Hartford's Two Basketball Coaches Set The Example

ALBANY, N.Y. — John Gallagher stood there at halftime Sunday inside SEFCU Arena, warmup pants, sneakers, black Hartford hoodie, sipping a cupful of coffee and two teaspoons of wisdom.

Asked how his young Hawks were handling the sudden and unexpected loss to UMBC in the quarterfinals of the America East tournament, Gallagher looked up in the stands at his team and said, "Devastated. They're devastated."

Gallagher also did the damnedest thing after that 69-62 loss Saturday afternoon. He kept his guys in Albany for 24 hours to make sure they cheered on the Hartford women during their 64-33 rout of Vermont in the tournament semis.

Most coaches, virtually all coaches, would have piled their team on the bus and been back on campus before sundown. Not Gallagher. He is a fascinating man. Three parts optimism and two parts more optimism, Johnny Gal climbed to the top of the stalk and stole all the giant's happy beans.

He also is on the verge of something special at Hartford. His team, with a core of six sophomores, finished 10-6 in the league. With a victory in the CIT or the CBI postseason tournaments, it can tie the record for most season wins in program history. The Hawks are in good position the next two years to get their first NCAA bid. None of this, of course, helped soothe the pain of the loss. The Hawks advanced to the tournament semis last March before losing to eventual champion Vermont in double overtime. They had hoped to build on that moment. They did not on the court. Gallagher, however, seized the moment to do some life-building, some man-building.

"When you lose a game like we did, the initial little boy reaction is let's go hide in the house, put our head under the pillow and act like it didn't happen," Gallagher said. "But we as a program, we're built on certain things, and hiding isn't one of them."

"We lost a tough game. We got up this morning and we're going to support our women's team. They supported us. I work closely with Jen [Rizzotti] and Sully [Bill Sullivan, Rizzotti's husband and assistant coach] on everything we do. For us not to be here would be wrong."

None of this was lost on Rizzotti, who has taken her team to the NCAA Tournament six times since 2002, and with a victory over Albany in the America East finals here next Saturday can make it No. 7.

"It means a lot [that the men stayed for the game]," Rizzotti said. "John and I are really close. It's not just as head coaches. We're friends, family friends. We've spent time together. When you watch what he's trying to do, what he's trying to build, how he's trying to do it, it's really, really easy to root for him."

And so she did, louder than a hockey mom, along with the women's team at the men's game Saturday. The men's and women's coaches at some schools don't always get along, and we need look no further than two Hall of Fame coaches to support that assertion. Yet it goes beyond coaches with multiple national championships. It's not always easy even at Hartford, specifically for the men's coach. Rizzotti has gotten plenty of deserved accolades. UHart has been seen as a women's basketball school.

"John always has given our program credit," Rizzotti said. "He always said we're the model for the success he wants to have. I know as hard as it was for him last night and for his players to have to hang around, it just goes to show kind of where our relationship has gone in terms of friend-to-friend and also program-to-program. We would have done the same thing. We would have wanted to be there for them, to cheer on their success, even though we might have been heartbroken as well."

Yet it grows even deeper than a mutual friendship. In Gallagher's mind, it goes deeper than even season-deciding W's and L's.

"I look at this way: We're trying to get Hartford to be at a standard that Hartford has never been," Gallagher said. "How you handle losing is just as important as how you handle winning. This is what I told the team. When you have a tough day at work, at General Electric or IBM, if you're a plumber or a carpenter, you have your worst day … you still have to get up the next morning and go to work again."

"Our work today is supporting our women's team. A lot of teams would have said let's get on the bus right after the game and go home. That's not how I've been raised by my parents. We're going to show our face. We're going to act like normal human beings."

Three minutes into the second half, Hartford had an eight-point lead. That is when Ryan Cook, who finished with 24 points, scored 12 consecutive UMBC points. That's when Brian Neller, who finished with 20 points, hit three dagger three-pointers. Gallagher took a risk with seven minutes left and UMBC up two. He decided to play Mark Nwakamma with four fouls. UHart's best player fouled out a minute later.

"We were loose enough to win offensively," Gallagher said. "We weren't tight enough to win defensively. What that tells me is we're a couple of plays maturity-wise from taking that step. Winners want honesty. They don't want to be lied to. We were told the truth yesterday.

"They realize two seniors, who didn't want to go home, beat them. You've got to give credit to those two. We're the 330th youngest team in the country out of 345. Our guys unanimously wanted to get back at it [in the CIT or CBI]. Other teams might not look at it this way, but we're looking at it as the biggest game in program history."

Then Gallagher, who has two more years left on a five-year deal and figures to get an extension this offseason, said some especially interesting.

"You may laugh at this," he said. "But they'll remember getting up this morning and doing this 10 years from now, more than losing the game. That's why I did it. Because 10 years from now, when they have a tough day at work or with their family, their natural response is I know how we're going to handle it. This might be more important to them in 10, 20, 30 years.

"They're going to win and lose a lot of basketball games, but they are going to have a lot more good days and bad days in life. So it's how do I react? That's my biggest thing as a teacher, more than anything. Forget winning and losing for a second, my No. 1 goal when I'm recruiting kids is we are going have two tables at everybody's wedding. Two tables, not one, 10 or 15 years from now. Why? That means we all love each other and we're all there. Yeah, this is a tough day for us. You also don't want to be a guy who is seen as the guy who doesn't handle losing right. And you know what? If you don't handle losing right, you're not going handle bad days in life right."

So the young Hawks stayed and cheered, and on this Sunday learned something about life.

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