Making a Mark
by Brendan Prunty ’06
Billy Lange has just wrapped up a meeting with his staff. The door to his office opens, and there are assistant coaches, each with a laptop in hand, alongside the operations staff collecting their notes. “Just focusing on details,” Lange says, as the group exits. He clears the couch for his next meeting, and takes a seat in a chair near the window, where the rain clouds have finally cleared up behind him. Then he notices something.
It’s a smudge on the dark wood of the coffee table in front of him. He pauses, and then grabs a Kleenex from the box and wipes the left-hand corner of the table clean.
“Details,” he says with a smile.
He is, at this point, in his 60th day as the 15th head men’s basketball coach in Saint Joseph’s University history. He is, at this point, trying to make sense of a roster which has required him to both recruit players in uniform and those deciding whose to wear, from minute one of his tenure. He is, at this point, still trying to straddle the line of taking over for Phil Martelli — the head coach on Hawk Hill for 24 years — while trying to mold the program in a new and vibrant way.
He is, at this point, a man who is consumed by details.
Because he knows, at Saint Joseph’s, the details matter.
“Every place I’ve been, has a story to it,” Lange said. “There’s a passion. People care about Navy. People care about Villanova. People care about Herb Magee at (Philadelphia) Textile. The Sixers. If you brought an assistant coach from somewhere else and put them in Philadelphia, it would take them about 10 games to realize, ‘This is a different experience.’ That’s what attracted me to here.”
From the very minute the vacancy was public, it was clear that whoever would take over as the next head coach of the Hawks would have to chart a very different path. The last time there was a head-coaching vacancy on Hawk Hill, Bill Clinton was still in his first term as president. The culture of the country, college athletics and the University had changed dramatically. So when Director of Athletics Jill Bodensteiner looked at the list of candidates, she knew she wanted — needed — someone who could come in on Day One with a plan, and an energy to get it done.
“To me — and being at Notre Dame for 20 years, I know this — you start seeing things through one lens,” Bodensteiner said. “So it’s been refreshing to have someone come in and look at every aspect, and say, ‘Why are we doing it this way?’”
The answers, she and Lange often found, were that it had just been done this way. Immediately, she gravitated to Lange’s ability to dive into subjects, minutiae even, and figure out what made it tick. Little things, that even she hadn’t considered. Case in point: During recruiting visits, players were always shown Villiger Hall, the University’s newest residence. But when they arrived on campus, freshmen were placed in McShain Hall, which was built in 1988. Lange asked why.
The reason, Bodensteiner told him, was that the building wasn’t fully staffed during the Christmas holiday, when the visits usually happen. “I told him, ‘Well, that sounds like something that can be fixed,’” she says.
Every aspect of the program has been inspected to create greater efficiency, and put the University’s best foot forward. From health monitoring, to nutrition and diet, to tutoring locations — Lange’s approach has been to examine it all. In the case of the dorms, it wasn’t necessarily to put players in the nicest ones. “That’s one street they don’t have to cross,” he said, his voice resonating with parental empathy.
It comes from his desire to immerse himself in every aspect of everything he does.
When Lange got the first major break of his career on the staff of Villanova under Jay Wright, he did something that most coaches on the basketball side don’t do: He wandered over to the business end of the program. That’s what struck Chris Heck as odd. Now the president of the Philadelphia 76ers, Heck had never seen that in his role as VP and GM of Villanova Sports Properties. The two men soon began to chat about all things program-related. How basketball impacted the business side. How the business elements could help the basketball program grow.
“If you brought an assistant coach from somewhere else and put them in Philadelphia, it would take them about 10 games to realize, ‘This is a different experience.’”
— Billy Lange
Lange’s career made the usual twists and turns of a basketball coach: three years on Villanova’s staff, seven years as the head coach at the Naval Academy, two more years back with Villanova, before landing on Brett Brown’s staff with the Sixers — where Heck once again found the same curiosity. And then some.
“We had a very common core of beliefs when we arrived at the Sixers,” Heck recalled. “As damaged and behind-the-times as we were there — there was an air of complacency that being okay was okay. But there was a group of us who wanted to be great. And one of the traits that Billy had that made him such a great fit, was that he knew it was okay to fail. But we were going to do it the right way.
“We had a long view on how to rebuild this once great brand.”
Heck remembered getting a push notification on his phone when the St. Joe’s position became available, and immediately texting Lange — who was in the midst of a scouting assignment week consisting of the Milwaukee Bucks (Giannis Antetokounmpo), Charlotte Hornets (Kemba Walker), and Boston Celtics (Kyrie Irving) by the way — to tell him this was the perfect opportunity. Yes, Brown had been grooming him for a future as an NBA head coach, but this spot was made for him.
He wasn’t just a local coach who entered Bodensteiner and University president Dr. Mark Reed’s vision; he wasn’t put on the list because of a search firm algorithm; he had a real, tangible St. Joe’s story. His parents, Bill ’70 and Kathy ’70, graduated from Hawk Hill. His brother Mark ’97 was a four-year manager for the Hawks. His wife, Alicia, was the coordinator of academic services for student-athletes from 1997 to 2004. There are two sisters-in-law who graduated from SJU as well.
That was part of the 30-page plan he presented to Bodensteiner and Reed during his 90-minute interview. As they went through the process of making the decision, they kept coming back to Lange. His experience, his approach, his methodology, his learnings, his preparation … his story. It just fit. Even in the heat of the moment, as he and his hand-picked staff pour over potential recruits to fill out the roster for this season, and bolster it for the future — all while continuing to bring their vision of the Hawks to life — Lange has these “pinch me” moments.
Running his first practice at Hagan Arena.
Coaching St. Joe’s at the Palestra in a Big 5 game for the first time.
Prowling the same sideline as Jack Ramsay during his first home game.
“On my interview, Dr. Reed asked me this question: ‘Why would you come back to Saint Joseph’s?’” Lange recalled, referencing going from the NBA to college. Lange proceeded to lean forward, and tap the spot on the table he had just cleaned, as he reiterated what he told Reed and Bodensteiner in that meeting.
“I told them, ‘There is nothing back about Saint Joseph’s. There’s nothing back.’”
There was a new smudge now.
Brendan Prunty ’06, is a former nationally recognized sports writer for the Newark Star-Ledger, whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and Rolling Stone. He currently works in sports PR for Dan Klores Communications in New York.