WASHINGTON, DC – Every day, Ed Cooley puts on his headphones, turns on the music and goes for a walk. As Whitney Houston, New Edition, Luther Vandross and Lady Gaga played an eclectic medley, the coach took off from the Georgetown campus. Finally, it comes to the intersection of Prospect and M streets, above which 75 concrete steps rise.
Originally built in 1895, the stairs became famous in 1973 when a celluloid creature named Father Karas died after freeing a child from demonic captivity. Now, 50 years later, Cooley makes his daily hour-long routine part of what he calls the “‘Exorcist’ steps.” On an auspicious day, he goes around and collects them seven times.
Here is an allegory of how a man who needs to rid himself of bad vibes, now considered by many in his homeland to be the devil incarnate, goes to take out the pedestrian every day.
Except Ed Cooley isn’t looking to evict. He just wants to exercise.
Such is the case with Cooley, current Georgetown coach, former Providence coach, favorite son turned renegade. People want to attribute all kinds of styles and motivations and evils to the decision of one Big East school to leave for another. And in their defense, there is reason to look for a deeper reason.
In the year In 1979, when Dave Gavitt—a Providence man himself—started the Big East, he gave his seven feisty coaches one directive: yell and scream all you want in private, but publicly, have each other’s backs. For 44 years, as the league has expanded and contracted, died and been born, the coaches have heeded their commissioner’s warnings. They maintained the brand and preached it. While other coaches have traded one league job for another without a second glance, no one has left one Big East school for another.
And now Cooley is here. He wasn’t Rick Pitino 2.0, two outs into the conference decades apart. It went straight from one founder to another.
He had it all. An up-and-coming program, with seven NCAA tournament berths in the last nine years. A four-year internship. Loyal fan base.
He rejected them all. He turned his nose up at a hardscrabble team, worked his way up to an elite program, and worked his way up the ranks to go to the team he once was. He left a team that had won 27 Big East games over the past two years, winning two of them. They exchanged the Dominicans for the Jesuits, for heaven’s sake.
There must be a reason. Chasing money, chasing glory, losing jobs, losing integrity, arrogance. Something.
Sitting in a conference room where remnants from the former coach’s tenure stand like Stonehenge — comically oversized gray leather chairs at grown-up tables that make ordinary people look like babies — Cooley knows people want an explanation. And he has one. It’s not just deep monologues they may be looking for.
Cooley opens his arms wide, raises his eyebrows and shakes. “I needed a change,” he said.
From 14 Elma St., take a quick left on the broad, a right on Sassafras and go to the end of the block, to 117. It’s not even a half mile between the two, and yet this Ed Cooley served as the whole world. It’s where Elma lives, while his mother, Jane, does her best to raise nine children on her own. It’s where Sassafras grew up, the Searight family took him in, fed him and showed him a way out.
He eventually left — for college, assistant coaching jobs, his first head coaching gig and a second — but in a peripatetic career, Cooley did the impossible. He climbed the ladder but didn’t leave the base. The job in Fairfield gave him his longest commute of 120 miles. And then, of course, he came back: the son of Providence who was in charge of Providence College. A boy from Elma Street, who dreamed big dreams and took to the broad road, grabbed the brass ring. “I don’t want to win and go somewhere else,” he said in 2011. “I’m happy where I am. I’m home.”
Cooley, wearing a Georgetown T-shirt, remembered that vow and won. “Never use the word ‘never,'” he says. “Never is forever and that’s the mistake I made.” It will never come to you again.”
Not that he didn’t want to. He did. What he didn’t think about was that 41-year-old Ed Cooley might not want the same thing as 54-year-old Ed Cooley. There can be real joy in living in a city you’ve known your whole life, reconnecting with childhood mentors and friends, visiting old homes and dining in favorite restaurants. However, especially as one gets older, one wonders, “Is this it?” There may be existential terror. Do I need to do more? Want more?
Cooley didn’t see it coming in 2011, but has started to feel it in recent years. Itching at first, and finally pulling. Four years ago, he called his friend Mark Fox out of more than a little curiosity. The two had been friends for decades, and as Fox jumped from Nevada to Georgia to Cal, he was a great sounding board for Cooley. Then Fox told him that no, it wasn’t right to go on. But when Cooley called about Georgetown, Fox had a different answer.
“Jay Wright always said, ‘Don’t mess with the fun,'” says Fox, who has since joined his friend as director of Georgetown’s Student-Athlete Relations and Name, Image and Brand (NIL) partnership. “And there’s definitely something to that. But sometimes maybe you mess with happiness, because you are addicted to the challenge of success. Ed is a fierce competitor, and I think that’s a big part of it.”
