Monday, March 4, 2024

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Every day, Ed Cooley puts on his headphones, turns on his music and goes for a walk. While an eclectic mix of Whitney Houston, New Edition, Luther Vandross and Lady Gaga plays, the coach winds his way off of the Georgetown campus. Eventually he comes to the intersection of Prospect and M streets, where above him rise 75 concrete steps. Originally constructed in 1895, the steps became famous in 1973 when a celluloid creation by the name of Father Karras fell to his death after freeing a child from demonic possession. Now, 50 years later, Cooley makes the so-called “‘Exorcist’ steps” part of his daily hour-long jaunt. On a good day, he will loop around and summit them seven times.

There is a metaphor available here, about how a man whom many in his hometown now consider the devil incarnate, needing to rid himself of bad vibes, goes for his daily pedestrian exorcism. Except Ed Cooley isn’t looking to exorcise. He just wants to exercise.

This is the thing about Cooley, current Georgetown coach, former Providence coach, beloved son turned traitor. People want to ascribe all sorts of metaphors and motivations and evils for his decision to leave one Big East school for another. And in their defense, there’s reason to search for a deeper cause.

In 1979, when Dave Gavitt – a Providence man himself – started the Big East, he delivered one edict to his seven feisty coaches: Scream and holler all you want in private, but publicly, have each other’s backs. For 44 years, as the league expanded and compressed, died and was reborn, the coaches heeded their commissioner’s warning. They protected and preached the brand. While other coaches exchanged one league job for another without so much as a second glance, no one left one Big East school for another.

And now here is Cooley. He was not Rick Pitino 2.0, twice leaving and entering the conference decades apart. He went directly from one founding member to another.

He had it all. A program on the come, with seven NCAA Tournament berths in the last nine years. A four-year-old practice facility. A devoted fan base. He rejected all of it. Turned his nose at the hardscrabble team that worked its way into an elite program to go to a once-elite team that worked its way into a shambles. Gave up on a team that won 27 Big East games in the last two years in favor of one that won two. Exchanged the Dominicans for the Jesuits, for heaven’s sake. There has to be a reason. Chasing money, chasing glory, dysfunction, disloyalty, arrogance. Something.

Sitting in a conference room where remnants from the preceding coach’s tenure stand like Stonehenge – ridiculously oversized gray leather chairs that make ordinary people look like toddlers at the adult table – Cooley knows people want an explanation. And he has one. It’s just not the profound monologue they might be searching for. Cooley opens his hands wide, raises his eyebrows and shrugs. “I needed a change,’’ he says. From 14 Elma St., take a quick left on Broad, a right on Sassafras and head to the end of the block, to 117. Not even a half mile between the two, and yet this served as the entire world for Ed Cooley. Elma is where he lived, where his mother, Jane, did her best to raise nine kids on her own. Sassafras is where he was raised, where the Searight family took him in, fed him and showed him a way out.

He eventually left – for college, for assistant coaching jobs, his first head-coaching gig and then his second – but in a peripatetic profession, Cooley did the impossible. He climbed up the ladder yet never really left his base. A job at Fairfield gave him his longest commute, a mere 120 miles away. And then, of course, he came back: the Providence son in charge of Providence College. The boy from Elma Street, who meandered his way down Broad dreaming big dreams, grabbed the brass ring. “I’m not looking to win and go someplace else,’’ he said then, in 2011.

“I’m happy where I’m at. I’m home.’’ Cooley, wearing a Georgetown T-shirt, recalls that vow now and winces. “Never use the word ‘never,’’ he says. “Never is forever and that would be the mistake I made. Never comes back to haunt you.’’ It’s not that he didn’t mean it. He did. What he didn’t account for is that 41-year-old Ed Cooley might not want the same thing as 54-year-old Ed Cooley. There can be true joy in living in the same city you’ve known your whole life, reconnecting with childhood mentors and friends, visiting old haunts and eating at favorite restaurants. Yet there can also be, especially as a person ages, the existential terror of, Is this all there is? Should I do more? Want more?

Cooley didn’t see it coming in 2011, but he started to feel it in recent years. At first an itch, and then eventually a tug. Four years ago, he called his friend, Mark Fox, about an opening he was more than just a little curious about. The two have been pals for decades, and because Fox has jumped from Nevada to Georgia to Cal, he’s been a good sounding board for Cooley. Back then Fox told him no, this wasn’t the right one to move on to. But when Cooley called about Georgetown, Fox had a different answer.

“Jay Wright always says, ‘Don’t mess with happy,’’’ says Fox, who has since joined his buddy as Georgetown’s director of student-athlete relations and name, image and likeness (NIL) partnerships. “And there’s definitely something to that. But sometimes maybe you do mess with happy, because you’re addicted to the challenge of accomplishment. Ed is an obsessive competitor, and I think that’s a big part of this.’’

Cooley could have stayed at Providence and ended up with a statue outside the Dunkin Donuts Center. But coaches are wired weird – blessed with the confidence and ego to believe they can manifest real change, yet in desperate need of affirmation and success and tormented by the impossible quest for perfection. The only satisfied coach is the one holding the championship trophy at the end of the season. Even that joy has a short shelf life. There&’s always next season.

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