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The Cooley Way: How winning became the norm in Providence

A timeline of Ed Cooley’s program-changing rebuild in the Ocean State

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Raleigh Practice Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Culture. You hear it time and time again. It’s a popular buzzword that often revolves around a failing team or program. “They need a culture change”. Well Providence did, and Ed Cooley brought about this transformation rather quickly. And oddly enough, he managed to win a little bit along the way. Stay the course and instill confidence in those around you, that’s the Cooley way.

March 23, 2011

From his introductory press conference in 2011, Cooley brought confidence and a winning aura to a program that was struggling to find its identity. See 2:00-2:25 and 4:25-4:45 of the video above for examples.

The Friars hadn’t made the NCAA Tournament in 8 years, and hadn’t taken back to back tourney trips since 1988-1989. Any sort of consistency had been absent since the mid 90’s.

It’s not uncommon for an introductory press conference to sound like Cooley’s, but it is rare to see a coach stick to his word like he has.

May 1, 2011

Cooley has his first two recruits in LaDontae Henton and Kiwi Gardner. Henton was a three star recruit from Lansing, Michigan, who would turn out to be a cornerstone of the program for the next four years. Gardner on the other hand was a 5-7 YouTube sensation, known for his explosive style of play. He would never play for the Friars, as eligibility issues plagued his freshman season, and ultimately pushed him to a short-lived junior college stint before ending up in the D-League. Nonetheless, Cooley had hit the ground running.

Season 1 (2011-12)

After getting commitments from Gardner and Henton soon after becoming head coach, many thought that the main focus would then turn towards the upcoming season, his first at the helm for the Friars. Turns out Cooley had much more in store.

By early September, Cooley had already put together a Top 10 recruiting class for 2012. He received commitments from McDonald’s All-Americans Kris Dunn and Ricky Ledo, who were both ranked in the Top 10 for their respective positions, while also locking up three-star sharp shooter Josh Fortune. In a matter of months, Cooley had already put together the sixth-best 2012 class in the nation.

The 2011-12 Friars finished at 15-17 in Cooley’s first season as head coach. They would win just four games in the Big East, and Kiwi Gardner would eventually leave the program for junior college. But he stuck to the plan: Build up the culture, build through relationships, and the results will come. This was Cooley’s mantra, and for those surrounding the program, that was evident.

Henton would be named to the Big East All-Rookie team, which gave the program a positive outlook alongside their stellar incoming recruits.

Season 2 (2012-13)

Ed Cooley’s second season as Providence’s head coach would be one of the biggest tests in his coaching career.

Things were looking up in the late spring and early summer, as PC was awaiting their nationally ranked recruiting class, while returning Bryce Cotton, Kadeem Batts, and Henton. As the summer months moved along, things unfortunately became a little less bright in Friartown.

Kris Dunn had recently injured his shoulder, and was going to need surgery. They were going to be without him until at least December. Ricky Ledo was in a battle with the NCAA over eligibility issues. Just like that, the status of Cooley’s two All-Americans was up in the air. On top of that, the Friars lost a commitment from three-star point guard Ian Baker.

So as you can tell, the Friars were going to be shorthanded heading into the 2012-13 season. Dunn would eventually miss the first nine games of the season, but was able to play in 24 contests on the year. Ledo on the other hand would lose his fight with the NCAA, and like Gardner, never suit up for the Friars. He would declare for the NBA Draft later that year.

Cooley steered the Friars to a 19-15 record and an NIT appearance. They finished Big East play winning seven of their last nine, which was good enough for the second best in-season turnaround in conference history. Despite losing three recruits, Cooley was sticking with his plan. He still had Providence heading in the right direction.

Underneath the headlines dominated by the 2012 group, the Friars had picked up a second Top 100 prospect in Brandon Austin for the class of 2013. He joined three-star forward Rodney Bullock to round out another solid job by Cooley and his staff.

Season 3 (2013-14)

With the Ledo saga behind them, Dunn healthy, transfers eligible, and Cotton, Batts, and Henton leading the way, Providence was set up rather nicely for the inaugural season of the reconfigured Big East.

Cooley had also put together another phenomenal recruiting class, as his 2014 group ranked 20th in the country and included Top 100 prospects Jalen Lindsey and Paschal Chukwu. The two commits that were outside the Top 100? Ben Bentil and Kyron Cartwright . Not too shabby

Cooley’s rebuilding process seemed to be going well. Despite ineligibility and injury issues, he was continuing to crush the recruiting scene, while having his current team set up nicely for the upcoming season. At least so we thought.

Kris Dunn’s shoulder flairs up again, he misses the entire season. Both incoming freshmen get suspended for violating team rules, and neither Austin nor Bullock play a single game all season.

