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From UMass Dartmouth to March Madness: Providence coach Ed Cooley has local ties

It will make Ed Cooley stop as the Providence College men’s basketball coach makes his way around campus.

Cooley used to hear it more often, long before this year’s Sporting News Coach of the Year reached stardom by reviving a Friars program and guiding Providence to its first Big East Conference regular season title this winter.

Now, when three extra letters get attached to his first name, it harkens Cooley back to a much different time in his life when he was a player and later a coach at Stonehill College three decades ago.

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“I’ve had other classmates whose kids now come to Providence College,” said the 52-year-old Cooley. “It’s crazy. You’re walking around campus and when I hear someone call me Eddie, I’m like, ‘Oh, somebody knows me.’ Not many people call me Eddie.”

It’s not the only way those who knew Cooley at Stonehill refer to him. Cooley also earned himself a nickname as a student-athlete due to his magnetic personality.

“Jokingly we used to call him the mayor of Stonehill,” said Bishop Hendricken boys basketball coach and athletic director Jamal Gomes, who played two seasons alongside Cooley at Stonehill. “Everybody gravitated toward him. He just had a wonderful personality. He was funny, quick-witted. Quick-witted, but always real and that’s why I know he connects with his players at Providence College because he’s real.”

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Cooley has had a high profile in Providence ever since putting together a storied basketball career in the city at Central High, where he twice won Rhode Island Player of the Year honors along with a pair of state titles.

Ed Cooley played in 107 games at Stonehill, compiling 795 points, 594 rebounds and over 100 assists.
Ed Cooley played in 107 games at Stonehill, compiling 795 points, 594 rebounds and over 100 assists.

After a prep year at New Hampton, Cooley made his way to Stonehill in the fall of 1989. For Cooley, just receiving a basketball scholarship to the Division II school was a momentous occasion. Cooley, who persevered through a tough upbringing, said he wouldn’t have been able to attend college without it “because as a family we couldn’t afford college.”

Cooley went on to play in 107 games at Stonehill, compiling 795 points, 594 rebounds and over 100 assists. A back injury, which required surgery following his second season and also resulted in Cooley redshirting his junior year, ended up hampering his career, but gave Cooley extra time on the Easton campus.

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“I have great memories of Stonehill College,” Cooley said. “Met some of my best friends in the world. I grew up there. I learned a lot about how to be different.”

Even as Cooley suited up for Stonehill, there were early indications that he had the makings of a coach. Cooley led by example and had the respect of his peers as evidenced by being a three-time captain for the then-Chieftains.

Former Stonehill coach Dave DeCiantis, who was an assistant when Cooley played and later hired Cooley to be on his staff, saw the inherent coaching characteristics Cooley exhibited whenever he took the floor with his teammates.

Ed Cooley played on the Stonehill College men's basketball team from 1989 to 1994.
Ed Cooley played on the Stonehill College men's basketball team from 1989 to 1994.

“He was a real leader,” said DeCiantis as he's known Cooley since Cooley was 14 and the two remain close today. “He was very vocal. He was a guy who was talking on the court constantly to his teammates, encouraging people.”

Both DeCiantis and Gomes raved about Cooley’s ability to develop relationships with those around him, a quality they both believe has been vital to his success as a coach. For Gomes, his relationship with Cooley really started with a phone call.

Gomes, who is four years younger than Cooley, got ready to leave for his graduation from Bishop Hendricken in 1991 when the phone rang. Cooley was on the line, congratulating Gomes on signing with Stonehill and wanting to welcome Gomes into the program.

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And while Cooley ended up taking Gomes under his wing during their time together at Stonehill – they both entered the school’s athletic Hall of Fame together in 2019 – it was that simple gesture of Cooley reaching out that has stuck with Gomes all these years later.

“I mean think about that, a college junior calling a prospective student-athlete coming to a new school and welcoming him. It’s just amazing,” Gomes said. “He’s thinking like a coach when he was still in college playing basketball.

“I was so excited. I was blown away. What it did was it told me what Eddie Cooley was about and what Stonehill College was about. I was just extremely impressed. I walked out of my house with a huge smile on my face getting ready to go graduate after that.”

Ed Cooley and Jamal Gomes at their enshrinement into the Stonehill College Athletics Hall of Fame in 2019.
Ed Cooley and Jamal Gomes at their enshrinement into the Stonehill College Athletics Hall of Fame in 2019.

DeCiantis envisioned Cooley going on to become a high school principal or superintendent, something that crossed Cooley’s mind as well when he taught for two years at Bridgewater-Raynham following his graduation from Stonehill in 1994.

But Cooley’s passion for coaching was too strong to ever fully venture down another career path.

“Honestly, I was born a coach,” Cooley said. “I’ve been a coach my whole life. I’ve always been a leader. I’m not afraid of the leadership position, the good, the bad and the ugly. I don’t say that arrogantly. I’ve always wanted to be a leader. When I was a high school teacher in Bridgewater, I liked teaching, but I loved coaching.”

While teaching during the day, Cooley received his first coaching gig right out of college as an assistant on Brian Baptiste’s staff at Division III UMass Dartmouth, which became the starting point of a coaching career now nearing 30 years.

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Baptiste, who knew of Cooley’s high school exploits on the hardwood and tried to recruit him, learned Cooley was interested in coaching from one of his players, Steve Haynes.

