Thursday, May 30

Ed Cooley needed a change. But can he bring change to Georgetown?

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Every day, Ed Cooley puts on his headphones, turns on his music and goes for a walk. While an eclectic mix of Whitney Houston, New Edition, Luther Vandross and Lady Gaga plays, the coach winds his way off of the Georgetown campus. Eventually he comes to  the intersection of Prospect and M streets, where above him rise 75 concrete steps.

Originally constructed in 1895, the steps became famous in 1973 when a celluloid creation by the name of Father Karras fell to his death after freeing a child from demonic possession. Now, 50 years later, Cooley makes the so-called “‘Exorcist’ steps” part of his daily hour-long jaunt. On a good day, he will loop around and summit them seven times.

There is a metaphor available here, about how a man whom many in his hometown now consider the devil incarnate, needing to rid himself of bad vibes, goes for his daily pedestrian exorcism.

Except Ed Cooley isn’t looking to exorcise. He just wants to exercise.

This is the thing about Cooley, current Georgetown coach, former Providence coach, beloved son turned traitor. People want to ascribe all sorts of metaphors and motivations and evils for his decision to leave one Big East school for another. And in their defense, there’s reason to search for a deeper cause.

In 1979, when Dave Gavitt – a Providence man himself – started the Big East, he delivered one edict to his seven feisty coaches: Scream and holler all you want in private, but publicly, have each other’s backs. For 44 years, as the league expanded and compressed, died and was reborn, the coaches heeded their commissioner’s warning. They protected and preached the brand. While other coaches exchanged one league job for another without so much as a second glance, no one left one Big East school for another.

And now here is Cooley. He was not Rick Pitino 2.0, twice leaving and entering the conference decades apart. He went directly from one founding member to another.

He had it all. A program on the come, with seven NCAA Tournament berths in the last nine years. A four-year-old practice facility. A devoted fan base.

He rejected all of it. Turned his nose at the hardscrabble team that worked its way into an elite program to go to a once-elite team that worked its way into a shambles. Gave up on a team that won 27 Big East games in the last two years in favor of one that won two. Exchanged the Dominicans for the Jesuits, for heaven’s sake.

There has to be a reason. Chasing money, chasing glory, dysfunction, disloyalty, arrogance. Something.

Sitting in a conference room where remnants from the preceding coach’s tenure stand like Stonehenge  – ridiculously oversized gray leather chairs that make ordinary people look like toddlers at the adult table – Cooley knows people want an explanation. And he has one. It’s just not the profound monologue they might be searching for.

Cooley opens his hands wide, raises his eyebrows and shrugs. “I needed a change,’’ he says.

From 14 Elma St., take a quick left on Broad, a right on Sassafras and head to the end of the block, to 117. Not even a half mile between the two, and yet this served as the entire world for Ed Cooley. Elma is where he lived, where his mother, Jane, did her best to raise nine kids on her own. Sassafras is where he was raised, where the Searight family took him in, fed him and showed him a way out.

He eventually left – for college, for assistant coaching jobs, his first head-coaching gig and then his second – but in a peripatetic profession, Cooley did the impossible. He climbed up the ladder yet never really left his base. A job at Fairfield gave him his longest commute, a mere 120 miles away. And then, of course, he came back: the Providence son in charge of Providence College. The boy from Elma Street, who meandered his way down Broad dreaming big dreams, grabbed the brass ring. “I’m not looking to win and go someplace else,’’ he said then, in 2011. “I’m happy where I’m at. I’m home.’’

Cooley, wearing a Georgetown T-shirt, recalls that vow now and winces. “Never use the word ‘never,’’’ he says. “Never is forever and that would be the mistake I made. Never comes back to haunt you.’’

It’s not that he didn’t mean it. He did. What he didn’t account for is that 41-year-old Ed Cooley might not want the same thing as 54-year-old Ed Cooley. There can be true joy in living in the same city you’ve known your whole life, reconnecting with childhood mentors and friends, visiting old haunts and eating at favorite restaurants. Yet there can also be, especially as a person ages, the existential terror of, Is this all there is? Should I do more? Want more?

Cooley didn’t see it coming in 2011, but he started to feel it in recent years. At first an itch, and then eventually a tug. Four years ago, he called his friend, Mark Fox, about an opening he was more than just a little curious about. The two have been pals for decades, and because Fox has jumped from Nevada to Georgia to Cal, he’s been a good sounding board for Cooley. Back then Fox told him no, this wasn’t the right one to move on to. But when Cooley called about Georgetown, Fox had a different answer.

“Jay Wright always says, ‘Don’t mess with happy,’’’ says Fox, who has since joined his buddy as Georgetown’s director of student-athlete relations and name, image and likeness (NIL) partnerships. “And there’s definitely something to that. But sometimes maybe you do mess with happy, because you’re addicted to the challenge of accomplishment. Ed is an obsessive competitor, and I think that’s a big part of this.’’

