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Weight loss, house fire, 15-5 season lead to memorable year for Cooley

By Matt Norlander | College Basketball Writer

Ed Cooley has lost more than 100 pounds and is still on pace to drop another 25. (USATSI)
Ed Cooley has lost more than 120 pounds and is still on pace to drop another 15. (USATSI)

No combination of coach and program has changed more from a year ago than Ed Cooley and Providence.

You see the drastic appearance alteration for Cooley in the photos above. He's peeled off eight coat sizes and lost approximately 125 pounds since last July. Currently weighing 230 pounds, Cooley said he's still got another 10 or 15 to go before his goal is truly met. Weight-loss stories are always inspiring, but we haven't seen one like this in the physically taxing vocation of college basketball coaching in a long time, maybe ever, when you consider how drastically Cooley's figure has changed in a half-year's time.

The 44-year-old has gone through a redefining process and endured a few personal and professional setbacks along the way. I spoke with Cooley Sunday morning, hours removed from his team getting to 15-5 and 5-2 in the Big East after beating Xavier. The Friars were upgraded onto the No. 8 seed line in Jerry Palm's latest edition of Bracketology because of that quality win.

After losing five-star sophomore point guard Kris Dunn for the season in mid-December because of shoulder surgery, and then top-50 recruit Brandon Austin to transfer, nobody expected Providence to do much of anything this year. It looked to be another supposedly middling season, another campaign that would see the Friars flail in irrelevance on the national scene.

But the team has really rallied while one of its players (converted point guard Bryce Cotton, averaging 20.5 PPG, 5.9 APG, 3.4 RPG) has balled his way into the mix for All-American discussion. Throughout this process, Cooley's players have proven themselves to be inspired by their coach's words, actions and love.

“You share the life of adversity with your team and you try to encourage them to be different and don't worry about failure," Cooley said as he made his way down I-95, into Connecticut, to watch 4-17 Fairfield host a game against Siena on his "off day." Cooley left Fairfield for Providence nearly three years ago, but his ties to the school remain strong. He strives to be a man of his word, and that's evident in how he continues to need a new wardrobe by the month thanks to running four, five, six miles every day.

Cooley estimates his highest weight was between 344-346 pounds. It's taken six months to lose 36 percent of who he was. That is astonishing. And the journey continues. Sunday was Day 50 of Cooley's self-imposed sanction to keep up his physical habits -- every day.

"If you would've asked me if I liked running a year ago, man, I wouldn't have a run a block," Cooley said. "Now I'm addicted. If I don't work out, my day doesn't start."

***

The change in Cooley's life came last year, when he promised himself, his wife, his children that he was going to alter his health and weight -- permanently. Too often he was supressing depressing feelings and shaking off the obvious: he was fat, endangering his future, and in general not nearly as happy as he knew he could be.

“I tell my story because I want to help other people in that dark space with their weight,” Cooley said. "There's not a coach more appreciative of opportunity, but I want to try and enjoy my life later, because I'm not going to coach my entire life. In coaching, you sacrifice a lot, and the first thing that goes is family. I don't want to put my wife through this in my 60s.”

Cooley elected to have gastric, laporoscopic surgery on July 24, 2013, at Roger Williams Medical Center. He would've had the surgery sooner, but given the stresses and obligations almost every month for a college coach, Cooley had to wait until the right time to allow him to heal and not affect his ability to run a program, even during the offseason. (Newsflash: for good or for bad, there are no true offseasons in the college basketball profession.)

Prior to surgery, Cooley was required to go through myriad tests for blood work, possible sleep disorders, emotional evalutations. An alteration in Cooley's diet three weeks prior to the procedure was also necessary. He consulted with nutrionsists and began greatly reducing his daily calorie count: three shakes and a small meal every day, mostly consuming protein with each intake. That led Cooley to lost somewhere between 15 and 20 pounds before having a portion of his stomach taken out.

Then came the surgery. He sat in a hospital bed, and the sutures clasped to Cooley's insides made it uncomfortable in most positions. The day after his surgery, the team showed up and crammed in his hospital room. Cooley was on a strict 400-calorie-per-day diet, taking in nothing but liquids for the first week. Eventually, he moved from broths to sugar-free popsicles, some shakes and tea for about two and a half weeks. Then came the tough stuff: cottage cheese, soup, yogurt, puréed food. Eventually he was able to handle eggs and cream of wheat. His first solid food, which was mainly vegetables, didn't come until October, three months after the surgery.

