AT THE END OF THE BENCH: What a Centaur-Turned-Coach Learned at Allentown and Shares with UCLA Coach John Wooden

Posted on Nov 19, 2012

This CENTAUR SEASONS post isn’t meant to embarrass Tom Shirley. I suspect it might.

Tom was a four-year Centaur, two years behind me. He didn’t play much.

I went to Allentown thinking I’d play a lot,” he told me. “I guess I assumed that because it was a small school that they stunk, and of course I thought I was pretty good. And of course I came to realize that I wasn’t very good and the guys on the team weren’t all that bad.”

Though unlike guys who thought this cornfield college was their ticket to some varsity-starting ball and then quit when it didn’t work out, Tom stuck with it.

This image of a bench-sitting Tom Shirley isn’t, however, the embarrassing part. I think Tom’s O.K. with that. No, this likely is the embarrassing part: What Tom Shirley, now a long-time women’s college basketball coach, has in common with the UCLA coach John Wooden.

(He’s gotta be kidding,  I can hear Tom say.)

Coach Wooden first appeared in CENTAUR SEASONS a post or two ago. I interviewed the legendary coach in 1991 and I still have the tapes. [The interview itself is available for listening here.] In that post, I talked about how while reviewing the conversation all these years later I was struck by how – despite the obvious differences – what Coach Wooden had to say about the game of basketball at UCLA applied as well to the game we played at Allentown College. Really.

I see this as a fair exercise. UCLA utterly dominated the basketball landscape back then. It was the epitome of the game, the standard bearer. Of course we kept an eye on UCLA, tried to compare ourselves to them. To do so again seems only natural.

I don’t think Coach Wooden would object to this, by the way. He always famously identified himself as a “teacher,” not a “coach,” a distinction he emphasized when we talked. With basketball as the classroom, whether at UCLA or Allentown College, there was plenty to teach and much to learn.

Which brings us back now to Tom Shirley and Coach Wooden.

“You have to give attention to players that aren’t getting to play too much,” Coach Wooden said to me when I asked him to talk of team dynamics. “You, as the coach, must not ignore the players that practice.” Scrimmage-bait, they’re called, though Coach Wooden himself never stooped to the term. “I am constantly pointing out that there’s a role for everybody, and you have to, you have to, fill the role that’s been given to you.”

Tom Shirley filled the role of the Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales twelfth man.

“It didn’t matter to me that I didn’t play,” Tom told me. He was on the team. “I was captivated by the experience. I enjoyed the locker room. I thought Jerry Fleming was one of the best people I ever met.”

Jerry Fleming was a senior when Tom was a freshman. The red-headed Flem, witty and sarcastic and unafraid to speak his mind, had been a sometime starter as a sophomore but then, as better players arrived, he inevitably fell to the end of the bench. Where he and Tom had plenty of time to talk.

“I remember Flem, he used to say, ‘I’m gonna write a book and it’s gonna to be called “Pissed Off, Pissed On,” and your gonna be chapter five.’ Things like that captivated me. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t playing.***  It didn’t matter that I wasn’t playing ‘big-time’ basketball, because, really, I wasn’t playing anyway. I was a sub.  I was a captivated spectator.”

Coach Wooden likened it all to the engine of a car. The engine powers the car, yes, but if “a little nut” comes lose, well, “the engine’s not much good.”

“Everyone has a role, and it’s an important role,” the coach said. “And they must be made to feel that it is an important role.”

Tom learned Coach Wooden’s lesson sitting at the end of the Centaur bench. But, Tom says, it was one of his own teammates who taught it to him.

“Dave Gleilmi would go out and get 25 points, and then after the game, there he’d be singing in the shower and then he’d be the one later icing down the keg. You know what I mean? That was cool.”

I know what Tom means. Dave was my roommate junior year. Yeah, Dave was that kind of guy.  “A place like Penn State probably had 20 Dave Glielmis,” Tom said. “Well, Allentown College had only one, and that’s what made it special. It was guys like Dave who kept me on the team.”

Now Tom has his own team. He’s in his 24th year as the head coach of the women’s team at Philadelphia University. He started this season with 627 wins, seventh most at the D-II level. This season’s sked has just tipped off, and the team is 3-0.

