Villanova women's hoops coach Harry Perretta one of a kind

kernclicka
Villanova women's basketball coach Harry Perretta is on the cusp of his 700th victory.

HARRY PERRETTA was 22 when he became the women's basketball coach at Villanova. As is almost always the case, there's a story.

"I had just graduated from Lycoming, and I looked in the newspaper and saw there were two job openings, at Saint Joe's and Villanova," he recounted. "John Griffin had just gotten the (boys') high school job at Upper Darby. I was like, 'I should apply for something.' I'd been helping out at Lycoming (after suffering a career-ending ankle injury as a sophomore). I was an assistant, and when the JV coach left, (head coach Dutch Burch) let me do that so I could put the experience on my resume. All I ever wanted to be was a teacher and a high school coach.

"So I got an interview at Villanova. Not at St. Joe's. I'm all dressed up. When I got back to my car I had a flat tire, it's raining and I go, 'What am I doing here? I'll never get this.' But they brought me back. I found out later that (then-assistant athletic director Mary Anne Dowling's) husband played at Lycoming. So my old coach vouched for me. That's how I got it.

"When I told my friends, they were all laughing. Coaching women at that time was not looked upon as whatever. I just thought I'd see where it takes me, until something else came along. That was all that was going through my mind."

That was nearly four decades ago. The something-else part never happened.

On Sunday at Georgetown (14-11, 7-8 Big East), the Wildcats (16-10, 9-6) will try to get Perretta his 700th victory (against 437 losses). When asked about the pending milestone, he said he's not sure he's even going to get it this season, even though they have at least four games left. As you quickly find out, that's Harry.

The guy who did get the St. Joe's gig in 1978, Temple grad Jim Foster, just won his 860th game. He's now at Chattanooga, his fourth career stop. They remain close. That's Harry, too.

"I've always had people trying to tell me I should go somewhere bigger," Perretta said. "It was never hard not to leave. It just grew on me. I think if I would have gone to the wrong school, I would have failed.

"A lot of schools wouldn't have let me be myself. How many places can you go where the women's basketball coach can go into the president's office and make fun of him? And at like a football game, in front of people. Here, they accept me.

"I didn't want to have to be somebody I wasn't."

He was a part-time employee his first two years, with a starting salary of $2,500. The first year he also did cement work during the day. Then he got a teaching job at St. Monica's grade school in South Philly, where he made $8,500. Which was almost double what Villanova was paying him even after a raise. When he finally became full-time, he was getting $12,500.

"I thought it was a million," he said. "The first time I met (Big East commissioner) Dave Gavitt and (righthand man) Mike Tranghese, I had work boots on and cement on my pants. I had just come from laying cement to practice, and Rollie (Massimino) was introducing me. He didn't call me by name. Only called me 'kid.' He said, 'This is the kid I told you about.' For some reason he liked me."

It's pretty hard not to.

"He's kind of like our version of Kramer," said the Rev. Rob Hagan, an associate AD at the school and a perpetual athletic presence. "If you say, 'That's Harry,' everybody knows what it means.

"He's definitely not one-size-fits-all."

Not remotely close. And he wouldn't want it any other way. Neither would anyone who is fortunate enough to call him a friend.

"I look at him sometimes and say, 'Harry, you look like an unmade bed,' " said Joe Crawford, the recently retired NBA official (after nearly four decades), who has known him since Perretta played at Monsignor Bonner. "I'm up there and he had a recruit coming in and he's got sweat clothes on and his shirt had a rip in it and he didn't even know. And he said, 'I am what I am.' There's nothing false or fake about Harry. He's just a guy from West Philly.

"I'm taking him up to a playoff game in New York, and we're down at the train station at 30th Street. And he says to me, 'There's Tough Tony.' I thought he was joking. But it was one of his boys from the old neighborhood, working for Amtrak. So we went over and talked. And it was like they'd never left. As many wins as he has, you'd never know it.

