Falmouth's George Blaney Has Hand in UCONN Huskies Success
By: Christopher Kazarian
On the eve of George Blaney's 72nd birthday, the fourth-ranked Connecticut Huskies gave the longtime men's college basketball coach a reason to celebrate early—a 70-57 win over Columbia on Veterans Day to kick off the team's season last month.
Over the past 11 seasons the relatively unassuming Mr. Blaney, who owns a home in Falmouth Heights with his wife, MaryEllen, has sat opposite the more fiery Jim Calhoun, serving as the Huskies associate head coach.
"It has been a real good ride," he said in a telephone interview prior to the start of this season, in which the Huskies were returning as NCAA champions and were ranked fourth in the nation.
And the highlight of a basketball career that has spanned over four decades occurred one April night in 2004 during his current tenure as an assistant on the UConn staff.
On that night Mr. Blaney was a participant in his first Final Four, when his second-seeded Huskies, featuring future NBA stars Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon, went up against the higher-ranked Duke Blue Devils, a game UConn would win en route to a national title. "That first time we went, I had been to about 36 Final Fours before that point and had sat and watched from the stands. When I would watch, I always thought what it would be like to be coaching in one of those games," he said. "So when 2004 came, I remember Jim and I walking out from the locker room for the semifinal game and I was crying. It was that emotional, and I thanked him for allowing me to be put in that position and be there and experience it."
For an admitted basketball junkie, one whose most comfortable moments are on the court, it was the fulfillment of a dream. Since that time he and his Huskies have been to two more Final Fours, losing once in 2009 to Michigan State in the semifinal game and winning last year when Kemba Walker led the team "on a magic carpet ride" that ended in a win over the tournament's Cinderella, the Butler Bulldogs.
"In 2004 we really had a great college basketball team and we were confident we would win it. It was a phenomenal season," Mr. Blaney said. "Last year wasn't truly a great team, but we came together and played exceptionally well together at the end of the year."
New Jersey: Blaney's Basketball Roots
Mr. Blaney grew up in Jersey City, New Jersey, in the 1940s and '50s when "it was a hotbed of basketball. You could go to almost any corner and find a game someplace."
It was there, at a young age, Mr. Blaney found his love for the game of basketball. And as he moved onto high school, starring at St. Peter's Preparatory School, he said it became more apparent where his future was headed. "I played for good coaches, so it dawned on me early on I wanted to be a coach even as far back as high school," he said.
Those plans were deferred as the 6-foot-1 guard moved on to College of the Holy Cross as he followed his high school coach Roy Leenig to Worcester. After amassing 1,012 points and leading the Crusaders to back-to-back 20-win seasons, Mr. Blaney was drafted by the New York Knicks in the 1961 NBA draft.
So when 2004 came, I remember Jim and I walking out from the locker room for the semifinal game and I was crying. It was that emotional, and I thanked him for allowing me to be put in that position and be there and experience it.
While his professional career would be short-lived, playing one season for the Knicks and another with the Philadelphia 76ers, he was good enough to score 14 points in a game against the LA Lakers.
Once his playing days were over, Mr. Blaney made the natural move to becoming a coach, explaining his interest in "the psychological parts that go through a player's mind and whether he has a good or bad day. And if they have a bad day you wonder, 'Can you get over what happened yesterday or use what happened yesterday to help you today?' There is great intrigue and mystery in that. It has always intrigued me and it still does, and that's why I do it."
A Career In Coaching
Mr. Blaney's first stint was at Hudson Catholic High School in Jersey City in 1965 before he made the switch to college, becoming a head coach at Stonehill in Easton two years later.
As to why he settled on the college game, he said he enjoyed the competition and working with older players.
Mr. Blaney would coach at Stonehill for two seasons before moving on to Dartmouth College, where he coached until 1972. That year he returned to his alma mater, remaining as a head coach at Holy Cross for 22 years. "It was a dream of mine to coach there," he said. "I had played and gone to school there and had tremendous friends there. I enjoyed every minute of it."
