Commentary

Family effort lifts Lehigh to NCAA berth

Originally Published: March 10, 2009
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

BETHLEHEM, Pa. -- Lehigh is going to play under the bright lights of the NCAA tournament for just the second time ever, but it might not be such a bad thing if the basketball world turned its spotlight on this quiet corner of Pennsylvania a little more often.

[+] EnlargeAlex Ross
AP Photo/Rich SchultzAlex Ross hit six 3-pointers and scored 21 points Wednesday to help coach Sue Troyan and Lehigh secure the Patriot League's automatic NCAA berth.

In front of a raucous crowd of 2,339 at Stabler Arena, Lehigh held off archrival Lafayette 64-56 in the Patriot League championship game Wednesday. Junior Alex Ross scored 20-first half points, including six 3-pointers, and Patriot League player of the year Erica Prosser chipped in eight points, six assists, four rebounds and key defensive plays.

But while the action on the court was compelling enough to send the Lehigh students streaming onto the court after the final buzzer, it wasn't even the best part of the story.

Lehigh coach Sue Troyan has led Division I teams to multiple conference titles in two sports: softball and basketball. And that's something not even Geno Auriemma or Pat Summitt can claim.

Then again, she's still just the second-most successful coach in her own house, at least if you're counting Patriot League championship trophies.

It's not news that they do things differently in the Patriot League, where two service academies play most of their sports and where, until recent years, athletic scholarships weren't a part of the competitive landscape for any of the league's eight full-time members. But even that iconoclastic reputation pales in comparison to what Sue and Fran Troyan have done with the familiar idea of creating a family atmosphere in a sports program.

As a novice 22-year-old softball coach in 1991, Sue proceeded to win three conference titles in her first five years in the sport. Then she turned over the program to her husband, Fran, and went about rebuilding a basketball program that had fallen on hard times.

In the meantime, Fran ran off 11 regular-season titles in 12 seasons on the diamond.

Not bad for a young couple who came to the Lehigh Valley two decades ago seeing the area and coaching as temporary stops on the way to a more conventional American dream.

"She was finishing up her MBA and we were going to do the young, yuppie thing," Fran said. "We were sending résumés all over the place, because she had an MBA, I had a law degree and had clerked for a judge in the Allentown area."

Sue and Fran met when she was finishing her undergraduate studies at Dickinson College, where he was enrolled in law school. She was an All-American javelin thrower and a decorated basketball player. Sports were an instant connection; he had been an all-conference baseball player at Allegheny College and, by his own estimation, a less successful 5-foot-8 basketball player for a couple of seasons.

Kristen Waagbo
Mark CovelleWife Sue has guided Lehigh's women's basketball team to the program's second NCAA tournament bid. But Fran Troyan's Lehigh softball squad also enjoys success, making five NCAA tournament appearances under his tutelage.

"In college, I was kind of a 30-30-30 player," Fran said of his hoops career. "I got in if we were up by 30 or down by 30 but never with more than 30 seconds left."

When Sue accepted a graduate assistant's job with the women's basketball team at Lehigh while she pursued her MBA at the school, he found a clerkship in nearby Allentown. As they suggested, it wasn't supposed to be a long-term fix. Right up until it was.

"I had called to accept a position at a center-city Philadelphia law firm that I had interviewed with," Fran recalled. "And the person that I had interviewed with wasn't in, and I didn't want to leave a message. In the interim, before he called me back, Sue said, 'Hey, Lehigh has come to me and they want to offer me a position as an assistant basketball coach, but in order to fund the position, I'd have to be the head softball coach. What do you think of staying here in the Lehigh Valley and helping me out with the softball side of things?'

"So in an instant, kind of, our lives had changed right there."

Fran worked for several years as a part-time assistant coach for both the basketball and softball teams, all while spending his days in courtrooms as a trial attorney doing civil litigation. Sue learned softball as quickly as she could and turned a program that won seven games the year before she arrived into a conference power.

When the couple had their first child, daughter Katie, Sue gave up the basketball assistant's job to focus on her softball program and her daughter. But when the former basketball coach left soon thereafter, prior to the 1995-96 season, Sue returned to her first coaching love and handed the softball reins to her husband. The initial arrangement was for both to assist the other, while Fran also served as in-house counsel for the school. But as their family grew with the addition of sons David and Matthew, they each ultimately focused on their own sport.

"She decided she needed to move in a different direction, I think, and she fired me," Fran deadpanned. "Fortunately, just at Lehigh."

Where most programs talk about a family atmosphere, the Troyans have lived it. As Sue separated the final strands of the net from the rim in the celebration after Wednesday's win, her youngest son, Matthew, was right there with her at the top of the ladder. Then there is a color-coded calendar in the family's home, with each family member allotted a color to try to keep schedules straight between five different sets of school and athletic obligations (all three children are active in athletics, including a state volleyball championship for Katie in her freshman year of high school).

"The only way we do it is he's so supportive of me, I'm so supportive of him," Sue said of the marriage. "And we really make it work because we do it together. When I'm in season, he's Mr. Mom. And this is the most challenging time; we've got eight weeks of overlap -- and now probably two more weeks. But we do it with good friends and teamwork with us together, making it work."

It's a philosophy that only really works by incorporating it into every phase of their lives. Sue considers coaching a "lifestyle" rather than a "job," and her basketball players treat her like a second mother, just as she treats them as a second set of offspring.

"Coach is probably one of the most caring people I've ever met," basketball co-captain Tricia Smith said with a slight quiver in her voice in the moments after what might have been her final game at Stabler Arena, if she elects not to return for a possible fifth season. "She goes above and beyond her job description. She really cares about every single one of us as people, not just as athletes. I think everyone on this team just has the utmost respect for her. Just looking back at my four years, coach has just become a great friend to me. I could talk to her about anything, and I think she'll continue to be a part of everyone's lives, even when we're done playing basketball."

And when Lafayette threatened to swipe the NCAA tournament berth away from the top seed Wednesday night, trimming a double-digit deficit to a single point with a furious second-half rally, that bond might have been the difference. The underdog Leopards took Ross out of the game after her hot start, but seniors like Smith, Melissa Rich, Claire Sullivan and Haly Crites came up with just enough plays to hold on.

"Claire was on the bench, and every time I'd look over, she'd look at me and she's like, 'Coach, we got this,'" Sue said of the second half. "Tricia would come off the floor in a timeout, 'Coach, we got this; we are not losing this game.' Honestly, in their mind, there was just never a doubt. And I think when you have kids that believe like that and just trust in everything you're doing, it helps you win games like that down the stretch."

With all the success that both coaches have had in their respective sports, there have been offers to move to places where it might be easier to recruit prep All-Americans, where the admissions standards and academic load might not eliminate so many of those who are interested in the programs. But it's hard to walk away from family, even if the bonds are the brown and white of Lehigh's colors instead of the crimson hue of blood.

"Both of us have had opportunities along the way to move up, I guess you would say," Sue said. "And I think it always comes back, to us, as a family decision, to be somewhere where we don't have to sacrifice -- we can raise our family the way we feel good about. That's always my No.1 priority. And as you make different choices, I think that's a little harder to do."

It's not nearly as hard as what Sue and Fran Troyan have managed to do over the last 20 years in a place they never expected to stay.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.