Rich Hofmann: NCAAs basically a reunion of Philly guys

Fran Dunphy will try to get his first NCAA Tournament win since 1994 this afternoon. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Take a map, lay it flat, smooth out the creases. Take a compass and choose a place to stick the sharp point. There really is only one place. As Cornell coach Steve Donahue said, "I think the Palestra is the first thing that grabs you."

Draw a circle on the map. The radius around the Palestra needs to be a little more than 20 miles - but only because Villanova coach Jay Wright went to Council Rock High School. If not for that, the circle would be half the size, even that much tighter.

About 5 million people live within the circle, give or take. It is a lot of people, granted, but only a sliver of the U.S. population. If there were such a thing as equal distribution, it would suggest that one coach in this year's NCAA Tournament would have grown up within the circle.

Instead, there are seven: Temple's Fran Dunphy, Siena's Fran McCaffery, Richmond's Chris Mooney, Wisconsin's Bo Ryan, Maryland's Gary Williams, Donahue and Wright.

There must be something in the wooder.

"That's obviously one close to my heart," Donahue was saying yesterday, on the eve of his team's first-round tournament matchup against the Owls, an emotional train wreck of a game between two coaches who worked together for a decade at Penn.

"[The Palestra] was what grabbed me, just the whole sense of what goes on in that building," he said. "And then all the coaches back then - Jimmy Lynam, Jim Boyle, Jack McKinney, Chuck Daly, Rollie Massimino - and I think we have a close bond with each other even now with all the guys in the tournament . . .

"I feel great pride that I'm in that group," Donahue said. "You can't give me a better compliment than to say I'm a Philadelphia guy who came from Philadelphia and coached the way they coach, whatever that is. I think Dunphy is obviously the pinnacle of what a Philadelphia coach is: tough, single-minded, not a lot of sizzle, it's just about the game, there's not a lot of self-promoting."

It's just about the game. That is the essence of it, right there. Donahue is correct, too, about Dunphy. He is the quintessence when it comes to this topic. And when it comes to this tournament, well, remember the six degrees of Kevin Bacon? With these Philadelphia-bred coaches, it is pretty much the two degrees of Fran Dunphy - and, in most cases, one.

He didn't know Ryan growing up, even though they were high-school stars a year apart (Dunphy at Malvern Prep, Ryan at Chester). But Dunphy did know Ryan's coach, Ron Rainey, who once ran a little playground in his neighborhood growing up. That single degree of separation is about as distant as the connections get.

Dunphy worked for Williams - who grew up in Collingswood - as an assistant coach at American University in the early '80s, but met him a few years before that when Williams - then an assistant at Boston College - was recruiting one of Dunphy's Malvern Prep players, Gordy Bryan.

Dunphy was winning the Inter-Ac at Malvern when McCaffery was playing in the Catholic League at La Salle High. Dunphy was coaching at Penn when he walked into the Mooney family's living room and tried to recruit Chris out of Archbishop Ryan; Mooney chose Princeton instead.

The relationships overlap and then they overlap again. The whole tangle of the thing is exquisite in both its complexity and its simplicity - because the relationships are of every jumbled variety on the one hand, but they all start from the same essence.

"You know, I think we're crazed, basketballwise," Dunphy said. "If you look at all the guys who are from Philly, we all grow up going to these games as kids, then we play basketball and we think we're better than we are, then the competition gets to the point where we can't compete anymore, and then the only way we can find to compete is to coach."

Ryan, the son of a legendary coach who grew up across the street from Jack McKinney, said he figured that it was all the basketball tradition and, well, the opportunity. "We didn't swim a lot," he said, explaining all of the time he spent in the gym.

A minute earlier, looking out over the scattering of reporters from around the country sitting in at his news conference, Ryan said, "Well, what we should probably tell the audience is anybody from Philly that sits in the stands thinks they're a coach. Have you ever met anybody from that area that didn't think they could coach?

"So you learn early about opinions," he said. *

Send e-mail to,

or read his blog, The Idle Rich, at

For recent columns go to