Cooley could have stayed at Providence and ended up with a statue outside the Dunkin Donuts Center. But coaches are wired weird – blessed with the confidence and ego to believe they can manifest real change, yet in desperate need of affirmation and success and tormented by the impossible quest for perfection. The only satisfied coach is the one holding the championship trophy at the end of the season. Even that joy has a short shelf life. There’s always next season.

In 12 seasons, Cooley turned an upstart program clinging to its 1987 Final Four laurels into a player. The Friars went from sporadic NCAA Tournament berths to regular bid winners. They reached a Sweet 16. Won a Big East title. Two years ago, they climbed as high as No. 8 in the country and finished 13th. He had not yet checked every box; the regional semifinal remained Providence’s high-water mark. But if he wasn’t at the Providence summit, Cooley certainly could see it.

Now here sat Georgetown – Georgetown – asking for his help. Once the defining face of the Big East, the Hoyas had not finished above .500 in the league since 2015, had just one winning season overall in that span. “There are certain times in your life where you want to challenge yourself,’’ Fox says.

It didn’t hurt that Cooley’s youngest child – daughter Olivia – just graduated from Georgetown and is living in D.C. Being a Division I head coach and present parent tend to be mutually exclusive, and though Cooley couldn’t undo the past, he thought maybe he could amend the present and improve the future. That played a part – a big part, Cooley says.

But he also says this: “If you do the history of national championships, how many schools have actually won a national championship? Take away the blue bloods who have multiple. How many?” The answer, after removing schools with two or more, is 21 since 1939. The list includes Georgetown. It does not include Providence. Can the Friars win one? Why not? The rebirth of Villanova proves it can be done. Is it, however, easier to envision at Georgetown – where a history of success and name brand combines with a fertile recruiting base and deep-pocketed alums ready to help in the NIL department.

So he left, he and his wife, Nurys, packing their clothes, two credenzas and their bed for a clean slate. Cooley hates the hurt he’s caused, especially since the vitriol spills from a place he loves more than any other in the world. “But I get it. I really do,’’ he says. “The only thing I ask is one day maybe for some understanding. Until you sit in my seat, be careful what you judge, because one day you might find yourself in the exact same place as I did.’’

In Cooley’s 12 seasons as Providence coach, the Friars The Friars reached a Sweet 16, won a Big East title, and two years ago climbed as high as No. 8 in the country. (Jacob Kupferman / Getty Images)

Early into the third year of his tenure, in 1974, at Georgetown, John Thompson Jr. arrived at his own McDonough Gym for a game against Saint Peter’s. The Hoyas had skidded to a four-game losing streak, and fans, unsure that the untested high school coach was the right choice to lead Georgetown, had grown restless with Thompson. As the Hoyas headed toward another loss, a fan in the rafters unfurled a banner. “Thompson the (n–) Flop Must Go.’’

That doesn’t leave a man; it shapes him. And for the next two decades, even as Thompson led Georgetown to a national title and three Final Fours, he never forgot that he was initially made to feel like an outsider. His instinct, thereby, was to protect. He lodged his teams in far-flung hotels on road trips, and forced reporters to choose between interviewing him or his players – the locker room opening only after he arrived at the dais, and closing immediately after he finished speaking. “Hoya Paranoia,’’ Washington Post reporter Mark Asher called it. Eventually it would be something of a double entendre, as opponents became wary of the fiercest team in college basketball. But Asher coined it more to describe Georgetown’s isolationism.

After Thompson retired, the job passed through his tree – first to his long-time assistant (Craig Esherick), followed by his son (John Thompson III) and finally, his program-defining player (Patrick Ewing). Not surprisingly, things didn’t change much. Georgetown remained reticent, if not altogether cloistered, even as programs across the country swung open their doors to the world.

Ewing especially welcomed the old-school coaching approach. He was never rude; just incredibly private. He had good reason to be wary. Despite Thompson’s attempts, nothing could shield Ewing from the evil that pursued him. At a news conference to announce he’d chosen to play for Georgetown, Ewing was greeted with hisses and boos from angry Boston businessmen who wanted him to go to Boston College. During a game at Villanova, fans threw banana peels as he took free throws and donned gorilla suits in the stands.

Cooley grew up watching it all. He first met Thompson in high school, back when the Georgetown coach brought the Hoyas to Cooley’s Central High for practice. He remembers the coach coming over, squeezing his cheeks and predicting that he was going to do big things. As Cooley climbed the ladder, he always seemed to find Thompson in his orbit. At Fairfield, he promised Cooley, “You won’t be here long.”

In 2014, when Cooley led Providence to a Big East tournament crown, he found Thompson on the opposite side of the court. A Providence grad himself, Thompson was on the radio for Westwood One. The two embraced and Thompson whispered in Cooley’s ear, “I’m so proud of you.’’