“It's then you notice what you really love, and I didn't know this, but I really love pizza,” Cooley said.

Cooley said when you're in the midst of bloating yourself, you just eat and eat and don't really realize the food you actually love, because you fill yourself with anything that is designed to make you crave more bad food. This is how Ed Cooley was: a supposedly happy man willingly eating himself to a shorter life.

***

The discipline to maintain the diet is one thing, but the dedication to physical fitness also came almost immediately. At first, Cooley would walk the length of his driveway. Not enough, he told himself. Then he'd walk the distance of three driveways down the street in his East Greenwich, R.I., neighborhood.

More. Seven driveways. Then all the way to the end of a cul-de-sac. A few weeks in, it was time to keep going. Cooley got in his car and measured out a quarter-mile, a half-mile. Three miles. Four. He'd do it every day. But his calorie intake was so low (400-600 per day per doctors' orders), that he had to slow himself down. He was exhausted and unable to do anything after simply walking for 15 minutes or so.

As he was able to get closer to 1,200-1,400 calories per day, he'd move from walking to jogging. And then he'd increase the speed on the treadmill. More to be less.

Now, six months removed from the surgery that has changed his life, Cooley is mixing in weight training in addition to daily cardio.

"It gives me freedom of thought, puts me in a really, really good space emotionally.”

***

Winning the battle against his weight is why Cooley wasn't set back when a fire in his house destroyed some of the home, ruining much of the insulation due to water damage. Cooley's wife, Nurys, prays a lot. She prayed that night. Prayed for Ed to have his season turn. Investigators told Cooley it was likely a flame from a candle in the bathroom that caught on with the fiberglass tub, leading to hideous black smoke and fire to fill the bathroom and master bedroom. That catalyzed the house's sprinkler system, leading to copious soot.

Cooley, who's gone from a 51 to a 36 waist, lost many of the clothes he'd recently purchased amid his impressive weight loss.

"It was emotionally taxing, but at the same you can replace things," Cooley said. "And if the right side of my house is burned up tomorrow to win five more games, I'll do it."

The mishap displaced the Cooleys to a hotel, where they've been for nearly three weeks. It's going to be another six to eight weeks, still, until they can move back to the house. Cooley jokes with the desk clerks about seeing them at "home" later on when he leaves the hotel in the mornings.

It's an adjustment for his family, but Cooley was perfectly made for this circumstance. Coaches learn to live on the road, to be in hotels. It's always been part of the job.

When the fire happened, no one was hurt, but water damage in addition to fire and smoke damage led to necessary major repairs on the home. Cooley found all of this out as he was driving home on Tuesday, Jan 7. The team was coming off a three-game losing streak: an overtime game to UMass; a double-OT drop to Seton Hall; and its most recent loss being a 91-61 outcome to Villanova, wherein the Friars got "kicked in the teeth." He was not in a good place in that respect.

Since Nurys' prayer for an improved season for his husband, Providence has not lost. Mom, dad and children Isaiah and Olivia are cramped in their hotel room, but they've made it work. They still have "Jeopardy time" every night. Between the surgery, the recovery, the fire and even a battle with vertigo for Cooley earlier this year, dozens of coaches have been in contact with him, calling to talk and express their utter happiness.

Nothing delivers joy like his team constantly speaking up to him, though.

“I really credit my team," Cooley said. "I ask them to help me. I ask them to push me. If I look drained, help me out. They say, 'We got coach, we got your back.' I love hearing that. I got a tear in my eye saying that. That means you've connected with your kids beyond basketball.”

And now Providence faces its toughest basketball stretch yet: four out of the next five games on the road, beginning with Thursday's tilt at Marquette. Cooley attributes the winning season due to a preparedness that the club did not have last year, when expectations were big but injuries and suspensions led to the team spinning its wheels.

It's been 10 years since Providence made the NCAA tournament. The fans are starving to get back. This season, no matter what happens, has become a year of change -- all for the better -- for the program and the thinning man you might not have noticed reshaping everything.

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