Commentary

Hoops roots run deep with Gallagher

Originally Published: July 9, 2010
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

Bouncing along on the bus with Lionel Simmons and the rest of the top-25 La Salle basketball team, an 11-year-old John Gallagher declared his intent to become a Division I basketball coach.

The adults did what all adults do -- they patted him on the head, told him it was good to have dreams and figured he'd change his mind 25 times before he really hit the job market.

"I remember him as a kid," Boston College coach Steve Donahue said. "He was so excited, but you never know how long the light will burn once people realize how hard this job can be. With John, the light never went out."

In April, the University of Hartford named Gallagher it's new basketball coach.

[+] EnlargeJohn Gallagher
nkJohn Gallagher had quite a whirlwind 11 days before accepting the Hartford head-coaching job.

He's only 32.

And he has 11 years of Division I experience under his belt.

"[Former La Salle head coach] Speedy [Morris] let me go out with the team to Notre Dame as a ball boy," Gallagher said of his fateful trip with the Explorers. "That's when I knew. One of my sisters is a lawyer, one's a doctor and the other is a college professor. I knew I wanted to be around basketball."

As things often happen in situations like this, the job Gallagher spent a lifetime waiting for came to fruition in a whirlwind flash.

When he was an assistant at Penn, Gallagher headed to this year's Final Four, unsure if he and his interim head coach, Jerome Allen, would have a job next year. Penn finally tabbed Allen for the permanent gig two days after the national championship game and Allen kept Gallagher on as his assistant.

Eight days later, Donahue -- a Philly native who worked at Penn and graduated from the same high school as Gallagher -- called to ask Gallagher to join him at BC as an assistant.

Gallagher said yes, which opened a spot up on the Penn staff.

Eight days later, Allen hired then-Hartford head coach and former Temple assistant Dan Leibovitz to replace Gallagher.

Before coming to Penn, Gallagher had spent two years as Liebovitz's assistant at Hartford.

So when Leibovitz left town, Hartford athletic director Pat Meiser made one call -- to Gallagher. He interviewed with Meiser for two hours, met with university president Walter Harrison for 30 minutes and finally, after 21 years of dreaming, was offered his first head-coaching position.

For those without the benefit of a scorecard, that's going from potentially unemployed to a Penn assistant to a Boston College assistant to Hartford's head coach, all in the span of 11 days.

"It was crazy," Gallagher said. "When the offer finally comes, you're just in shock. It's a lifelong dream being realized and it's just an indescribable moment."

Emotionally he may have been overwhelmed, but in terms of basketball know-how, Gallagher is more than ready.

Gallagher literally grew up on the Philadelphia college basketball courts. Donahue remembers a 15-year-old Gallagher peppering him with questions and information about coaching the game -- not just playing it.

Gallagher had the good fortune to learn from some of Philadelphia's best basketball minds. In high school, he played for Bud Gardler, a city legend who has groomed more than his fair share of coaches -- Donahue and former Holy Cross boss Sean Kearney among them.

In college, Gallagher played for Phil Martelli at Saint Joseph's, and as a coach, he worked alongside Morris at La Salle, Fran O'Hanlon (a former Penn assistant) at Lafayette and eventually Liebovitz, John Chaney's longtime right-hand man at Temple, in Hartford.

It was crazy. When the offer finally comes, you're just in shock. It's a lifelong dream being realized and it's just an indescribable moment.

-- New Hartford coach John Gallagher

After getting the news from UH, Gallagher's first call from that long litany of mentors went to O'Hanlon.

Gallagher spent just one season at Lafayette, but took what he considers critical knowledge along with him. He watched O'Hanlon do the little things to build his program -- allowing the seniors to pick their seats on the bus first and eat first, followed by the juniors, on down the line -- that he believes structure a team forever.

"I wouldn't be prepared to win basketball games if it wasn't for him," Gallagher said. "He calls it the rite of passage. In 10 years, players will come back to his program and it will be running the same way. It gets seniors to teach the freshmen, this is how it's done and affects the culture. That's what I want to do."

The catch is, Gallagher wants to do it all and do it all now.

He is as high-energy as they come, the typical cell-phone-constantly-pressed-to-the-ear coach.

But nothing is going to happen overnight at Hartford.

After a strong 18-16 run in Gallgaher's first year on staff, the Hawks have tumbled. Decimated by injuries, they finished just 8-22 last season and 7-26 the year before.

As eager as he is for this opportunity, Gallagher has to temper his expectations or risk becoming his own worst enemy.

"The best part about John is his incredible enthusiasm and excitement, but that can backfire if you're not careful," Donahue said. "You have to keep it simple and do one thing at a time. You can't accomplish 8,000 things in a day. You have to build things slowly because, if you look at the guys who took the shortcuts, most of them don't last."

After waiting this long, Gallagher intends to last.

He will pack up his team for a 10-day swing through Australia next month and then return to ready for the season, the season he's been dreaming of for a lifetime.

"I'm the youngest of 53 first cousins; I know at least 50 of them and their families plan to be at the first home game," Gallagher said. "I already told my mom to figure that out. I don't want to be getting text messages on the day of the game from the guys in the neighborhood looking for tickets."

Spoken like a guy who knows a thing or two about being a head coach.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

Dana O'Neil | email

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