Cooley could have stayed in Providence and ended up with a statue outside the Dunkin’ Donuts Center. But coaches are a strange thing—blessed with courage and confidence, believing they can make a real difference, yet desperate for validation and success, they suffer from an impossible quest for perfection. The only satisfied coach is the one holding the championship trophy at the end of the season. Even that happiness has a short shelf life. There’s always next season.
In 12 seasons, Cooley transformed a program that began in 1987 with a Final Four laurels. Scraps went from NCAA Tournament berths to regular bid winners. They reached a sweet 16. They won a Big East title. Two years ago, they climbed to 8th place in the country and finished 13th. He hadn’t checked every box yet; The regional semifinals remain Providence’s high-water mark. But if he hadn’t been at the Providence meeting, Cooley would certainly have seen it.
Now sitting here in Georgetown – Georgetown – he asked for his help. The Hoyas haven’t finished above .500 in the Big East since 2015 and have just one winning season in that span. “There are times in life when you want to challenge yourself,” Fox says.
Cooley’s youngest child — daughter Olivia — just graduated from Georgetown and living in D.C. It didn’t hurt that a Division I head coach and current parent were at odds with each other, and Cooley thought he might not be able to undo the past. It can fix the present and improve the future. It played a role – a big part, says Cooley.
But he says, “If you do the history of national championships, how many schools have won a national championship? Take the blue bloods they have in abundance. How many?” The answer, after removing two or more schools, is 21 since 1939. The list includes Georgetown. It doesn’t include Providence. Can the Cowards win one? Why not? Villanova’s resurgence proves it can be done. But is it easy to predict at Georgetown – success? A history and name brand combined with a fertile recruitment base and deep pocketed students ready to help in the NIL department.
So he and his wife, Nurius, packed their clothes, two krenzas, and their bed for a clean slate. Cooley hates the damage he’s done, especially since the vitriol is pouring from a place he loves more than anyone else in the world. “But I understand. I really do.” “All I’m asking for is maybe some understanding one day. Be careful what you judge until you sit in my seat because one day you might find yourself in the same position I did.”
Early in his third year in office, in 1974, at Georgetown, John Thompson Jr. arrived at McDonough’s own gym for a game against St. Peter. The Hoyas were on a four-game losing streak, and fans grew restless with Thompson, unsure if untested high school coach Georgetown was the right choice to lead the way. A fan banner waved from the tree as the Hoys headed for another loss. “Thompson (n–) flop must go.
That leaves no man; He will shape it. And for the next two decades, as Thompson led Georgetown to a national title and three Final Fours, he never forgot that he was first made to feel like an outsider. It was an instinct to protect. On road trips, he puts teams up in remote hotels, and forces reporters to choose between interviewing him or the players — the locker room opens only after the umpire arrives, and closes as soon as he finishes speaking. Washington Post reporter Mark Asher called it “hoya paranoia.” Eventually, a doubleheader becomes something as opponents take notice of the most powerful team in college basketball. But Asher created it more to describe Georgetown’s isolation.
After Thompson retired, the job passed through the tree — first to his longtime assistant (Craig Escherich), then his son (John Thompson III), and finally the show’s defining player (Patrick Ewing). Not surprisingly, things haven’t changed much. Georgetown has remained silent, if not completely closed, even as programs across the country continue to open their doors to the world.
Ewing especially welcomes the old-school coaching approach. He was never rude; Incredibly personal only. He had good reason to be wary. Despite Thompson’s attempts, nothing can protect Ewing from the evil that pursues him. At his news conference to announce his decision to play for Georgetown, Ewing received boos from Boston businessmen who wanted him to go to Boston College. During a game at Villanova, fans threw banana peels at him as he took free throws and wore gorilla suits in the stands.
Cooley grew up watching them all. He first met Thompson in high school when the Georgetown coach brought the Hoyas to the Cooley Central Powerhouse for practice. He remembers arriving when the coach pinched his cheeks and predicted that they would do great things. Cooley seems to find Thompson in orbit as he climbs the ladder. In Fairfield, he promised Cooley, “You won’t be here long.”
In the year In 2014, Cooley found Thompson on the opposite side of the court as he led Providence to the Big East Tournament crown. Providence himself, Thompson, was on the radio for Westwood One. The two hugged and Thompson whispered in my ear, “I’m proud of you.
