St. Anthony High School's Winning Ways
A New Jersey basketball coach shows how he cares for kids by pushing them to excellence with a nudge of tough love
JERSEY CITY, N.J.
The way hoop coach Bob Hurley sees it, basketball is about life-qualities such as teamwork, attention to detail, and hard work.
So, tonight, the message is about responsibility.
As he blows his whistle every few seconds, the coach of the Friars of St. Anthony High School here, is directing thunderbolts toward two seniors who have arrived at the practice session 45 minutes late two days before one of the biggest games of the season against undefeated Elizabeth High School. One senior is doing laps around the gym while the coach castigates him and the second senior is ultimately kicked out of the gym.
A remarkable record
Hurley's no-nonsense approach is one of the reasons St. Anthony's parochial school has dominated high school basketball in New Jersey and the country. In the last 29 years, St. Anthony's teams have won 20 state championships. Twice they have finished as the nation's top high school basketball team. With their record of 23-1, they are currently ranked seventh by USA Today.
Over the last three years, the team has lost only one game. It is a remarkable record for a tiny school - 170 boys - which has made its mark despite not having a gymnasium. Practice sessions are held at a local elementary school.
"He is one of America's great coaches who cares about his kids," says Morgan Wootten, considered the dean of high school basketball coaches and the coach of DeMatha High School in Hyattsville, Md. "He's the kind of coach you would want your son to play for."
Hurley has won his rankings by taking on some of the best basketball powers in the country. "They play a big-time schedule," says Dave Krider, who ranks high school teams for USA Today from LaPorte, Ind.
Last year, for example, St. Anthony's played, and beat, five teams in the Top 25. St. Anthony's was favored to win the state championship, which took place last night.
Teams facing St. Anthony's know they are in for a battle right from the tip-off. "They have tremendously tough kids. They refuse to lose," says Bob Gibbons, editor and publisher of All Star Sports Publications, a high school rating service in Lenoir, N.C. This year that will power is supplemented by a seven-foot sophomore center.
Most of the St. Anthony's players come from the rough neighborhoods in the working-class town. "Most of these kids have miserable lives away from their high school and their sport," says Hurley. He notes that a big move for many of the players was to leave their neighborhoods and go to school at St. Anthony's, which is located downtown. "If we can get them away from Jersey City for four years, the potential for their lives being happier is greater," says the coach who says he wants the basketball to become a springboard to a well-rounded life.
'Coach is a perfectionist'
From the playgrounds, Hurley molds the kids into a team. A St. Anthony's player, he says, "would be a disciplined kid, who can follow instructions, is used to working hard, team-oriented, and in very good physical shape."
He plays an in-your-face, man-to-man defense as part of his philosophy about "accepting individual challenges." After team huddles, the team chants, "Defense."
As one of his own players, Delvon Arrington, puts it, "Coach is a perfectionist and he wants us to be perfect too." Hurley tries to get to that perfect state through repetition.
At nonstop practices, the team rehearses everything it will do in a game. If a play calls for a fake, the player fakes in practice. When they do something right, team members applaud each other.
A place on St. Anthony's team is a ticket to college. In Hurley's 25 years of coaching, he has had only one player not head off to college for at least a semester. He estimates that 70 percent of his players end up with at least an associate's degree.
Hurley says all five of this year's seniors will receive scholarships to such schools as Georgetown and Florida State. The tough practices prepare the players for some of the most intense college coaches. "Whether Rick Pitino (coach of Kentucky) or Mike Krzyzewski (Duke), the kids go there and they adjust rapidly because they are used to being pushed, they are used to being yelled at." There are two Friar's graduates, including Hurley's own son, Bobby Jr., playing in the National Basketball Association.
Talent isn't essential
The pros are not Hurley's proudest accomplishment. Instead, he says he feels best about making kids without a great deal of natural talent into basketball players. "The kid who improved the most, had the most doubters and accomplished something," says Hurley.
On the basketball court, a still fit Hurley - he played high school basketball himself - looks as if he could still go a few minutes with the kids. During a game, his gray crewcut drips with sweat as he works the officials and yells at his team. The yelling, which can be heard above the roar of the crowd, is an act of love from someone born, raised, and still living in Jersey City. He not only worries about the games, but is concerned that the commute to practice hurts his players academically since it consumes an hour and a half every day.
"The success of this will be 10 years from now in what those guys are doing, not how many guys got championship jackets in high school," he says.
With his record, Hurley, who is a full-time probation officer in Jersey City, could get a job coaching at the college level. But he worries that he might not get along with the alumni or might not be good at public relations because of his blunt nature. Besides, he says, it's more challenging to be a high school coach. "They are taking pieces of coal and perhaps turning them into diamonds."
As it turns out, almost all the St. Anthony's players were diamonds in the big game against Elizabeth (enrollment: 4,500). The Friars shot 70 percent from the floor and made only three turnovers in the first half. They won 80 to 47.
After the game, a smiling Hurley called it an "A plus" first half. "We played our hearts out," says Arrington. That's what the coach expects. "It's not whether we win or lose, but whether we play to our potential," he says.