Shortly after midnight on Friday morning at Verizon Center, Tim O’Toole stood in the empty shower area in Syracuse’s locker room looking like he had just gone 15 rounds with a young Muhammad Ali. His tie was hanging below his waist, his shirtsleeves were going in a dozen different directions and his wavy brown hair looked as if it had been in a car wash.
From the locker room, the happy sounds of the Orange players celebrating their stunningly easy Sweet 16 victory over Indiana could be heard clearly.
“This is like oxygen to me,” O’Toole said, pausing every few seconds to hug anyone who wandered into his path. O’Toole is a legendary hugger. There are those who know him who insist he spends several hours a day standing on street corners looking for old ladies to hug.
What he also is right now — again — is a basketball coach, specifically Syracuse’s director of basketball operations, a job he began on Jan. 2 after Stan Kissel had resigned suddenly in December. He had thought that part of his life was over six years ago when Fairfield, his alma mater, fired him after eight years as coach in 2006.
O’Toole had a young family when he was fired — his three children are now 11, 9 and 7 — and he had a masters degree in finance from Fordham.
So he did the sensible thing: He went to work in financial planning so he could make some money. He kept his hand in at basketball, doing some games on TV for ESPN and St. John’s games on radio. He did some camp work, too, but for the most part he was a businessman, wearing a suit to work everyday, then heading home to be with his kids.
The perfect life.
“I started thinking about it two years ago,” he said, first calling Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski, whom he had assisted for two years in the mid-1990s. “I said, ‘I wonder if I can get back into this.’ He told me to think about it, not jump back in first chance I got, that if it was what I really wanted it would happen and I didn’t need to rush.”
Kissel’s departure from Syracuse turned out to be the open door O’Toole had been looking to find. It was Mike Hopkins, Jim Boeheim’s No. 1 assistant, who first called him.
“Circle of life,” said O’Toole, who is big on sayings and slogans. “When I first worked for Bay [meaning Boeheim; O’Toole is big on nicknames, too] as a grad assistant 20 years ago I worked with the guards. My guards were Hop and Red [current Orange assistant Adrian Autry]. I was their mentor back then. Circle of life. Now they’re mentoring me because I’m re-learning the profession all over again.”
Hopkins told O’Toole that the director of operations job was open and, if he wanted it, he thought Boeheim would probably be willing to offer it to him. As it happened, O’Toole was less than an hour down the road from Syracuse when the call came because his wife Joanie’s parents live in Fleming, N.Y. This was during the Christmas holidays. On the night of Dec. 30, just before the family was supposed to drive back to the New York City area, Boeheim called. The job was O’Toole’s if he wanted it — but he needed to know before Syracuse played at Rutgers three days later.
“All of a sudden this was happening very fast,” O’Toole said. “It literally meant saying to my wife and kids: ‘I’m not going back home with you, I’m staying here.’
“Two things happened, though, that made the decision for me. I had gone to see my mom, who had been in the hospital because she’s been dealing with pancreatic cancer since last summer.
“I started to tell her the possibility of this job was there and she grabbed me and said, ‘You’ve got to go, you’ve got to do it.’ ”
“If that didn’t seal the deal, talking to Joanie about it and what was going to be involved did. It occurred to me that my kids are old enough now to understand who there dad is, what makes him tick. They’d never seen me passionate about anything. I wanted them to see that side of me.”
He will be easy to spot on Saturday afternoon when Syracuse plays Marquette in the East Region final. He’ll be the guy with the giant clipboard on his lap who won’t be able to sit still throughout the game.
“He’s just a lot of fun for all of us to be around,” Syracuse point guard Michael Carter-Williams said. “None of us knew him when he got here but he fit in right away. I think we all figured if he was tight with Coach Hopkins he must be okay.” Carter-Williams smiled. “And he must be a little bit crazy.”
Hopkins and O’Toole argue often about who is crazier, and the locker room appears to be fairly divided on the issue. But there isn’t any doubt in O’Toole’s mind that he is back where he belongs.
“It’s been like a magic elixir to be back in it,” he said. “The hard part is the family. I drive 50 minutes to and from work [from his in-laws’ house] every day and every night when I drive home and realize I’m not going to be seeing Joanie and the kids I pretty much start to cry. Who knows where this will lead. Right now I’m just enjoying the ride.”
The ride may take O’Toole to Atlanta for the Final Four. After that? If Hopkins gets the job at Southern California, as rumored, O’Toole and his family might end up there. Or he could move to a full-time job on the Syracuse bench.
O’Toole’s only certain of one thing: “I’m back where I belong. I’m doing what I’m meant to do.”
At that moment, he was meant to take two players down the Verizon Center hallway for drug-testing. Undoubtedly, he would give the testers a big hug.
For more by John Feinstein, go to www.washingtonpost.com/feinstein.
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Photos: Scenes from the tournament