BRIDGEPORT, Conn. -- Monday night was the toughest game Providence coach Ed Cooley ever had to endure at Webster Bank Arena -- and he did it on an opposing sideline. The former Fairfield coach, who went 92-69 with the Stags (his only other job as a head coach) the past five years, saw his Friars upset -- yes, upset; the Stags were 7.5-point favorites -- the home team in front of a crowd of 6,375 people.
It was the regular-season attendance record for Fairfield. Cooley, who is beloved in the area despite never making an NCAA tournament, coming back was a large part of it, in addition to the fact Fairfield's considered an elite team in the MAAC, with Iona.
Cooley's team played well against his former one. Twice the Friars gave up double-digit leads, but the third time they put a barrier between themselves and the Stags, it didn't get close again. Providence 80, Fairfield 72. Cooley was so relieved the game had come and the day was finally over.
“I’m so happy today’s over,” Cooley said. “Just all the dog-gone questions. It’s about the players, it’s not about me. Make it about our players.”
But it was about Cooley and about one player: Fairfield's Rakim Sanders. Sanders is the fifth-year forward at Fairfield with the NBA game who was recruited by Cooley way back when. Back when Cooley was an assistant on the grind with Boston College, working toward his first head-coaching job, which he did get in 2006 at Fairfield.
Sanders transferred out of Boston College to Fairfield two years ago. The goal was to play for Cooley, for just the one year of eligibility he'd have left. Sanders scored more than a thousand points in ACC play. The two had become close over the years, and it was believed they'd reach the NCAA tournament together. He took his mandatory redshirt season last year and waited it out, watched a Fairfield team win the regular season in the MAAC but fall in the semifinals -- at home -- of the conference tourney.
After the season, the Providence job opened up, and Cooley had to take his hometown, dream gig. Marriage of coach/recruiter and player never came to be. Monday night, it was a bit awkward, as Cooley had to coach against a kid he brought closely into his life.
“I could say a thousand things about the guy,” Sanders said. “Great guy. Just, somebody you could talk to on a personal level. Growing up without a father figure, watching how he worked, went home to his family and kids -- he’s a beautiful person.”
Cooley did his best to answer all the questions one more time, but to make it more about his current kids. He acknowledged how much Sanders meant to him, but, really, the win was more uplifting than symbolic at this point for him.
“It was an emotional day for me, all-around,” Cooley said. “Today was about Providence College. … I’m very proud of the community coming out to support both teams. I’ll forever be a part of this (the Fairfield) program."
Sanders was a monster Monday night. He looked like an NBA draft pick, scoring 25 and grabbing nine boards despite being hampered with foul trouble and only getting 28 minutes of playing time. He certainly wasn't distracted -- but his team looked lackluster when he wasn't on the floor.
“I think I focused on the game well,” Sanders said. “It was about us, and what we did. It’s not about Cooley coming back and what he was going to do. But I’m sure a lot of our guys were a little more emotional, a little more up to play. It’s like any other game, really, for me. It’s not about me -- it’s about how we played and this new chapter for us.”
What's more, it was the first Providence road win in nearly two years (Jan. 14, 2010 against DePaul), a fact Cooley was unaware of until it was pointed out to him earlier in the day. He and his team were also aware of how they weren't expected to win this game.
“I told my team. We played a veteran team, we’re young, they’re experienced, they earned that line to start the game,” Cooley said. “I definitely told my team about that. There’s no secrets, no secrets in that locker room.”
And no secrets about what Cooley meant to Fairfield, what Fairfield meant to him, and what Sanders and Cooley still mean to each other. But those relationship can continue to grow well after this season has past. The two programs got their shot at each other, the former coach one, and now everyone can move on. After seeing the body language in the hall afterward, it's definitely what everyone is ready for, almost as if this was an irritating chore that needed to be taken care of before each team's season could really begin.Photo: AP