Updated: Sunday, December 17, 2017, 3:03 PM
It was Bron Holland’s job to escort a recruit around on his visit to La Salle. Aiming for full disclosure, Holland told this kid, Jeff Neubauer, “We have three first-round guards. You won’t play until your junior year.”
Neubauer’s response: “I want to be a head coach, and I want to play in Philly.”
The high school senior, now head coach at Fordham, committed to play for Speedy Morris at La Salle. Neubauer turned out to be ahead of his time. Skip ahead, look at it now, as outrageous milestones pile up. Last weekend, as coach at St. Joseph’s Prep, Speedy Morris opened the 50th season of his coaching career — high school or college, men or women — by picking up his 991st win.
Number 992 wouldn’t come until the next night, against Penn Charter, whose coach, Jim Phillips, had gone to the Speedy Morris camp as a 12-year-old, spent four years as a Speedy Morris manager at La Salle, later was a Speedy Morris assistant with the Explorers.
If you think of Philadelphia basketball geographically, place Speedy Morris in the middle, right at Broad and Market. Imagine coaches with Speedy ties extending out in all directions. About two dozen are still at it, from the coach of the current WNBA champions to two top current Sixers assistants.
Let’s pause there …
The man usually sitting next to Brett Brown on the Sixers bench, Jim O’Brien, played for Morris at Roman Catholic High School almost five decades ago. The man sitting next to O’Brien, Billy Lange, considers maybe his biggest coaching break getting hired by Morris at La Salle two decades ago.
Speedy’s brief and wildly successful tenure as La Salle’s women’s coach was the stretch when Cheryl Reeve played for the Explorers. Reeve now has four WNBA titles and was an assistant coach on the USA gold-winning 2016 women’s Olympic team.
Get to the longest-tenured Big Five head coach, Temple’s Fran Dunphy, a former Speedy assistant. Now that Morris is at the Prep, note how the coaches at his two greatest Catholic League rivals, Neumann-Goretti and Roman Catholic, both are coached by former Speedy players. Joe Mihalich, his longtime La Salle assistant, has taken two schools, Niagara and Hofstra, to higher ground as a head coach.
Is there another coach in America, any sport, with a coaching tree as varied as this?
Opening night, St. Joseph’s Prep got past Girard College with a game-winner in the final seconds. Phillips walked over to confirm to the St. Joe’s Prep coach the game time for the next night.
It’s not like Phillips was the only guy in the gym with Speedy ties. St. Joe’s Prep assistant Randy Monroe, a former Division I college head coach himself, goes back almost to the beginning, having played for Morris during his early Roman Catholic High years. Keith Morris, another Prep assistant, says it was nepotism that got him on the squad at La Salle, but Speedy’s son is a basketball lifer himself.
Just before the game, Donnie Carr walked into the gym. Carr had scored 2,000 points for Morris at La Salle and now is an Explorers assistant. Over the last three decades, each of the Big Five schools has had a head coach or assistant with direct Speedy Morris ties.
“I don’t really know if I had anything to do with it,’’ Morris said of his still-sprouting coaching tree. “But I enjoyed every moment of it. I don’t know if I wasn’t there they wouldn’t be doing the same thing.”
Carl Arrigale, coach at Neumann-Goretti, said his time playing for Morris at Penn Charter drew him in, got him excited about the idea of coaching.
“We probably weren’t the best team, but we thought we were, which is why we won,’’ Arrigale said of the team that won the Inter-Ac League title his senior year.
Of playing for Speedy, Arrigale said, “When you become the guy, that’s the greatest job in the world.”
Morris talks of his pride about the work put in by guys such as Donnie Carr and Chris Clark, now Big Five assistants. Morris said he stays away from scheduling his guys when he can. Craig Conlin at Episcopal?
“I don’t want to play him,’’ Morris said.
Did he think Conlin would coach?
“Yeah, I did,’’ Morris said. “He was so fundamental, so tough.”
Morris knew Neubauer would coach. John Beilein kept calling Speedy to thank him for recommending Neubauer as an assistant coach. Maybe Holland, who hosted Neubauer on his visit, wasn’t thinking that way, but he ended up being a coach himself. He’s head coach at Bangor (Pa.) High.
“My whole offensive philosophy comes from Speedy,’’ Holland said. “Not a practice or game goes by without a memory popping into my head.”
His team scrimmages St. Joe’s Prep every year.
“I bring my guys down and see a Big Five game or Sixers,’’ Holland said. “He always buys my team cheesesteaks.”
Where do they go?
“There’s only one — as Speedy calls it in ‘God’s Country’ — Dalessandro’s,’’ Holland said.
“I’m going to say something you may think is really out there,’’ John Griffin Sr. said.
Griffin has a unique branch of this unique coaching tree. When you think about Morris having his guys — three Griffins, two generations, were his guys. Griffin, former head coach of the St. Joseph’s Hawks, played for Speedy at Roman. His two sons, both now coaches, played for Speedy at the Prep. John Griffin Jr. is an assistant at Bucknell, joined there by another Prep grad, Joe Meehan. Matt Griffin is head coach at Roman Catholic.
“I think Speedy Morris is one of the most impactful people in the history of Philadelphia,’’ John Griffin Sr. said. “Forget about sports. Sports, for sure. But I think people who have changed lives in the region. I’d put him in a very distinct group of Philadelphians.”
