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SAINT PETER’S, COACHING DIVERSITY — MARCH IS SHOCKING US AGAIN
The NCAA tournament never fails to make waves, this time producing the strut of the Peacocks from Jersey City and forging progress the NFL can learn from: five Black head coaches in the Sweet 16
From now until the end of poverty, nothing will sell quite like hope for the little guy. The theme resonates poetically during this particular edition of March Madness, through the biblical name of Saint Peter, who is believed in gospel to have held the keys to heaven and performed miracles.
The basketball team from Saint Peter’s University — a private, obscure school of 2,134 undergrads who can see the big time across the Hudson River from Manhattan but usually can’t touch it — carries on in the patron saint’s tradition. The Peacocks are strutting from New Jersey to the Sweet 16 as America’s rooting interest, having deflated the ego of John Calipari and riled the entitled fans of Kentucky with a monster upset we all can love. We can because a program that didn’t make a cent from its hoops program last year slayed a mega-power with an $18.3 million budget and almost $30 million in 2019-20 revenues. Coach Cal flies on private jets in Gucci loafers and hands bags to the five-star recruits of his choice.
He will spend his offseason explaining his $86-million contract to donors in the Commonwealth while Shaheen Holloway, who made $266,344 in his last fiscal pay period, brings more attention to a Jesuit school where two-thirds of the students are Black or Hispanic before likely moving on to a bigger gig at Seton Hall. The national eye will remain on Saint Peter’s until the mid-major Peacocks are eliminated, which realistically would happen this Friday … until you realize their next assignment is a convenient hop down I-95 to Philadelphia, where a question awaits any remaining doubters: Why isn’t Purdue as beatable as Kentucky and previously-white-hot Murray State in brackets that can be broken as easily as a losing coach’s clipboard?
“I’ve got guys who have a chip on their shoulder. I’ve got guys who think they can play for Kentucky,’’ said Holloway, who taps that chip his every waking hour. “We came here packed ready for Sunday. We said we were leaving on Sunday with two wins. … These guys came here on a mission. Everybody keeps saying, we can’t do this, we can’t do that, we don’t have this, we don’t have that.
“We have heart. That’s all that matters.’’
This is why the NCAA tournament, though still very much a gluttonous money grab for the sport and its broadcast partners, stirs passion for millions of TV viewers and hundreds of thousands who are flocking to arenas in post-peak-pandemic glee. It’s the one major event where a have-not has a chance to topple a behemoth … and sometimes does. In that underdog spirit, one No. 1 seed (Baylor), two No. 2 seeds (Kentucky and Auburn) and two No. 3 seeds (Tennessee and Wisconsin) have been jettisoned before the second weekend.
College basketball also pleasantly shocks us, despite relentless scandals and an overactive transfer portal, by performing another modern miracle. The NFL cannot shed a deplorable hiring record, but five head coaches in the Sweet 16 are Black: Holloway, Houston’s Kelvin Sampson, Providence’s Ed Cooley, Michigan’s Juwan Howard and North Carolina’s Hubert Davis. As Mike Krzyzewski relinquishes his legendary reign, still alive for a final title bid at Duke, there’s a chance the tournament will produce a victorious Black coach for the first time since Connecticut’s Kevin Ollie in 2014 and only the fifth time ever.
True, we want to ralph knowing LSU made the field as it was firing Will Wade for wrongdoing that should have been punished years ago. And how is Bruce Pearl still employed (with a $50.2 million contract) as a beloved savior at Auburn — despite rules violations at multiple career stops — and eyeing a championship before Miami shot him down Sunday night? For that matter, why is Howard allowed anywhere near a March sideline after striking a Wisconsin assistant in the face and grabbing the sweater of head coach Greg Gard in a handshake line last month?
But, again, March has a way of working feel-good wonders. There was Howard, after the Wolverines advanced with an upset of Tennessee, earning praise in the same quarters that recently slammed him. One of the losing players, freshman Kennedy Chandler, collapsed into the arms of Howard, who locked him in a warm embrace. Howard’s son used to play AAU ball with Chandler years ago. Now, a coach was abandoning allegiances to comfort a young man in emotional need.
“He’s a great coach. I love him,’’ Chandler said. “He told me to keep my head up and you played your heart out.’’
“We recruited him, and unfortunately we weren’t that lucky,’’ Howard said. “But to see the output, the effort, the growth and how he led his team in a special way, I gave him words of encouragement.’’
Best known for a lower-key role on Michigan’s culture-blasting Fab Five teams of the early ‘90s, Howard was supported in the Indianapolis stands by former teammates Chris Webber, Jalen Rose and Ray Jackson. “I will never forget this day, and I appreciate all the support,’’ Howard said. “They have, behind the scenes, been in the my corner from day one.’’