When he took the Georgetown job, Cooley felt not only the greatness of the program’s history, tradition and legacy. He felt the importance of being a black man and a disciple of Thompson, a program that had long defined black excellence in athletics.
But he also didn’t come to DC wearing sepia-tinted nostalgia glasses. He knows he’s there because, like Cooley himself, the Hoys need a change.
In seven months, Georgetown basketball has gone from impossible Waldo to Taylor Swift in the Chiefs game. Since March, Cooley has made more than 100 appearances, visiting New York City, San Francisco and Martha’s Vineyard. He can be seen in class, at lacrosse doubleheaders, and outside of the dorm on moving day. In a town known for cheerful giving, baby kisses and hugs, Cooley is extreme. After the interview, he went to meet with the vice president of student affairs and is taking the team to Capitol Hill the next day.
It’s one thing to carry an absurd secret when you’re a regular Final Four participant. It’s another when they win two Big East games in two years.
The college athletics success cycle requires fans to build a buzz to create a team that wins games to attract fans. The Hoyas averaged more than 5,000 fans per home game last year, and so Cooley should work as a cheap trick. I want you to find me. I want you to find me. I want you to love me.
It helps that it comes naturally to him. “He can go up to anybody and start a conversation,” Illinois transfer Jayden Epps said. “He can take the class he deserves.” After all, this is the guy who coached the Big East Championship game with a Gatorade towel around his waist after he split his pants. No one accused Kuley of being neutral.
Now for the hard part: the actual basketball. No relationship conceals more sinister consequences than Cooley’s. He doesn’t sugarcoat it. The climb is steep, mostly because the league is so good. The Big East begins the season with the reigning national champions, 10 (three) more teams than any other league in the country and four of them in the top 25.
He is deep in the transfer portal where he is most comfortable. In his first year at Providence, he took the traditional seat transfer, Carson Desrosier, from Wake Forest, and last year seven of the 14 Friars started elsewhere. At Georgetown, he grabbed Epps from Illinois, Dontrez Stiles from North Carolina and Ismail Massoud from Kansas State. All three left better programs than they joined. They said that all three had come because of me. They liked his success story, but were mostly drawn to his personality. “He’s high energy, and he’s funny, but he’s also with you,” Styles said.
In a recent practice, Cooley offered a quick analysis of the latest scrimmage, mocking the recent lack of transition chaos. “You look like Kirk Gibson,” he says, and corrects himself, realizing that the players have no earthly idea who Gibson is. Cooley stopped practicing after an employee found a video of the baseball star, showing the Los Angeles Dodger hitting his famous home run in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. “Look at the home run,” Styles joked. You are the one in transition.
A few minutes later, when one group failed to run the drill properly, a disgusted Cooley yelled at them to “get off the floor and pay attention.” You’ll get it next time. “He’s that guy — making sure you run everything to a tee,” Hoyas senior rebounder Jay Heath said. “This will only make us better.”
The players say that they see improvement – from the beginning of practice to shouting. There is a stronger understanding of their strengths. The Hoyas, once home to Ewing, Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo, will be small, largely due to Dikembe’s previously underutilized interior on Dikembe’s son, Ryan Mutombo. But with speed and strength, Cooley-coached Providence teams hope to make up for their regularity. After their first season under Cooley, the Friars never dipped below 92 against a defense coached by Ken Pomeroy.
The players are optimistic — talking about immediate goals of winning Big East titles and deep NCAA runs. Cooley is more reluctant to put parameters on what immediate success looks like. Georgetown, he said, was the hardest job he’s ever had, because of the culture, the expectations, and the compensation.
Hard, but not impossible. “It’s just going through growing pains,” he says. But we will win. It’s not a matter of if, but when. We are here to win championships.
Cooley still didn’t settle in D.C. An urban clothier helped solve an early wool problem—Georgetown needed blue, but Providence only had black. Learning about the infamous DC traffic. At first, he thought he could cover the four miles to Gonzaga High School in five minutes. They checked his GPS and saw he was over 40. He hasn’t yet come up with the details of which restaurants to go to, so he goes home after work most nights.
He was an adjustment, especially coming from Providence, knew every nook and cranny, and had a ready list of lifelong friends and family. Will he miss me? “Of course I do,” he says. “I still don’t know how I’m going to live in DC. We are still figuring it out. But do I regret it? is not. what do i have is not. This was the right thing for me. It was time.”
Time for change.
(Top image: John Bradford/The Athletic; Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images; Mitchell Leighton/Getty Images)