Things started to go down hill again, but as he did in the past, Cooley stayed the course. He trusted the guys he had, instilled faith in them, and kept the confidence that he entered with just two years prior.

Five months later the Friars are Big East champions. Providence finishes at 23-12, the most wins for the program since the 1996-97 season, reaches the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 10 years, Bryce Cotton is cemented as a Providence legend and another nationally ranked recruiting class is on its way to Friartown.

The 2013-14 season was a major part of Cooley’s rebuilding process. Yes, winning the Big East Tournament and getting a bid to the big dance are obvious headliners, however there was more to this season than just that. Cooley could’ve panicked and changed the course when he faced more recruiting issues. He could’ve yelled uncle. Instead, he didn’t change his strategy. He trusted his system and the players within it. This was the season where Cooley really locked himself in as the Friars man of the future; and rightfully so. This was just the beginning.

Season 4 (2014-15)

With Lindsey, Chukwu, Cartwright, and Bentil arriving on campus, Providence was set up nicely heading into the 2014-15 season. Kris Dunn was healthy, LaDontae Henton was primed to lead the scoring charge, and transfer Junior Lomomba was available after sitting out the prior season.

Five games in, the Friars were 5-0 and ranked 25th in the coaches poll. This was the first time Providence had been ranked since Ryan Gomes led the way in the 2003-04 season. PC would crack the AP top 25 later in the season, reaching 23rd in the polls.

The Friars finished the year at 22-12, making the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season. Their postseason ended on a sour note however, losing dramatically to Villanova Wildcats in the Big East Tournament on a questionable foul call with seconds remaining, and then getting upset by 11-seeded Dayton Flyers in the first round a week later.

For Cooley, the impending offseason would be a complicated one. Kris Dunn was a potential lottery pick in the NBA draft, but ultimately decided to return to Providence for one more year. This was great news. Top recruit Alex Owens not qualifying due to ACT scores alongside the transfer of center Paschal Chukwu made for some pretty bad news. But Cooley stuck to his guns.

Season 5 (2015-16)

Led by Dunn, Ben Bentil, and Rodney Bullock, the Friars finished at 24-11. Ranked for 12 weeks during the season, Providence peaked at 8th in the AP Poll. They would go on to defeat USC in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. It was their first victory there since 1997.

In a little under five years, Ed Cooley had brought the Friars from mediocrity, to a Top 10-ranked program that was riding three straight tournament berths. Yeah, there were bumps along the way, but Cooley didn’t second guess himself or the program. It was working and it showed.

Season 6 (2016-17)

Now, we’re up to this past season. Cooley’s recruiting class of Alpha Diallo, Emmitt Holt, Kalif Young, and Maliek White enters and exceeds expectations. The Friars are picked to finish 9th in the Big East, but Cooley and the gang keep the ball rolling by finishing 3rd in the conference and earning their fourth straight NCAA Tournament berth. They would go on to lose a heartbreaker to USC, but in no way should the first round exit leave a stain on the season.

This was a team that nobody believed in. They were said to be shorthanded, small, and lacked a true scoring punch. Instead they went out and won their last six Big East games to finish 20-13. Cooley instilled a genuine belief and confidence in his team, and as they have in the past, the results followed. His players believe in him just as he does in them. This relationship is the bread and butter of what makes Providence so successful. Recruits see it, players see it, students see it, fans see it; everyone notices the sincere passion that Cooley brings day in and day out.

When Cooley was introduced in 2011, he said the success would come. He told everyone to jump on board at that moment. “If you’re late, don’t come in.” Well, it’s happening right now. Still not at their peak, Providence is skyrocketing to national prominence.

This year, the Friars return everyone (except Casey Woodring) from last season, and welcome in the 20th ranked recruiting class in the country. Two Top 100 recruits in Makai Ashton-Langford and Nate Watson plus 7-foot center Dajour Dickens sets them up nicely for the future. Most programs would be thrilled with their outlook thanks to that class. But Cooley wasn’t done.

Last week, the Friars received a commitment from Top 50 combo guard David Duke, which puts their 2018 class at 9th overall in the nation and 1st in the Big East. This comes just months after Cooley locked up another top 50 guard from Massachusetts - A.J. Reeves. Not to mention he already has two other 3-star forwards in the 2018 class in Jimmy Nichols and Kris Monroe.

To say the future is bright for the Friars would be an understatement. Cooley’s mentality is contagious, and it’s certainly caught on in Providence. They’re looking to make their fifth straight NCAA Tournament appearance, staring at two straight Top 20 recruiting classes, and watching a state of the art facility go up right in the middle of their campus. If you couldn’t tell before, you should be able to now. Providence is here to stay.