"One day he calls me and is raving about this pork sandwich. I ask him, 'Where is it?' He said, 'Over in Conshohocken.' I go, 'OK, I'll pick you up.' I figure we'll sit in a restaurant. No, we're out on the sidewalk like two cockroaches eating the sandwich, just talking about basketball. That's Harry.

"He let my one daughter (Meghan) walk on," he continued. "But he told her, 'You can be on the team. But you'll get in maybe if we're up 30 or down 30.' He's truthful to a fault. She still went (for a year)."

Stories.

This is a guy who in 2003 was only trailing by three at halftime at Tennessee in a Final Eight game. When asked afterward what his greatest fear was at that point, he shot back: "That we'd win and have to go to the Final Four."

"I don't mean that for real," he says now. "But it would have been like crazy."

He did make it to the Final Four of the old AIAW tournament in 1982, the last year it was held. Not bad for somebody who was a finalist for the "small college" coach of the year in his first season. Think about that.

To say the least, he's extremely comfortable in his own skin. And in his universe, that's what matters most. There might not be a close second.

"Everybody thinks I'm a character," Perretta said. "I was one of the normal guys, even though I'm like the way I am now. I'm from 49th Street, (Our) Lady of Angels (parish). Those guys were crazy.

"I was always taught not to take yourself too serious. It's more like I just want to enjoy life. When I win, it's like the neighborhood won. It's almost like a 'Rocky' movie without the star."

Don't let the appearance fool you. He knows his X's-and-O's. His teams are known for their offensive execution and stingy defense. They've led the nation in fewest turnovers four of the last seven years and are No. 1 again this season (8.1 per-game average). John Chaney would be proud.

Still . . .

"My goal is to be the 12 seed (in the NCAAs) every year," Perretta said. "Jay (Wright) wants to be the 1. He can handle it. I'd have to quit after three years, from a mental standpoint. Jim Foster won 78 percent of his games at Ohio State. Won like six championships in a row. He got fired. The reason was he didn't advance far enough in the NCAA tourney. That's not what sports are supposed to be."

If nothing else, he's never lacked perspective.

"Sometimes, your coaching doesn't have that much to do with (the record)," Perretta reasoned. "The first time I won the Big East (coaching award in 1996), Dave Gavitt said, 'Isn't it a funny coincidence they had the player of the year and another first-teamer (on all-conference).' I knew what he was saying. I said, 'Can't I think it's me for just one day?' He said no.

"Nobody looks at me any differently (at Villanova) if we're under .500 or 29-4."

Each spring he goes to Alexandria, Va., to spend the 90 minutes he's allotted annually with his former star and Wade Trophy winner Shelly Pennefather, who became a cloistered nun.

"I have to explain myself to her," he said. " 'Am I doing the right thing?' Once I told her, 'That's it, I've had enough. We had two bad seasons and I can't take it anymore.' She looks at me, half-joking and half-serious, and says, 'Maybe that's good. Maybe you were meant to be a mediocre basketball coach.' What she was trying to tell me was, it doesn't matter. The bottom line is, you're forgetting what you're supposed to be in life. You need to grow up. It was like getting slapped, without getting slapped.

"I said, 'Maybe God needs me to put my fist through this screen.' What I meant was, I didn't want to hear the message but I got it. You're getting too carried away with winning. You get lost in it. I've been mildly successful. You need time for reflection.

"Last year we were 3-7. Then we ended up with 20-some wins. Everyone's telling me what a great job I did. The great job I did was two players who were injured when we were 3-7 came back. So we need to know it's not us. You have to make sure you pick friends who won't just pat you on the back."

Only one of his players who stayed for four years didn't graduate. And she's just a few credits short. Only three ever transferred.

He gets it. And those he touches appreciate the fact that he does.

"You never have to guess where you stand with him," Hagan said. "He's really kind of an interesting paradox. He comes across as not too polished, a simple man. But there's real depth to him. Still, you can give him a bucket of wings, a couple of friends and a game (to watch) and he's happy."

