Coach Cooley tells students to have faith and stay in school

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EAST PROVIDENCE — For Ed Cooley, head coach of the Providence College Friars men’s basketball team, the most important values in life are faith, determination and gratitude. If not for the generosity of others, as well as educators who believed in him, he said he would not be the man he is today.

As a child growing up in a poor neighborhood in South Providence, he went on to graduate college and led the Friars to a Big East Championship.

“I dreamed about it; I prayed about it,” he recently told the entire student body at St. Margaret School. “The only thing that gave me that opportunity was education. When I was your age, all I wanted to do was find a school where I could eat, feel comfort and be loved. Those things were not prevalent in my life at that point in time.”

Cooley, who was one of nine children, recalls having to use clothing stuffed in a bag as a pillow.

When his neighbors, Gloria and Ed Searight, took him in, he said they taught him the significance of getting a good education.

“In that home, education became so prevalent,” said Cooley, noting that he wasn’t allowed to play ball until his homework was finished.

But the Searight family also helped him understand the importance of giving to others. Though they had a combined income of $17,000 to $22,000, as well as four children of their own, Cooley said they always made sure he had proper clothes and was fed.

“I don’t know how they did it,” he said.

Fighting diversity, Cooley attended Central High School in Providence, where he played basketball. While teachers appreciated his love for the sport, they inspired him to study and improve his grades.

“People asked me who my role models were,” Cooley said. “It was the teachers that believed in me and took time out of their day to help me become a better person, more so than a better student.”

Yet, there was one teacher who didn’t support him. He criticized Cooley during his junior year, telling him the only thing he could do was play basketball.

“Every day, from the eleventh day on, I wanted to prove him wrong,” said Cooley.

After graduation, he headed to New Hampton School in New Hampshire, a college preparatory high school, as he needed to improve his SAT scores in hopes of getting a scholarship to Stonehill College. Yet, he was told his grades weren’t good enough and lacked money to fund tuition.

That’s when he asked to speak to the admissions officer.

“To this day, I don’t know how I got to meet that man,” said Cooley. “I said, ‘I want to come to your school. Please let me in your school. I told him, ‘I will clean dishes in the morning, shovel snow in the wintertime, rake leaves, shake hands, kiss babies — I’ll do anything if you let me in this school.’ And he did. He let me in the school. He gave me an opportunity because I asked for help. If you’re ever in need of help, ask. Ask with passion, ask with conviction, and ask with some energy.”

Cooley paid off his tuition by doing chores around school before making his way to Stonehill. There, not only did he play basketball, serving as team captain for three of his four years, but he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in history.

“You’re going to deal with tough times in your life,” Cooley said. “I’m here to tell you that anything is possible. I remember eating at soup kitchens [and] wearing other peoples’ clothes, shoes and sneakers. I knew there was something special out there for me. I just didn’t know what it was.”

Following graduation in 1994, Cooley taught high school for two years. He also began his assistant coaching career at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth before returning to Stonehill, as well as obtaining assistant coaching positions at University of Rhode Island and Boston College.

In 2006, Fairfield University offered him his first head coaching job. But he became a Friar in 2011, helping his team win the Big East Conference during the 2013-2014 season.

“I want someone in this room to become the greatest leader ever because you believe it can come true,” he told St. Margaret students, noting that while he loves coaching, it doesn’t define who he is as a man. “The real person in me wants to give, share and care. When you give, care and share, it’s never about the mirror. When you wake up in the morning and look in the mirror, do you see yourself, or do you see how you can help other people? That’s how I start my day every single morning.”

Students said hearing Cooley’s words was inspirational. Eighth graders Joey Rego, 14, and Sloane Larsen, 13, noted Cooley’s message of motivation and determination.

“He grew up having nothing, but now he’s a coach,” said Rego, while Larsen added, “even through tough times, he dealt with it, and now he’s doing great things.”

They also pointed out Cooley’s desire to help others, as did seventh grader, Jack Sheil, 12.

“It touched me,” Sheil said. “And he’s one of the best coaches.”

Eighth grader, Lauren O’Brien, 13, as well as Jack Paiva, who graduated from St. Margaret in 2012, agree. As PC fans, they were excited to welcome Cooley to the school.

“I go to every game,” O’Brien said. “Seeing him pumped up on the sidelines makes me pumped up. I never knew that he grew up in a tough neighborhood. Having a strong faith in God got him through his tough times in life and where he is now.”

Paiva, an eleventh grader at St. Raphael Academy, feels the same. Not only did he say Cooley makes the Dunkin’ Donut Center come alive during games, he thought Cooley’s speech was impressive.

“He was down to earth and not afraid to say anything,” said Paiva, who works as a sacristan at the St. Margaret Church.

Principal Guy Alba was honored to have Cooley visit with students. He described Cooley as a man of faith with a Christ-like message.

“He offered to come to St. Margaret’s,” said Alba, who is also an adjunct professor and guest lecturer at PC’s School of Professional Studies Masters in Counseling Program. “I knew the message: give, share and care, and that’s what Jesus said.”