With a spot open on his staff, Baptiste brought Cooley on board and for Cooley, his initiation into the coaching ranks was a laundry list of responsibilities.

“Everything,” said Baptiste of what Cooley’s coaching tasks were at UMass Dartmouth. “If we were traveling without a bus and we had to take vans, he’d drive a van. He was responsible for recruiting. He was responsible for bed check when we went into the hotels when we were on trips with kids. Just about everything you can think of in the world of college basketball he had that as part of his responsibilities.”

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Baptiste sensed right away that Cooley was destined for much more in the coaching world. It is as if Baptiste had access to a crystal ball.

After one season at UMass Dartmouth, Cooley went back to his alma mater to serve as an assistant under DeCiantis for a year. Cooley’s coaching journey was just in its infancy as he linked up with Al Skinner next, spending 10 seasons with Skinner, which first included a lone season at the University of Rhode Island before following Skinner to Boston College.

Cooley’s first head-coaching opportunity didn’t come until 2006 at Fairfield University, where he stayed for five seasons and led the Stags to 25 wins and an NIT appearance in his final year at the helm.

Cooley’s last coaching move came in March 2011 when he took over at Providence. He’s now in his 11th season with the Friars and has ushered in an era of prosperity. Providence made the NCAA Tournament in five consecutive seasons, a school-record, under Cooley and it will put on its dancing shoes again this year.

Providence (25-5) earned a No. 4 seed, the highest in school history, and will play No. 13 South Dakota State on Thursday in Buffalo.

Providence Friars head coach Ed Cooley reacts after a play by the Xavier Musketeers in the second half at Cintas Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, on Jan. 26, 2022.
Providence Friars head coach Ed Cooley reacts after a play by the Xavier Musketeers in the second half at Cintas Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, on Jan. 26, 2022.

With all his success, the wins have piled up and it brought Cooley another achievement in early January when he earned his 300th career victory.

“It’s not surprising to me,” Baptiste said. “I could tell right from the beginning. Ed was a fun guy to be around. He’s got a big personality. He was great on the recruiting trail because the kids like him. He was great with the team because he could relate to them. He was right out of college himself. I just thought he did a great job all the way around and … I could see that he was primed for greatness.”

Those early years in coaching, when he was at four different colleges in as many years, were necessary though for Cooley to build a solid foundation.

In his one season on the sideline at Stonehill, he had a hand in recruiting and continued to acquire tools of the coaching trade.

“Back then he was learning,” DeCiantis said. “He was kind of quiet. He would give me suggestions and those kinds of things. He was not nearly the polished coach that he is today.”

With his ability to cultivate relationships and sell the program for which he had played for, recruiting players to come to Stonehill came naturally for Cooley. He did encounter an early challenge though, one that he doesn’t have to face these days.

As a young coach, he could look at the players in the locker room at Stonehill and still see a few of his former teammates.

“The hard part was adjusting to how close I was in age to some of the other players,” Cooley said. “That was the tough part going from basically roommates, housemates, partymates to coach. So, I had to grow up pretty fast.”

Providence Friars head coach Ed Cooley high-fives his players during a practice before the first round of the 2018 NCAA Tournament at Spectrum Center  In Charlotte, North Carolina, on March 15, 2018.
Providence Friars head coach Ed Cooley high-fives his players during a practice before the first round of the 2018 NCAA Tournament at Spectrum Center In Charlotte, North Carolina, on March 15, 2018.

Cooley said he has changed a ton since that coaching stint at Stonehill and that he adapts as a coach year-to-year.

Providence has certainly felt the benefits of that with Cooley orchestrating arguably his best coaching campaign this year.

Maybe the biggest part of Cooley’s triumphant tenure at Providence is his capability of getting his players to buy into his program.

“He’s a very good defensive coach,” DeCiantis said. “He plays the game at a pace that he’s comfortable. His teams mirror his personality. His team is tough, they have a lot of sticktoitiveness, they don’t give up, they play right to the end of the game.”

Despite his coaching ascent, Cooley hasn’t lost sight of where his roots were first planted. It’s why to begin this season, Providence hosted Stonehill for an exhibition contest – it’s the fourth time the Friars have done so since Cooley became coach.

For Cooley, it’s a way to recognize a place that he feels did so much for him.

“I do it because I’m grateful. I do it because I’m thankful,” Cooley said. “I think it gives (Stonehill coach) Chris (Kraus) a profile for him to recruit, too. Allows his fan base to come to the Dunkin Donuts Center to play against a Big East team, to challenge his team. It’s just a small token of appreciation and a give back to men’s basketball from my behalf.”

But for Cooley, the matchup against his alma mater isn’t a time to become reminiscent.

“When I’m in work mode I appreciate it, but zero, zero nostalgia,” Cooley said.

A lot can change in 30 years and for Cooley it certainly has. He has reached a level in coaching that for some of those who knew him at his humble beginnings thought was always well within his reach.

Even with all the high acclaim thrown his way, Cooley has stayed true to himself. No matter if he’s called Ed or Eddie.

“He hasn’t changed,” Gomes said. “That’s the beauty of it.”

This article originally appeared on The Enterprise: Providence College's Ed Cooley showed coaching potential at Stonehill