So March forges onward, captivating us with its every step. Gonzaga is far from perfect but still expected to emerge from the West, as long as Drew Timme is issuing X-rated halftime reprimands to teammates — unless one last stormy speech from Coach K coaxes his final team from its youthful inconsistency. “I'm proud of the fact that we've been there for four decades, that we're at least knocking on the door and five times the door completely let us in,” Krzyzewski said of his national crowns. “I got guys who want to win, and our goal is to win the whole thing all the time, even if we're young.” Arizona and Villanova are likely chalk mates in the South, while Kansas is vulnerable as usual in the Midwest — anybody liking Providence, as I do, maybe because Bill Self don’t deserve to win a title given his disobedience?
The final frontier is the East Regional. North Carolina generally has been dominant since spoiling Krzyzewski’s farewell at Cameron Indoor Stadium, but the Tar Heels also blew a 25-point lead to Baylor in less than 10 minutes and didn’t have a ballhandler to break a press. UCLA made sense for a Final Four encore trip until Jaime Jaquez Jr., the team’s heart and soul, suffered yet another ankle sprain. “Trust me,’’ said coach Mick Cronin, “if he can walk, he’ll play.’’ But if Jaquez can’t walk … and Carolina’s flaws continue to be exposed … and defense-phobic Purdue resumes its Pur-don’t history in March despite the skills of Jaden Ivey?
Won’t you be joining me in rooting for the Peacocks?
Saint Peter’s is only the third No. 15 seed to reach the Sweet 16, like Florida Gulf Coast in 2013 and Oral Roberts last year, but given the fraught and fragile condition of our country, the breakthrough is appreciated more than ever. This team isn’t enabled by privilege or imperial benefit, instead fueled by a coach who thrives from his own chip, falling short of his NBA dream though he beat out Kobe Bryant, among others, for MVP honors in the 1996 McDonald’s All American Game.
“These guys deserve it. With what I put these guys through during the year, playing the game is easy. Practice is hard,’’ Holloway said. “That's how I played, right? I played that way. I played to give it 110 percent all the time. I tell my guys all the time, you give me 100 percent, I will give you 200 percent. I was a decent player. I'm small. People counted me out. So I had something to prove every time. So I coach that way.
“I'm just proud that these guys get to play on a different type of stage. NCAA tournament is every kid's dream. We don't get a lot of big TV games. So these guys get a chance to show their talent on the big stage. That's what I'm proud of. These guys worked so hard for this moment.’’
The reason this can happen in Philadelphia, home turf of Rocky Balboa, isn’t complicated. While a nation stands amazed, a coach and his players aren’t impressed by themselves. Aren’t they nervous? “Nah, for what? It’s basketball,’’ Holloway said on CBS immediately after eliminating Kentucky.
“We just love being the underdogs, going out there fighting, staying together, staying poised and getting the job done,’’ forward KC Ndefo said.
“I definitely have a chip on my shoulder,” said guard Doug Edert, ignored by big programs out of high school but gutsy enough to score 20 points in 25 minutes aginst Kentucky. “I’ve always had to prove myself, really from a lack of athleticism. But everybody on my team is that way. All of us individually have a chip on our shoulder, and as a team we have a chip on our shoulder. It’s a whole-program thing, where we just want to prove ourselves.”
They have already, to the point CBS placed them in prime time for their Round of 32 victory. More will be watching the next game.
When they board buses in a few hours on their humble campus of red brick buildings, where the student bookstore is being renovated yet sold out its inventory of t-shirts and hoodies, know this about the Saint Peter’s Peacocks of Jersey City.
They won’t back down. And that’s what should endear them to at least some of the 45 million Americans who’ll bet an estimated $3.1 billion on the tournament. If you must gamble, do so on something earnest and fun.
“I’m going to say this. It's going to come off a little crazy. I got guys from New Jersey and New York City. You think we're scared of anything?’’ Shaheen Holloway said. “You think we're worried about guys trying to muscle us and tough us out? We do that. That’s what we are.’’
The boasts only intensified when the team returned to campus Sunday. Addressing fans in the tiny campus gym, Holloway said, “It’s been a great ride — but guess what? — it’s not over. I don’t think nobody’s taking Saint Peter’s lightly no more.’’ And to think the program has been mocked for playing home games at Run Baby Run Arena, borrowing branding from the nickname of a 1968 team that averaged 94 points a game.
Edert dared to add: “We can go all the way. I feel like we can beat everybody. We work so hard, and with a little bit of belief, I think we can accomplish anything.’’
The original Saint Peter, who didn’t have a crossover dribble but probably had a vertical leap, once told a crippled beggar, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have, I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.’’ The man walked.
So watch those Peacocks strut, baby, strut.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.