Just as he's happy driving back and forth to a Midwest road trip, in part to avoid flying (he's claustrophobic) and because it allows him to visit old friends along the way, check out potential prospects or even stop at racetracks, one of his favorite pastimes. Those who have been in the same car agree there's nothing quite like it.

"Everything is fair game in conversation," Hagan said. "It could be history, politics. There's not a road he hasn't been on. He was GPS before there was GPS. He knows the best places for wings, even if you're in the middle of nowhere. Certain things are non-negotiable: where you're going to eat, where he's going to be able to get a workout, what games can be tuned in on the radio. Before Sirius(XM), he'd be doing up and down the dial to find them."

Then there's this side:

"One Sunday I was going to do the Mass at the prison in Chester. Harry calls and asks if I'm still going. Very matter of factly. Wants to know if I can pick him up so he can go with me. I'm like, 'This is great.' We get down there and he goes, 'OK, drop me off, I'm going to Harrah's (casino) to bet the horses. Pick me up after lunch.' "

Michael Gaynor is Villanova's director of admissions. He's been at the university almost as long as Perretta. His son Nick, who has cerebral palsy, is a manager for Harry's team. He and his father have made those drives. On New Year's Eve, they got home around 1 in the morning from Cincinnati, where Villanova had lost in overtime to Xavier. But only after they'd dropped off associate athletic director for communications Dean Kenefick in his hometown of Washington, Pa., to celebrate the holiday with his family - and literally almost threw him out the door with his luggage so they wouldn't lose too much time.

"We've visited with (Tennessee legend) Pat Summitt at her home," Gaynor recalled. "One time in southern Virginia we picked up Jimmy Murray's 'Remember When' show on the (WPHT, 1210-AM) radio and called in, as he's a dear friend of ours. It was a blast. Nick rides shotgun. I sit in the back and catch up on email, pass Harry 'The Towel' as he eats and pass him his Swiss Farms diet iced-tea cooler. And off we go. We (rang) in 2016 while passing the Reading exit on the turnpike.

"Truth be told, it mostly involves him on the phone and strategic stops surrounding food. Last season we drove all the way from Chicago at 6 a.m. straight to Lancaster to watch recruits in a PIAA playoff doubleheader. As a former track guy, I like basketball, but not that much. But perhaps his biggest victory is the experiences he's provided for Nick. The rest pales in comparison."

But the rest is, well, up there. Only two other active women's coaches have 700 wins at one place. One, Connecticut legend Geno Auriemma, is the only other Big East coach with 300.

"People don't understand," Perretta said, when asked about all the driving. "The world's passing you by way too fast. I get to do stuff I could never do by flying. If you're considered different, I don't know what that is. Think of all the fun I've had. People don't believe me. They think I'm making it up.

"I drive to Florida like people drive to the shore. I'll stop in a town where nobody knows who I am, park downtown and go on a 50-minute run. (Former La Salle coach) Johnny Miller and I went recruiting once, and everyone else was hungry. I didn't want to eat, so they stopped at a diner and I just went running down the road. When they were done, they picked me up on the way. Things like that. We don't tell anybody, but it did happen."

As you'd suspect, he already has his retirement mapped out.

"To me, being by myself watching TV is like the most exciting part of my day," said Perretta, who is married and has two teenage sons who play basketball at Bonner. "And I like being around people. But I like being able to get away from it.

"I'll get up around 9 o'clock, work out till 10:30, take a shower, eat lunch around 11, take a little nap till about 12:30, start handicapping, bet horses all afternoon, go for a walk between 5:30 and 6:30, get back to watch the world news at 6:30, then at 7 start watching television shows. Monday and Tuesday do chores around the house. There's not a lot of good racing those days. That's all I need.

"Jim Murray once said he never met a guy (like me) that wanted to go backwards in life."

Yo, it's his story. Odds are he's sticking to it.

kernm@phillynews.com

@mikekerndn