at Lafayette on a regular basis since 1999 – when I made the trip up there so often during my research for The Last Amateurs – that I felt as if I was a resident of the Lehigh Valley. The Leopards were very good that season. They had won the Patriot League the year before and they tied for first with Navy that winter with an 11-1 record, then routed the Midshipmen in the championship game in Kirby Arena to advance to the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season.
Then — as now — the coach was Fran O’Hanlon. He’s the only one of those who coached in the league during that 1999-2000 season who is still on the job.
“Last of the Mohicans,” O’Hanlon likes to joke.
O’Hanlon is a true basketball character in a world that lacks them these days. He grew up in Philadelphia and played in Baker League games under the name “Rainbow Johnson” because he shot his long-range jump-shot so high that it seemed to find the sky before often splashing into the net. He played on very good Villanova teams under Jack Kraft and then began a basketball odyssey that carried him around the world.
After a year playing for the Floridians in the ABA — where he was once denied entry to the arena by a security guard who refused to believe he was a professional basketball player — he played in Europe for a dozen years. At one point, while playing in Sweden, he played under an assumed name: “Francis Francis Dribbler.”
“What was most amazing was how few people wondered if I’d made up the name,” he likes to say. “I mean, really? Francis Francis Dribbler?”
Some in his family call him Francis. Others Fran and a few, Frank. In basketball circles, especially in Philadelphia, he’s just, “Franny O.”
After coaching in Europe and in Israel, Franny O came back to Philadelphia. He coached the Temple women for a year, learning John Chaney’s infamous matchup zone while he was there. Then he went back to Israel for a year before coming home to coach Monsignor Bonner High School for four seasons.
In 1989, Fran Dunphy got the job at Pennsylvania and asked O’Hanlon to be his assistant. He stayed six seasons before being hired in 1995 at Lafayette. He’s been there ever since and, at 69, has no intention of retiring anytime soon.
“I’m a coach, that’s what I do,” he said when we talked on the phone Tuesday. “I love coming to the gym and I love competing. I’ve played golf twice in my life and it didn’t go very well, so what would I do if I stopped coaching?”
He’s had ups and downs at Lafayette but has managed to win 306 games and will no doubt have the court named after him inside Kirby Arena if he ever retires. After those back-to-back turn-of-the-century NCAA trips, the Leopards struggled, in large part because the rest of The Patriot League decided to allow athletic scholarships — it had been formed on the Ivy League model of scholarships based purely on financial-need — while Lafayette clung stubbornly to no jock scholarships.
“I understand the principle,” O’Hanlon said back then. “But the fact is we can get BETTER students with scholarships because we can offer them something the Ivy League can’t.”
Lafayette recruits often against the Ivy League and the simple fact is, if all things are equal with a player who is also a good student, he’s almost always going to be pick the Ivy League school. But if he can save his parents $250,000 by going to Lafeyette or another Patriot League school, he might decide to go in that direction.
For a long time, Lafayette’s primary defense was Chaney’s matchup zone, which often creates the illusion that shooters are open when they’re not. In recent years, O’Hanlon has more or less abandoned the matchup.
Why? “The key to the matchup is being able to communicate with one another on the floor,” O’Hanlon said. “Today’s players can’t communicate unless they text. They can type really fast on their cell phones, but not quite fast enough during a game.”
In 2015, Lafayette got back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since “my” season in the Patriot League. The last couple of seasons have been rough — injuries and some recruiting losses have hurt O’Hanlon’s team. This season, with one important senior and a bunch of freshmen and sophomores playing, they’re struggling again.
“We’re getting better,” O’Hanlon said. “Our last three losses, we were ahead at halftime. Unfortunately, you play 40 minutes, not 20. But I can see progress.”
The Leopards had a 17-point lead at Army and lost and played Bucknell, the heavy favorite to win the league, into overtime.
Tonight, they’ll play Navy, the kind of physical team that often gives Lafayette, which has to make lots of 3s to compete, a lot of trouble. “Last year they had us down 45,” O’Hanlon said. “We rallied to lose by 40.” Actually it was 37, but O’Hanlon’s point is well taken.
“We just couldn’t keep them off the boards,” O’Hanlon said. “They offensive rebound the way they did that night and we’ll be in serious trouble again.”
My bet is that Franny O will find a way to make the game very competitive. I’ll be making the familiar drive north and east hoping there’s no more snow coming. Without snow, the trip takes me three hours and 15 minutes. Once, it took me five hours to get home creeping along in a snowstorm.
But I still savor the opportunity to go back to Kirby Arena, which is one of those little college hoops gems. It seats 3,500 and even though the entire “sports center” was renovated almost 20 years ago, it feels like it’s been around forever.
I’ll work tonight with Gary Laubach, who I think did play-by-play on the first Lafayette-Lehigh football game, and John Leone, who Franny O succeeded as coach in 1995. John is normally the analyst but twice a year he moves to the sideline role so I can slide in next to Gary. He claims he’s always gracious about it because I was kind to him in Last Amateurs. I think it’s just because he’s too nice a guy to be anything but gracious.
I’ve done a couple of games at Lafayette as part of their hoops package for many years now, dating almost to Last Amateurs. Just as O’Hanlon is still coaching, Bruce McCutcheon, the long-time AD is still there (though he’s retiring at the end of the school year) and Scott Morse and Phil LaBella, who I worked with on the book are also still there. Alan Childs, the faculty-rep then will still be sitting on the end of the bench. I know I’ll also see a lot of the same fans who I’ve talked to through the years.
It’s a trip down memory lane every time I make the drive. I’ll stop at the same gas station on the way up and the same McDonald’s on the way back. (Don’t tell my wife or my doctor). Gary, John and I will have a lot of laughs during the broadcast and, with luck, we’ll be calling a good game.
I honestly hope Franny O coaches for another 20 years or so. And that I get to go back to Lafayette to watch his teams for just as long.
John Feinstein’s most recent book, “The First Major—The Inside Story of the 2016 Ryder Cup,”—is still on the New York Times bestseller list after three months. His latest Young Adult book, “Backfield Boys,–A Football Mystery in Black and White,”—was a best book selection by the Junior Literary Guild.