October 7, 2009

Off The Bench

By John W. Gearan
Holy Cross Magazine

Forever he has been the kid lingering at courtside, waiting to be asked to play. As a high school and college player, he sat on the edge of the bench a lot, eager to get the minutes that he had earned in practices. Every season, he would fear getting cut. As a coach, he has served as an understudy for 22 seasons, wondering if his chance for a lead role would ever come.

There is, however, no quit in Sean Kearney. He would not give up on himself at Cardinal O’Hara High. He couldn’t be shooed away from playing at Scranton University. He believed hard work and determination would be rewarded. Someday, someplace.

About to turn 50 this November, finally Kearney knocked on a door of opportunity and somebody said, “Come in.”

Now he is the head basketball coach at Holy Cross, trying to fill the huge sneakers of departing Ralph Willard ’67. Athletic Director Dick Regan ’76 selected Kearney from a field of more than 50 applicants when Willard made a sudden decision in June to join his pal Rick Pitino at the University of Louisville. Willard, after coaching at his alma mater for 10 years, warmly endorsed the candidacy of Kearney, a longtime friend. He gave Regan an enthusiastic thumbs-up, praising the choice on his Web site. Willard “texted and e-mailed” his players, telling them not to fret, that they were in “terrific hands.”

There were no naysayers, says Regan, as he made scores of calls to basketball insiders while vetting Kearney’s credentials and character.

Kearney had paid his dues. He had proven his big-time acumen as a top assistant to Notre Dame’s Mike Brey for nine seasons (ND, 167-86 record). Peers cheered his selection. Well-liked and highly respected, the personable Kearney is being called “the perfect fit” by many in the coaching fraternity and beyond.

“I think I represent countless longtime assistants who have toiled long and hard to get a chance,” says Kearney. “I think they want me to succeed, and use me as a blueprint for the argument that a blue-collar guy can run a winning program.”

Then Kearney adds a note of caution. “I still have to prove I can win.” Indeed Willard will be a tough act to follow (192-116 record, four trips to the NCAA tournament).

He grew up like so many who have found their way to Holy Cross. Sean was one of five Kearney kids in an Irish-Catholic family. Springfield, Pa., outside Philadelphia, has no mean streets and playgrounds aplenty. His brother, Jim, a year older, loved baseball while Sean had an early passion for hoops. His sisters, Kathleen, Eileen and Molly, enjoyed books, sports and extracurricular activities of every description.

Alice Kearney, at times a stay-at-home mom and a teacher, had a master’s degree in dramatics from Catholic University and a flair for community theater. His dad, Jack, who fought in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II, worked for the federal Office of Personnel Management helping veterans find jobs. Jack had played some youth ball and encouraged his children to do the same. Both Alice and Jack hailed from Scranton, Pa., where neighborhoods were synonymous with parishes—Alice was Holy Rosary, Jack was Nativity.

Sean recalls biking to local playgrounds, looking for games and having to wait his turn until older kids would give him a chance. As he improved, he got to play longer stretches.

At Cardinal O’Hara, back then a high school of nearly 4,000, Sean was cut after trying out for the freshman team. That rejection only fueled his desire to succeed. He played junior varsity as a sophomore and junior. When Bud Gardler became the varsity coach before his senior year, rumors swirled that all the seniors would be cut. “I was thinking about transferring to public school,” Kearney says. But he stuck it out. And Coach Gardler became his lifelong mentor and inspiration.

“My senior year (1976-77), we played St. Dominic’s, a Long Island team coached by Ralph Willard. I’m pretty positive we lost,’’ says Kearney. “Ralph had become a good friend of Coach Gardler at summer camps. That prompted a longtime friendship between Ralph and me. We stayed in touch and even roomed one summer together while working a camp. Ralph has always been gracious and helpful to me.”

Kearney considered himself an “OK” guard. Despite evidence to the contrary, Kearney convinced himself he could play college basketball somewhere. He wrote letters pleading his case. From his parents’ hometown arrived a nibble of interest from the University of Scranton, a Jesuit school and a Division 3 NCAA title contender.

He played junior varsity ball at Scranton as a freshman and sophomore. Each spring he would ask head coach Bob Bessoir what he could do to improve his game. Each summer Kearney would help at camps, play in leagues, play pickup games in playgrounds, sweat and toil. “Coach Bessoir even suggested I become a volunteer assistant coach. But I told him I’d rather play,” Kearney recalls.

He got his minutes, even starting as a senior for the first half of the season as Scranton made the NCAA tournament. “I have zero complaints about playing time. I understood my abilities, fulfilled my passion for the game and played with great guys,” Kearney adds.

After college, Kearney worked for five years in insurance for CIGNA, where he met his future wife, Kim. He remained involved in basketball as an assistant under Coach Gardler at O’Hara High. In 1986 he plunged back into basketball full time, arriving at Rick Pitino’s office at Providence College to volunteer as an assistant. From dawn until noon, he worked the headphones at the Providence Journal answering complaints and filling newspaper orders. From noon to midnight, he was at Pitino’s beck and call during a magical season when Providence College with Billy Donovan advanced to the 1987 NCAA Final Four.

His climb continued. To Northwestern. To Division 2 Philadelphia Textile under Herb Magee. To Delaware for nine years, before moving with Mike Brey to Notre Dame.

He married Kim and they now have two daughters: Erin, a high school senior who plays clarinet and competed with Penn High in the Indiana State Marching Band championships, and Shannon, a talented swimmer.

Kearney admits he jumped at the opportunity to coach at Holy Cross. For him, it was a “wow” job: a top-notch academic school with an impressive athletic tradition. Being an Irish-American Catholic, Kearney knew he would be a good fit on the Hill and that he would be comfortable recruiting student-athletes with such an excellent product to pitch. His father, Jack, attended Holy Cross for a year before heading off to war. Indeed, Fr. John E. Brooks, S.J., ’49, Holy Cross president emeritus, welcomed Kearney with a photo of his dad from the 1941 Purple Patcher.

He has many boosters from the Scranton area, including family friend and former Holy Cross player, Ward FitzPatrick ’82. Scranton native P. Kevin Condron ’67 serves as the College’s Board of Trustees chair while his brother Christopher “Kip” Condron is board chair at the University of Scranton. Inside basketball and out, it appears Kearney has more connections than Verizon.

In July, he got off to a fast start, hopscotching the country to meet his returning players, the four incoming freshmen and their families. He bounced around to a half-dozen all-star showcase camps from Foxboro to Las Vegas looking for Crusader recruits.

Now he is trying to match the talents of his players to his preferred style, more up-tempo and offensive-minded than Willard’s dogged defense approach.

How will he do here? Time will tell. One thing is for certain though: Sean Kearney won’t quit trying.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2009 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.

John W. Gearan, was an award-winning reporter and columnist at the Worcester Telegram and Gazette for 36 years. He resides in Woonsocket, R.I., with his wife, Karen Maguire, and their daughter, Molly.