The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fordham men’s basketball came out of nowhere. Its new coach can relate.

Keith Urgo went from Villanova to Penn State to Fordham before getting his first head coaching job. (Chris Knight/AP)
7 min

RICHMOND — Keith Urgo was thinking about what traffic might be like on southbound I-95 on a bright Sunday morning in February.

“You add everyone in my family and some of my friends coming down, it might slow down like on a weekday,” he said with a smile.

Urgo was kidding — and not kidding. He was sitting in the visiting coaches’ meeting room underneath the stands at Richmond’s Robins Center an hour before a noon tip-off between his Fordham men and Richmond.

Urgo is the eighth of Don and Carolyn Urgo’s 10 children — all of them jocks in one form or another. He grew up in Potomac and played basketball and lacrosse at Gonzaga College High in downtown Washington. So when he talked about family and friends packing almost-always-packed Interstate 95, he had reason for concern.

Urgo, in his first season as Fordham’s coach, has been part of a remarkable renaissance at a school located not far from the Bronx Zoo. Even after Sunday’s 68-58 loss at Richmond, the Rams are 6-4 in the jumbled Atlantic 10 and 18-5 overall. They are a game out of second place (and also a game out of sixth). For a team that has had two winning seasons in A-10 play since joining the league in 1995, that’s a big deal.

“They’re a lot different to play against than in the past,” said Richmond Coach Chris Mooney, who has won 19 of his past 20 games against Fordham. “They’re very physical. They’re scrappy and tough. They’re good — period. We were fortunate we were able to match their toughness late.”

Mike Brey has always had perspective. That makes it easier to walk away.

Fordham led for most of Sunday’s game before the Spiders dug in, outscoring the Rams 17-5 in the final five minutes. The Rams’ loss ended a five-game winning streak that started with three straight road victories.

But it didn’t dull Urgo’s remarkable journey to becoming a Division I coach at 42. He went to Fairfield for college, but a car crash temporarily derailed his athletic career.

“Didn’t play anything for two years,” he said. “ … That accident made me take a look at the direction my life was headed in. I got lucky.”

When he recovered, he played lacrosse and walked on to the basketball team, recruited by Tim O’Toole, who knew some of Gonzaga’s coaches. By the time he finished his fourth year at Fairfield — he stayed five — Urgo was being recruited by the Tuohey brothers — Brendan, Sean and Devin — to join their group “Playing for Peace” (now called “PeacePlayers”). The Tuohey brothers all played Division I basketball, and Urgo and Devin were teammates and close friends at Gonzaga.

The group’s goal is to bring together kids in countries divided by race or religion: Black and White kids playing together in South Africa, Catholic and Protestant kids playing in Northern Ireland. (Full disclosure: I once served on the group’s board of directors.)

Urgo spent several months in South Africa before his last year in college and then nine months in Northern Ireland after he graduated. When he came home, he worked for his father in several Marriott hotels he was managing in Canada. He was fluent in French and enjoying himself. He had met Kristy, his wife, at Fairfield, and they were getting ready to settle down and have a family.

But his career in hotel management came to an end by accident. “I was in another car accident,” he said. “Had to come home to Washington. While I was there, [Gonzaga Coach] Steve Turner got in touch with me and asked if I’d like to coach the JVs and the freshmen. I took it.”

The job hardly paid enough to make a living, so Urgo worked in real estate and then taught middle school for a year-and-a-half. “Taught sixth-grade social studies, religion and music,” he said. “Certainly kept me alert.”

By then, though, the coaching bug had bitten him. Turner promoted him to be a varsity assistant, and he had started to wonder about becoming a college coach. He went south one fall to visit North Carolina, Duke and Wake Forest. A year later, he went north to Philadelphia and was invited to watch practice at La Salle, Temple and Villanova.

At Villanova, he bumped into an old friend, Jason Donnelly, who was on the staff. Donnelly, now the vice president for athletics at Furman, asked him if he was interested in college coaching — because Villanova was going to have an opening for a video coordinator the next summer.

“I ended up going to Villanova for an interview with everyone but Jay Wright,” Urgo said. “Jay called that weekend and said he was coming to town to recruit on Monday and I should meet him for dinner at the Houston’s on Rockville Pike.”

Wright was impressed with Urgo — which is why he tried to talk him out of taking the job. “Absolutely true,” Wright said, laughing, on Monday morning. “When I meet a young guy who is clearly smart and who I know wants to stay close to his family, I try to tell them they should do something besides college coaching. I knew Urgs would be good at anything he did, and he wanted a family. I also knew if I couldn’t talk him out of it, he was going to go someplace else and be really good. So I hired him.”

The Kyrie Irving sweepstakes are over. Let the Victor Wembanyama race begin.

Urgo moved up the ladder in four years at Villanova, then went with Patrick Chambers to Penn State. After Chambers resigned, Urgo joined another former Villanova assistant, Kyle Neptune, last season at Fordham.

Fordham, rightfully, has developed a reputation as a coach killer. Urgo is the ninth person to coach the Rams since they joined the A-10. They have not been to the NCAA tournament since 1992 — when they were in the Patriot League — and last went to the NIT in 1991.

Urgo took the job as Neptune’s top assistant and the men saw progress, going 16-16 a year ago after five straight losing seasons. And then, suddenly, Neptune was gone — succeeding Wright at Villanova.

“I was in Orlando on a recruiting trip when he called and told me,” Urgo said. “Honestly, I didn’t believe him. I mean, really didn’t believe him.” When Neptune finally said, “You need to get home so we can get you this job,” Urgo believed him.

He got the job. And the Rams are having arguably their best season since Digger Phelps went 26-3 and reached the Sweet 16 in 1971 — nine years before Urgo was born.

Last weekend was a difficult one for Urgo, who has four kids ranging in age from 3 to 11 — including a 7-year-old daughter, Samantha, who has Down syndrome. Urgo’s 11-year-old son, Ty, was rushed to the hospital Saturday for an emergency appendectomy. Urgo skipped his team’s flight to Richmond and flew down that night after Ty was out of surgery and doing well. He and Kristy had to postpone a surgery that had been set for Monday for Samantha. Losing a game was the least of his problems.

“That’s the thing about Keith,” Wright said. “He’s as competitive as anybody. I honestly don’t think he ever sleeps. But he keeps it all in perspective.”

He certainly has experienced more of life than many of his peers. Wright wasn’t wrong about the challenges of coaching with a young family.

“But I’m still glad I didn’t listen,” Urgo said.


A previous version of this article incorrectly said that Keith Urgo's mother's name is Jill. It is Carolyn. The article has been corrected.