Remembering Coach Gola: 'La Salle needed him'

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Tom Gola. (Staff file photo)

Mainly into their own thing, Tom Gola's La Salle players didn't necessarily focus on their coach's hectic life: driving to Harrisburg on Monday mornings for his duties as a member of the state legislature; leaving La Salle's practice that day to his assistants; staying over in the state capital; getting back Tuesday in time for the afternoon workout; keeping his fledgling insurance practice going.

That team Gola coached: You don't get much debate calling La Salle's 1968-69 squad the best in Big Five history.

Gola, who died Sunday at age 81, did not aspire to coach, and did it for only two seasons.

"La Salle needed him," said Fran Dunphy, now Temple's coach, then sixth man for the Explorers. "He probably didn't have the time, but he had that way about him, to help anybody who needed him."

The former coach, Jim Harding, had left after one turbulent year for the pros, and also left La Salle with NCAA problems, keeping them out of the postseason that memorable season. To this day, stars Fatty Taylor and Larry Cannon talk about how they could have knocked off all-time juggernaut UCLA that year. Their 28-1 record tells you it isn't fantasy.

For these men, Gola's presence changed everything. Taylor will say it now - "I'll be straight-out honest" - he'd been kicked off the team by Harding after the previous season. A bad argument had its roots, according to Taylor, in Harding's demand that Taylor take nothing but wide-open layups. His love of the game had all but flickered out. After the change, team stars Ken Durrett and Bernie Williams went to Gola, explaining why they needed Taylor back.

Gola took him back, warily at first - there were some issues, he'd heard. But in front of reporters at a Big Five luncheon, the coach stood up and told how Taylor, "of all the guys on the team, you're my last problem. You've been the glue."

Taylor's voice caught for a moment thinking about what those words meant to him. He went on to a terrific career with the ABA's Virginia Squires.

If Explorers players knew their 35-year-old coach was college basketball's all-time leading rebounder and had won an NBA title as a rookie, starting at point guard, they didn't hear it from Gola. They all knew their coach had been national college player of the year.

"He used to occasionally come out and scrimmage with us, just after practice," Cannon said this week. "He was not that far removed from having played. He didn't try to get gritty with us, to actually compete. But the way he moved, passed the ball, the way he monitored the play, just having fun, he gave a sense of how he had a real style."

He was no pushover. If you missed the bus for the airport by five minutes, you took the trip, then found out you'd be sitting all game, even if you were a starter, even if the opponent was Niagara with superstar Calvin Murphy. The issue wouldn't be raised again, but nobody missed the message.

"I don't think Tom was lucky," said Bill Michuda, a La Salle reserve that season. "The good ones, they expect good things to happen, and they did."

Gola saw the talent in front of him. Durrett remains a popular pick for top Big Five player in history since Gola himself played just before the Big Five came about. He spent four seasons in the NBA. Cannon went on to average 26.6 points a game in his second season with Denver in the ABA. Williams spent four years in the ABA. How many college teams start four future pros?

Dunphy talked about how he gave everyone "a chance to shine, but not necessarily in their comfort zone." He meant Gola would challenge offensive talents like Cannon and Williams with a particularly tough defensive assignment. Offense was mostly a weave, a lot of fastbreaking, sets only when they hit a zone.

Michuda noted that Gola also earned respect in subtle ways, such as telling La Salle's athletic director the team needed to be in a hotel on City Avenue over the Christmas break, not in otherwise-empty dorms. When he missed practice for his government duties, assistants Curt Fromal and Lefty Ervin could handle it.

"We all knew he had never coached before," Cannon said. "We all had confidence in just his basketball knowledge, that he would know how to handle the situation. I think he recognized a group of very fine basketball players. All we really needed was some leadership."

Unflappable was a word Michuda used. Never flapped? "He might get a little red and stand up during games," Michuda said.

"Curt [Fromal] said it to me last night," Dunphy said this week. "He was a man's man. 'Here is the job. You get the job done'. There was no B.S. about him. He made it very simple. If there was a guy ahead of you on a fastbreak, get him the ball."

In November 1969, Gola was elected Philadelphia city controller, on a ticket with District Attorney Arlen Specter. His second season at La Salle became his last as coach.

But for a small group of Explorers, Gola had changed the arc of their lives. Not all are still alive, but most are trying to get to the services Thursday in Huntingdon Valley. Cannon up from Fort Myers, Fla., Taylor in from Denver.

Dunphy had gotten a call last week from Gola's wife, Caroline. It was time to say goodbye. Dunphy got to the nursing home on Friday morning.

"I went over to him, just rubbed his head a little bit, told him I love him," Dunphy said. "There wasn't any response. Could he hear it? That's questionable."

Speaking over the phone about his old coach, Fatty Taylor used the phrase he prepared me. He wasn't just talking about hoops - although he meant that, too.

"Tom Gola helped me in so many ways," Taylor said. "He taught me about being a teammate, and being a human being."

 


mjensen@phillynews.com

@jensenoffcampus