In taking the Georgetown job, Cooley felt not just the immensity of the history, tradition and legacy of the program; he felt the immensity of being a Black man, and a disciple of Thompson’s, taking over the program that for so long defined Black excellence in athletics.

But he also did not come to D.C. wearing the sepia-colored glasses of nostalgia. He knows he is there because, much like Cooley himself, the Hoyas need a change.

In seven months, Georgetown basketball has essentially gone from impossible-to-find Waldo to Taylor Swift at a Chiefs game. Since March, Cooley has appeared on more than 100 Zooms, visited alums in New York City, San Francisco and Martha’s Vineyard. He’s shown up in the classroom, at a lacrosse doubleheader and outside the dorms on move-in day. In a town known for glad-handing, baby-kissing and stumping, Cooley is extreme. After finishing an interview, he is off to meet with the vice president of student affairs and the next day is taking his team to Capitol Hill.

It is one thing to carry an air of aloof mystery when you are a regular Final Four participant; it is another altogether when you’ve won two Big East games in two years.

The cycle of college athletics success requires fans to build a buzz to create a team that wins games to attract fans. The Hoyas last year averaged a little more than 5,000 fans per home game, and so Cooley has to make like a Cheap Trick lyric. I want you to want me. I need you to need me. I’d love you to love me.

It helps that it comes naturally to him. “He can go up to anyone and start a conversation,’’ says Illinois transfer Jayden Epps. “He can take any room he walks into.’’ This is, after all, a man who coached an entire Big East tournament championship game with a Gatorade towel around his waist after splitting his pants. No one ever accused Cooley of being aloof.

Now for the hard part: The actual basketball. No amount of connection  from Cooley will mask more lousy results. He does not sugarcoat it. The climb is steep, largely because the league is so good. The Big East will start the season with the defending national champion, more teams in the top 10 (three) than any other league in the country, and four in the Top 25.

He has dipped deep into the transfer portal, a place where he is quite comfortable. In his first year at Providence, he took traditional sit-out transfer Carson Desrosiers from Wake Forest, and last year seven of the 14 Friars on the roster started somewhere else. At Georgetown, he grabbed Epps from Illinois, Dontrez Styles from North Carolina and Ismael Massoud from Kansas State. All three left considerably better programs than they joined; all three said they came because of Cooley. They liked his track record of success, but mostly felt drawn to his personality. “He’s high energy, and funny, but he’s also straight with you,’’ Styles says.

At a recent practice, Cooley offers a quick breakdown of a recent scrimmage, mocking Styles’ lack of transition hustle. “You look like Kirk Gibson,’’ he says, and then self-corrects, realizing his players have no earthly idea who Gibson is. After a staffer finds video of the baseball star, Cooley stops practice and shows the Los Angeles Dodger belting his famous home run in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. “See that home run trot,’’ he jokes to Styles. “That’s you in transition.’’

A few minutes later, disgusted when one team can’t run a drill properly, Cooley barks at them to get off “the f—ing floor and pay attention.’’ They get it right the next time. “He’s that guy – the one who is going to make sure you run everything to a T,’’ says Jay Heath, the Hoyas’ top returning scorer. “That’s only going to make us better.’’

The players say they see improvement – even from the beginning of practice to the scrimmage. There is a stronger understanding of their strengths. The Hoyas, once the home of Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, and Dikembe Mutombo, will be small, relying largely on Dikembe’s previously little-used son Ryan Mutombo, on the inside. But they hope they can make up for it with quickness and toughness, standard traits of Cooley-coached Providence teams. After their first season under Cooley, the Friars never dipped below 92 in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defense.

The players are optimistic – they talk of immediate goals of winning Big East titles and deep NCAA runs. Cooley is more reticent to put quantifiers on what success will look like right away. Georgetown, he says, is the hardest job he’s had, because of the confluence of tradition, expectation and ground to make up.

Hard, but not impossible. “It’s just going through the pain of growth,’’ he says. “But we’re going to win. It’s not a matter of if, it’s when. We’re here to win championships.”

Cooley still isn’t quite settled in D.C. An in-town clothier helped solve an early suit crisis – he needed Georgetown blue, but only had Providence black. He’s learning about infamous D.C. traffic. Early on he figured he could cover the four miles to Gonzaga High School in five minutes. He checked his GPS and saw it was more like 40. He has yet to come up with a list of go-to restaurants, so most nights he just goes home after work.

It’s an adjustment, especially coming from Providence, where he knew every nook and cranny, and had a ready-made list of lifelong friends and family. Does he miss it? “Of course I do,’’ he says. “I don’t know how to live in D.C. yet. We’re still figuring it out. But do I have regrets? Nope. Do I have what-ifs? Nope. This was the right thing for me. It was time.’’

Time for a change.

(Top image: John Bradford / The Athletic; Jacob Kupferman / Getty Images; Mitchell Layton / Getty Images)