How Philly's O'Hanlon made his mark at Lafayette

EASTON, Pa. - It was lunchtime at St. Thomas More High School in West Philadelphia, winter of 1966, when Fran O'Hanlon was summoned to the athletic director's office.

"I walk in there, I can hardly see," said O'Hanlon, now finishing his second decade as the men's basketball coach at Lafayette.

In that office, Temple's legendary head coach, Harry Litwack, sat smoking his cigar. Litwack took a drag and let it out. O'Hanlon was 17 years old. He was thinking, when is this guy going to talk?

"He took another drag," O'Hanlon said.

Finally, Litwack had a question: "How tall are you?" In his mind, O'Hanlon was thinking, you're recruiting me; I'm not 6-8. But he said, "I'm 6-foot, Coach." Litwack took another long drag. "You want to come to Temple?"

That was it, that was the big recruiting pitch in those days. Jack Ramsay and Jim Lynam came over from St. Joseph's to talk to O'Hanlon at his home on Edgewood Street. If they didn't walk over, they could have. But O'Hanlon felt like he had grown up in the shadows of St. Joe's. He used to sneak into the Fieldhouse all the time.

"I knew St. Joe. I didn't want to go too far from home, and growing up on a street that didn't have any trees, I wanted to go where they had some trees," O'Hanlon said Monday, sitting in his office. And he was already a Villanova fan. "Wali Jones was in my neighborhood."

One more thing has stuck in his mind all these years.

"I loved the fact they had black high Converses," O'Hanlon said. "I was 17."

That's the short version of how O'Hanlon ended up playing basketball at the school he will face Thursday night in the first round of the NCAA East Regional in Pittsburgh. He has stayed close to his alma mater. When Lafayette won the Patriot League title last week, a 16th seed was certainly a possibility. When Villanova won the Big East, its No. 1 seed was a lock. Villanova coach Jay Wright texted O'Hanlon: "I don't want to play you."

O'Hanlon texted back: "You don't think I want to play you, do you? It's easier playing me than playing you."

If you took a poll of college basketball coaches, at least those on the East Coast, O'Hanlon might be a top seed when it comes to getting the most out of his talent - a coach's coach. He was talking just before practice, whistle around his neck. His friends joke about his being the anti-Wright when it comes to dressing for games, grabbing the next shirt available when he opens his closet, game day or not.

"I'm a 16 seed there, too," O'Hanlon said.

After a fine career at Villanova - he still holds the single-game assist record - and a stint with the ABA's Miami Floridians, O'Hanlon spent years playing and coaching in Europe, mostly in Sweden. Don't let his attire fool you. O'Hanlon had such style on the court that a Baker League announcer dubbed him Rainbow Johnson, deciding this kid deserved an appropriate name.

After winning a Catholic League title as Monsignor Bonner's coach and assisting Penn during some glory years at the Palestra, where he was in charge of the offense, O'Hanlon took over a 2-25 program in 1995 and had Lafayette in the NCAA tournament by 1999 and again in 2000. Then the Patriot League added scholarships, and Lafayette didn't for some years, which meant O'Hanlon had to roll the boulder up the hill.

He had chances to leave, and almost did for Siena one year. Big Five programs sniffed around but never offered him a chance to come home. That's Philadelphia's loss more than O'Hanlon's. His coaching friends are jealous of this guy who got to walk home for lunch for 20 years.

He had a good team this season, got some good early wins, lost his point guard, Nick Lindner from Doylestown, a Germantown Academy graduate, to a shoulder separation and then the flu. But Lafayette got it back together late, winning three of its last four, pushing the Leopards up to a fourth seed in the conference tournament.

That got them a home game, and then they won at top seed Bucknell and got lucky to get a home game in the final, since their opponent, American, was a No. 6 seed. "You need good fortune in these one-bid leagues," O'Hanlon said. "Dumb Irish luck is not always the worst thing. It's a good strategy."

In 2000, Lafayette faced Temple in the NCAAs. O'Hanlon knows these are good story lines, Philly guy vs. Philly team. If he wasn't in the tournament, for years he would sing Irish ballads at a place in Delaware County on St. Patrick's Day.

"I used to sit there thinking, I wish I was playing in that tournament instead of playing the banjo here," the Lafayette coach said, then joked: "You know what? A lot of people in the audience were thinking the same thing."

O'Hanlon, a Villanova Hall of Famer, added that last part as he walked from his office to the gym. Maybe this was meant to be. O'Hanlon's old coach, Jack Kraft, died last year, so the Wildcats will be wearing JK patches on their uniforms. In his hand, O'Hanlon held his practice outline, spelling out how to face his vaunted alma mater.


mjensen@phillynews.com

@jensenoffcampus