The two virtually grew up in the same corner of the state, frequently crossing paths whenever a pickup game broke out. Everything changed though, Jamal Gomes recalls, on the day of his high school graduation, when he learned a great deal about Ed Cooley, the person.
“He had heard that I was coming to Stonehill College to play basketball and called to congratulate me,” was one of several stories Gomes shared about Cooley, who will be introduced as the next men’s basketball head coach at Providence College Wednesday afternoon. “He’s an amazing, amazing man.”
Straddling the same Cranston/Providence line gave Gomes, the head basketball coach at Bishop Hendricken, an in with Cooley. The bonds only grew during their three seasons together at Stonehill (1991-94), where Cooley served as a three-year captain. Cooley is a few years Gomes’ elder – “he was three years ahead of me in high school” – yet because Cooley attended a New Hampshire prep school upon graduating from Central High and was redshirted a year in college due a back injury, the pair were able to view one another as teammates.
“He took care of me. I was a young freshman coming in and he was a seasoned veteran,” recalls Gomes. “He took me under his wing, both of us coming from the same neighborhood. He became a great friend and a great mentor to me.”
Even as an adolescent, Gomes could tell Cooley possessed the necessary drive and aptitude to rise through the coaching ranks to one day have a Division I program to call his own.
“He has great leadership and communication skills. In college we used to call him the mayor because he knew everybody,” Gomes mentioned. “He networked and worked so hard. That’s why he’s a successful coach.”
Life splintered Gomes and Cooley in two different directions, as is sometimes the case when saying goodbye to college pals. Cooley was busy paying his dues as an assistant at URI and later Boston College before getting his own program to run in the spring of 2006, when he took over at Fairfield at age 36.
Also smitten by the coaching bug, Gomes returned to his alma mater where he would guide Hendricken to seven consecutive state titles, a run that was halted earlier this month.
“Nothing has surprised me,” says Gomes about Cooley, the coach.
Gomes was able to reconnect with Cooley last year, when he attended the funeral for Cooley’s stepmother. Over the winter Gomes brought his Hendricken team to Trumbull, Conn. to face St. Joseph’s High School. Present in the stands that night was Cooley, who was specifically there on a recruiting mission pertaining to a St. Joseph’s player. After the game Cooley went up to Gomes and extended an invite for Hendricken to swing by campus and check out a Fairfield practice the following day.
“We sat through an entire practice, then he took the whole team in the office and talked about what the expectations are for college basketball and what college coaches are looking for in high school players,” was the picture Gomes painted. “He gave us a tour of the campus … it was almost the same situation when he called me back in high school. We could see why he’s been so successful.”
Asked what jumped out as he watched Cooley conduct practice or saw Fairfield appear on television, Gomes responded, “His team is defensive-minded first. They play together as a unit and are very intelligent. The biggest thing I saw in the practice was how well they worked together and the amount of respect that they all had for their coach. It was extremely impressive.”
Such a rubber-stamp endorsement sends a clear message about the type of coach PC appears to be getting in Cooley – a coach that stresses the importance of grinding it out on the defensive end and holding his players accountable. This season saw Cooley’s Stags top the MAAC in scoring defense (58.3 ppg), allowing nearly two points fewer than the next closest team. On a national scale Fairfield currently sits second out of a possible 346 Div. I programs, though that could change with Wisconsin (58.5) and San Diego State (58.8) still alive in the NCAA Tournament.
Gomes is no different than the many others who perceive Cooley and PC as a good fit all the way around – something that is now a reality.
“What a story that would be, a Providence native with Providence ties who has worked his way up the ladder. In my opinion it would be the perfect fit for Providence College,” Gomes said. “Ed is a good person and you could see that by the way his players responded to him in practice. To be honest I think that’s what PC needs.”