Griffin said he couldn’t help but bring Morris into the gym with him.
“A lot of things I did as a coach I learned from Speedy,’’ Griffin said. “I can still repeat for you the way he would teach boxing out or defending the drive. I think his concepts of basketball are so fundamental, they’re timeless. They became the foundation for how I taught basketball.”
So let’s hear about boxing out.
“Speedy has this phrase that’s still with me, ‘disposition to dominate,’ ” Griffin said. “Let’s start with that. Boxing out starts before the shot is taken. You have to think about positioning. You take one step toward the man you want to box out, you put your forearm in his chest, reverse pivot. You put your butt into his upper thighs. You would say that’s pretty simple, but I would say it’s a lost art.”
Billy Lange got to La Salle at age 27 — “I’m coaching Donnie Carr, Rasual Butler, Victor Thomas — and we are doing the most basic elementary school drills. The first day, Speedy just said to me, assume they know nothing. I’ve grown to understand he wasn’t meaning anything to do with their intelligence.”
Lange, who went on to be head coach at Navy and Jay Wright’s top assistant at Villanova, has taken that thought to the NBA.
“I still say it to this day,’’ Lange said. “I think it more than I use it. I used to say it a lot.”
Back when Griffin Sr. played at Roman, “preseason practice was like six weeks. Today, he has two weeks. When I talk about boxing out, we did it every day for six weeks. The way we defended the ball and the wing, the way we overplayed a pass — it was tedious. Break it down to the smallest point.”
Of the two generations of Griffins, Morris said, “I won 180 games with those three in the starting lineup.”
He concedes it’s hard to coach against Matt, just like it was “really tough” to coach against John Sr. when Morris was at La Salle and Griffin at St. Joe’s. Arrigale had to get over thinking about Speedy being his coach when he first faced him at the Prep. Arrigale said he didn’t sleep the night before.
Morris remembers how he was still coaching La Salle when he caught wind that John Griffin Jr. was thinking about going to the Prep for high school.
“I said to Johnny, ‘You’re not going to the Prep, you’re a Roman guy.’ I called his dad over. ‘What about your legacy? You’re crazy. You can’t let him go there.’ Two year later, I’m coaching him [at the Prep], and we win a championship. Then Matt came.”
Fateful phone call
As a freshman at the Prep, Colin Curtin tried out for basketball. He got cut. Curtin just wanted to be around the game. He worked up his nerve and walked into the varsity coach’s office. He knew about the coach’s background.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,’’ Curtin said. “I’m scared.”
The freshman told Speedy Morris he wanted to coach, was there anything he could do around there to help out?
“Why don’t you be one of my student managers,’’ Morris told him.
Sixteen years later, Curtin is director of basketball operations at Hofstra. He may be the only coach in America who lists director of instructional basketball camps with the Sea Isle City department of recreation in his biography. He certainly is the only coach in America who served as head coach of the three-time champions in the summertime The Basketball Tournament, the winner-takes-a-million event, won in 2015-17 by Overseas Elite, coached by Curtin. (Morris loves mentioning this.)
Curtin’s boss at Hofstra, Mihalich, already was a La Salle assistant, along with Dunphy, when Morris got the Explorers men’s job. Morris remembers being told he could bring in new guys. He said, “Where am I going to get better guys than that?”
Curtin’s junior year at the Prep, he walked by Speedy’s office before practice. Curtin said Speedy was always in his office. That time he wasn’t.
“I never picked up his phone,’’ Curtin said. “For some reason then I picked it up.”
The voice on the phone asked for Coach Morris. Curtin asked if he could take a message. The voice said, ‘Yeah, tell Coach it’s Joe Mihalich up at Niagara.’ Then Mihalich asked who he was speaking with. They got to talking, and eventually that conversation turned to Curtin’s future.
“I never thought I would leave Philadelphia,’’ Curtin said. “I was such a homebody.”
With Morris’ urging, he went to Niagara for college, worked as Mihalich’s manager. Picking up the phone at a random time was a life-changer.
“You’re going to be in good hands,’’ Morris told him of Mihalich. “I trust him with my life.”
‘You’re his guys’
A lead against Girard College had evaporated. The Prep’s senior point guard, a third-year starter, hadn’t converted a couple of plays at the end of quarters, keeping the ball instead of dishing but not turning the play into a hoop.
“Coming into the huddle, my dad said, ‘That’s it, I’m not running it anymore,’ ” Keith Morris said later.
Except with 10 seconds to go in the fourth quarter, tie game, Speedy Morris looked at his point guard and said, “We’re running it again.”
The offense spread out and the guard drove, and there was a kickout pass and then a pump fake by a sophomore sixth man, producing a jumper that found the net — Morris had his 991th.
“When you’re his guys, you’re his guys,’’ Keith Morris said.
“He had an amazing way of giving his best players confidence,’’ Lange said from his Sixers perch.
From Mike Bantom and Reggie Jackson at Roman, to Lionel Simmons and all those great La Salle players, to Steve Vasturia and the current crop at the Prep, Speedy’s had guys, a half century’s worth. As much as all that, the Speedy coaching tree serves as its own monument.
“When I got the coaching job at Neumann-Goretti, first person I called was him,’’ Arrigale said. “And I went right to a La Salle practice, just to get myself going a little bit.”
Read full story: The Speedy Morris coaching tree is rooted in Philly hoops