“Dave Glielmi made me feel like I was special — and I was the twelfth man,” Tom said, disbelief and gratitude in his vioce even now. “So around here, I can tell you that I spend way more time with the ninth, tenth, eleventh, twelfth man, you know, in like conversations at lunch and stuff. I understand how valuable it is to be a part of a team.”

Coach Wooden would agree with that. Those are the players a coach needs to give the encouragement to, the “pats on the back” to. They also,  he said,  “need to be taught to keep things in perspective.”

Perspective, Tom has. And isn’t it ironic…

Turned out Tom Shirley was just good enough to make the team at Allentown and sit on the bench. As with many of us (me, for sure), had Tom gone to school anywhere else he likely doesn’t get a sniff of the basketball team. Meaning if Tom Shirley, bench-warmer turned long-time successful coach, doesn’t go to college where he did, he perhaps never learns one of the most important lesson he has taken with him through his professional life.

“I know what it’s like to be the twelfth man,” Tom said, declaring it proudly. “And I learned it at Allentown College.”

*** Tom didn’t play much, true. But my senior year I recall that he did have a moment. Seems only fair to mention it. Tom was a point gaurd. He didn’t have much of a shot and he was wispy thin, easily knocked around. But he could see the court extremely well (the coach already in him) and he was a terrific passer.  When we stumbled to a 1-4 start, coach rejiggered the lineup and Tom started the next four games. We went 3-1. His foul shot with less than a minute held up for one win, 73-72.  The loss was to Ursinus College, at their place. An established MAC school, it was a huge, heady upgrade on our schedule, the game played in a bona fide fieldhouse, maybe 1,500 people in the stands, our biggest crowd ever. We lost, 78-68, but that was almost beside the point; after the game the Ursinus coach told our coach he liked what he saw and agreed to play us twice the next season. Big Time. As I recall, Tom had grown up nearby, making him a hometown boy made good. However briefly: With some order restored, Tom got one more start, then slid back down the bench. Must’ve nearly killed him.

Meanwhile, four days later, on January 19, 1974, we won again to get to 5-5. This too was a major deal, a .500 record at the start of the second semster, we Centaurs as half-good, half-bad as we could hope to get. Earlier that day Notre Dame beat UCLA, 71-70, ending the Bruins’s consecutive-win streak at 88. Only fitting: Three years before UCLA had won the first game of its streak on the same day we beat Strayer College for what was then the biggest win in school history.  Yes, we always kept an eye on UCLA.

 

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Welcome to CENTAUR SEASONS: A ‘memory blog’ of the basketball beginnings of a half-good, half-bad, all-new college team.

Once, I was a Centaur.

I played basketball for Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales in Center Valley, Pa. I was on four of the school’s first seven teams, was MVP senior year and in 1974 graduated in the fifth class.

My junior year I kept a diary: A History of the Events of the 1972-1973 Allentown College B-Ball Season, as Chronicled by, and With the Personal Memoirs + Occassional [sic] Philosophizing of the Author, One Stephen J. McKee.  One-hundred-forty-five hand-writ pages. (Yes, I was an English major.)

But it occurs to me now: Were I today a “Bulldog” playing for “DeSales University” (both mascot and name changed in 2000), my private “History” would be not a diary but a blog.

So starting November 30  “…Personal Memoirs…” will be re-imagined as CENTAUR SEASONS

A blog before its time, posted 40 years after in real time.

Meanwhile, beginning on September 24, here at CENTAUR SEASONS the preseason has already tipped off, with stories, interviews and reminiscences of the people, the place and the purpose of those early years of Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales.

Check back often. Sign up for CentaurSeasonAlerts. Email CENTAUR SEASONS to friends.

We were not a bad team, we Centaurs. We just weren’t very good. Winning was always the goal, if never exactly the point. How could it be, with victories so few?

Back then Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales was a couple of buildings in some cornfields.  Our commitment to the school’s basketball program was far greater than was the school’s commitment us. So what? We got to play college ball – and paid for the privilege! In return, we got to be part of a team, wear the red and blue, be Centaurs. And we got to create a place that was, right then, as much concept as it was college, making itself up as we went along.

What we got was a once-in-a-life-time chance.

All we had to do was keep showing up -- next practice, next game, next season. And so we did.

Welcome to CENTAUR SEASONS.

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