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A college basketball legend announces his retirement, and the sport is worse for it

Lafayette's Fran O'Hanlon is retiring after this season. (Chris Seward/AP)
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One of the best college basketball coaches I have ever known is retiring at the end of this season.

No, I’m not late hearing the news about Mike Krzyzewski‘s departure from Duke. And don’t expect this announcement to lead “SportsCenter” or any national sports news show. It might make the crawl. Even so, it is a sad and significant day for college basketball.

On Friday afternoon, Fran O’Hanlon announced he is retiring after 27 years as the coach at Lafayette. He has lost more games than he has won coaching the Leopards, but anyone who knows basketball or understands the politics of Lafayette will tell you that no one could have done a better job.

O’Hanlon took over a team that had gone 2-25 in 1995 and went 19-9 in his third season. The next two years, Lafayette won 22 and 24 games and won the Patriot League tournament twice, making the NCAA tournament for the first and second times since 1957.

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Lafayette was the last Patriot League school to give up on the Utopian notion of giving scholarships purely based on financial need, and the Leopards struggled as a non-scholarship team in what had become an athletic scholarship league. When the school finally began giving athletic scholarships in 2006, it took several years to rebuild — especially since O’Hanlon was allowed only 11 scholarships when the NCAA maximum was 13. But O’Hanlon made the Leopards competitive again, reaching the NCAA tournament once more in 2015. Then, in one of those NCAA basketball committee “coincidences,” they drew Villanova — O’Hanlon’s alma mater — in the first round.

“Look, there have certainly been some obstacles,” O’Hanlon said Friday morning, shortly before making the official announcement that he will be stepping away. “All coaches face obstacles. I’m incredibly grateful to Lafayette for giving me the chance to be a head coach, for standing by me for all these years and for letting me have the opportunities I’ve had. It’s been a great ride.”

O’Hanlon means every word of that. And he’s right to be gracious and grateful.

And yet … “It would have been nice to stay another year,” he said. “I think we have a chance to be very good next season.”

Only one starter, Tyrone Perry, will graduate this spring from a team that relies heavily on freshmen and sophomores. O’Hanlon’s teams always have been at their best when they lean on juniors and seniors, largely because the players he recruits improve so much during their college careers. Two years ago, with an experienced team, Lafayette was 19-12; last year, in the covid-shortened season, it was 9-6.

Overall records in one-bid leagues can be deceiving because schools have to play guarantee games to fund their athletic departments. This season, Lafayette played guarantee games at Syracuse, Duke and Rutgers, winning the latter. “I told the players if we had won at Duke and Syracuse maybe I’d have gotten another year,” O’Hanlon joked.

Lafayette played at Duke because O’Hanlon wanted to experience coaching in Cameron Indoor Stadium. He did the same thing a couple of years ago with Allen Field House at Kansas.

“I can walk away knowing I got to coach in what I think are the three most iconic buildings in college basketball: the Palestra, Cameron and Allen Field House,” he said. “They were all amazing experiences for me.”

When O’Hanlon walked out of Cameron after his team’s shoot-around in November, several Duke students recognized him. “Hey, Coach,” one yelled. “Be prepared for 40 minutes of hell tonight.”

“I’m thinking overtime,” O’Hanlon responded.

That would have been 45 minutes. The Leopards kept it close for 20, trailing by just six at halftime before Duke pulled away in the second half.

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O’Hanlon grew up in Philadelphia and played games in the Palestra in both high school (St. Thomas More) and college (Villanova). As a senior, he started in the backcourt along with Chris Ford on a team that reached the Elite Eight before losing to a Bob Lanier-led St. Bonaventure team.

When he played in Philadelphia’s famous Baker League, O’Hanlon’s “game name” was Rainbow Johnson because he shot the ball with so much arc. He played in the American Basketball Association for the Floridians for one season before spending 15 years playing overseas, where one of his playing names was Francis Dribbler-Dribbler.

“I was playing under the name Francis Dribbler,” he said, laughing. “On a scouting report someone wrote, “Dribbler-Dribbler.” They put me in the game program under that name, so I just kept it.”

He came home in 1986 to coach at Monsignor Bonner High in Philadelphia before Fran Dunphy gave him his first men’s college job in 1989 (he had coached the women at Temple for a year). He was working for Dunphy when he got the call from Lafayette.

“He’s the simplest Renaissance man I ever met,” Dunphy, who is six weeks younger than O’Hanlon, said Friday. “His genius as a coach was his simplicity. He never over-coached. He knew what the kids needed to do to win, and he got them to buy into it. He’s direct but always thoughtful. He’s not a good coach; he’s a great coach. And he is always funny.”

O’Hanlon has always had a wonderfully dry sense of humor. When Lafayette was at the top of the Patriot League, he had numerous opportunities to leave but turned them all down. “I decided to give up my shot at the Hall of Fame to be at a place where I’m completely happy,” he said. “Tough decision, huh?”

O’Hanlon first saw the beginning of the end when Bruce McCutcheon retired as Lafayette’s athletic director in 2018. He was replaced by Sherryta Freeman, who is both young and ambitious.

“Look, you’re a new AD. You’re going to want to have your own people working for you, especially in the most important jobs,” O’Hanlon said. “I completely get it. Plus, I’m 73. I don’t think I look a day over 72 but still . . .”

Freeman and O’Hanlon began talking about his retirement a couple of years ago. O’Hanlon wasn’t ready. He didn’t want to retire at the end of a pandemic-riddled season. They decided to make this season his finale.

“Sherryta wanted me to announce it before the season started,” O’Hanlon said. “I didn’t want that, didn’t want a farewell tour. I would have preferred to just announce it at the end of the season and slip away. But she said, ‘We want to honor you before the season’s over.’ So we compromised.”

The compromise choice was Friday — just before the start of the second semester at Lafayette. In a twist, O’Hanlon tested positive for the coronavirus earlier in the week — “I feel fine,” he said — so the announcement had to be made over video. O’Hanlon gave his players the news Monday night.

“I started by telling them how proud I was of the way they’d played in beating Army over the weekend,” he said. “Then I said, ‘But that’s not why I called you here tonight.’”

O’Hanlon isn’t sure what comes next, but he’s open to suggestions. About the only thing that is certain is this: Lafayette will have a tough time finding anyone better than him as a coach or a person. And if he decides to slip into retirement quietly, there will be a hole in the soul of college basketball.

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