Joseph Santoliquito (@JSantoliquito)
It’s a distinction that has literally followed John Linehan around the world for decades. The 1996 Chester High grad and 5-foot-9 defensive demon has had players from Ukraine to France approach him about it, and ask, “Did Kobe Bryant really say that?”
Yes, the all-time great did.
During the 2001 NBA playoffs, Bryant was asked who the toughest defender he ever faced was. “You may laugh,” Bryant said, “but it’s a guy named John Linehan.”
That was over 20 years ago, and it still sticks.
Now Linehan, 43, has a whole new group to answer that question for, after he was hired by Saint Joseph’s head men’s coach Billy Lange on April 22 to join his staff as an assistant coach with Justin Scott and John Griffin III, giving the Hawks a very strong local foothold. Scott is a Philly native and former head coach at Arcadia. Griffin III is the son of John Griffin, former Hawks’ head basketball coach from 1990 to 1995. And now on Hawk Hill is Linehan, proud owner of a label a deceased legend placed on him when Linehan was still playing for Providence, where he earned a degree in health policy and management and was considered one of the best defenders in NCAA history.
Linehan has been coaching since 2015, starting out under then-Drexel coach Bruiser Flint, before moving on to Brown (2016-17), then Hartford (2017-19) under John Gallagher, then the last three years at Georgia (2019-22).
At Providence, Linehan was considered one of the best defenders in the nation, setting a then-Division I record for steals in a career (385). As a senior, Linehan was named the National Defensive Player of the Year by the NABC, ESPN.com and CollegeInsider.com. A two-time Big East Defensive Player of the Year, Linehan led the conference in steals in three of his four seasons and set a single-game Big East record for steals with 11 against Rutgers on January 22, 2002.
But the coaching bug did not really hit him until the summer of 2014.
It’s when he sat in on a practice with then-Temple coach and current La Salle coach Fran Dunphy.
“I’ve always been interested in coaching, ever since I was young, helping younger kids and mentoring them, but towards the end of my playing career, I was looking at more business things to do than coaching,” recalled Linehan, whose 13-year-old son Jalen is on the verge of turning pro as a soccer player in France. “What changed a lot of things was coming home the summer of 2014 and I got a chance to sit in with coach Dunphy at Temple. I saw what he did and that encouraged me to think it was something that I could do.
“It’s great being back home. I’m doing something I love to do. Traveling the world is great, but there is nothing like being home and near my family in Chester. I’m grateful for the opportunity Billy Lange is giving to me. I’m ecstatic. Just in terms of what they’re doing, building the program the right way, people tend to look at the results and not the process. Billy Lange is an unbelievably talented coach. I want to add my energy and my passion and add to a really good coaching staff.”
John Linehan (above) joined the Saint Joseph's staff last month after three seasons as an assistant at Georgia. (Photo courtesy UGA athletics)
Linehan will no doubt be a plus on the defensive side of the ball. The Hawks finished 11-19 overall and were 5-13 in the Atlantic 10 Conference, giving up an average of 69.1 points a game, the fifth-highest average in the A-10 last season. The Hawks have not had a winning record since the 2015-16 season, when they went 28-8 overall and 13-5 in the A-10 under Phil Martelli (St. Joe’s did go 16-16 in 2017-18).
“I feel I can strengthen the relationships I have in the Philadelphia area with St. Joe’s, and with the coaching staff, we can make strong bonds even stronger,” Linehan said. “I think I’m coming to St. Joe’s at the right time. I’m a better coach than I was three years ago, learning different philosophies and learning how to connect with the players differently. You have to learn how to adapt to changing times, and still hold guys accountable.
“From when I was playing to the kids now, there is a big difference. I had great coaches under coach (Fred) Pickett, and I see the teacher in myself. I see myself as a point guard. I was raised as a point guard, an extension of coach Pickett on the court. Being able to relate and approach kids in a different way will be a plus.
“I wouldn’t define myself as a defensive coach, I’m a coach. I’ve been coaching long enough to know how to do a little bit of everything, helping out in all areas.”
And once he meets the Hawks, Linehan will no doubt be pelted with, “Did Kobe really say that?”
“I miss Kobe and the battles we had helped me so much, and I think I benefited him,” Linehan said. “One of Kobe’s biggest hurdles early in his basketball career was beating Chester. His greatest games may have been games no one ever saw, when he worked out the summer going into his senior year at St. Joe’s against the 76ers. I remember Dan Pangrazio (Lower Merion’s shooting guard on Bryant’s teams). We had wars and iron does sharpen iron.
“But I never met someone as determined as Kobe. It’s what separated Kobe from the rest of the world. It’s why he became who he became. You’re around that enough and some of that rubs off on you. We beat them (77-50) in the district finals (in 1995, Bryant’s junior year) and they wore No. 27 on their shooting shirts the following year. Kobe never let anything slip. Being back home is amazing, being back with friends, with family and the reception that I’ve gotten makes it special.
“I can’t wait to start. And I’ll always be proud of my connection with Kobe.”
Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter based in the Philadelphia area who began writing for CoBL in 2021 and is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be followed on Twitter here.