While at Holy Cross, Mr. Blaney would post nine consecutive winning seasons and take the Crusaders to the NCAA Tournament in 1977, 1980 and 1993. His greatest accomplishment, though, had nothing to do with wins or losses. "What I enjoyed most is that no coach had better kids than I had at Holy Cross and I really enjoyed that," he said.
Towards the end of his run with the Crusaders, Mr. Blaney had secured a home in Falmouth Heights, purchasing it in 1991. Since that time, he and his wife have spent some, if not all, of their summers here, although in recent years that has changed, with five grown children and seven grandchildren living in different parts of the country.
He said he has been fascinated to see Falmouth grow, "especially with all the great restaurants. We try them all, but you can't beat Paul's Pizza."
He also enjoys golf, often playing at the Pocasset Golf Club when he has time.
Leaves Holy Cross For Big East
During his early days in Falmouth, he said he would often get recognized by residents, but when he left Holy Cross in 1994 to coach in the Big East at Seton Hall, that waned. As to why he left the security of his life in Worcester, he said it came down to the fact that Holy Cross, after making a move to the Patriot League in 1991, stopped offering scholarships to its players. "I wanted competition of a higher level, and you are no longer at that higher level when you aren't offering scholarships," he said.
Mr. Blaney would only last three years at Seton Hall before being let go, something he looks back at with regret. "We had some good players—Adrian Griffin and Danny Hurley—and I really enjoyed it there, but I would have liked to have more time," he said.
GEORGE BLANEY CAREER HIGHLIGHTS
Boasts a 459-382 record as a head coach
Three Final Fours and Two National Championships (2004; 2011)
Inducted into the New England Basketball Hall of Fame (2003)
That left him at a crossroads in his career. He was admittedly at an age that led many colleges to not hire him, despite his being more than qualified to still serve effectively as a head coach, as demonstrated by his 459-382 record.
So he accepted an administrative position with the International Basketball Association, a late-1990s version of the NBA's D-League, that never took off.
While it was an enjoyable time, Mr. Blaney had the urge to return to the bench. "I missed being on the floor," he said, and in 2000 that wish was granted when he was hired as an assistant to head coach Jerry DeGregorio at the University of Rhode Island.
Finds A Home In Storrs
A year later Mr. Calhoun would snag Mr. Blaney for his staff. The two are close friends, having known each other for the past 40 years. "It's one of those friendships that is truly unusual. We can be with each other every day or miss each other for a year or two and still be the same with each other," Mr. Blaney said. "We love to talk about basketball and golf and how to get the kids to play harder and better."
"The great thing about our relationship is that he trusts me," Mr. Blaney continued. "We kind of work off each other and feed off of each other."
Undoubtedly it is Mr. Calhoun's team, but Mr. Blaney does play a role in the Huskies' success. He handles most of the planning for practice and the scouting for games.
And while Mr. Blaney does fly under the radar, he is scheduled to coach the first three games of the Big East season against South Florida, St. John's and Seton Hall after Mr. Calhoun was suspended earlier this year by the NCAA for failing to comply with regulations in the school's recruitment of Nate Miles.
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Perhaps the toughest game for Mr. Blaney this season will occur on December 18 when UConn hosts Holy Cross. "That will be a hard game, because I have so much love and respect for that school," he said.
As far as his expectations for this year, he said "they are always high and this year is no different." He anticipates the first two months will act as a gauge to determine just how good the Huskies, who will be led by 6-foot-5 sophomore guard Jeremy Lamb and 6-foot-1 sophomore guard Shabazz Napier, can be.
And as in years past, Mr. Blaney will play a role in that development, a challenge he still relishes and which is why even at his age he shrugs off any notions of retirement. "That is the fun part, trying to figure out what each guy reacts to. Some kids are quiet. Some, like Shabazz, have all the confidence in the world while Jeremy is still trying to figure out who he is," Mr. Blaney said. "That is the intrigue in the game. I feel comfortable in the gym. That is where I feel most comfortable, and coaching has allowed me to stay there."
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