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Callahan: Ursinus' Skip Werley was one-of-a-kind 'connector,' coach

03/03/2023, 10:45am EST
By Kevin Callahan

By Kevin Callahan (@CP_KCallahan)

For years, before ever coaching a team deep to the NCAA Tournament, Skip Werley sent out inspirational monthly newsletters over the summer to his players. 

Here is what Coach Werley wrote in his June of 1980 newsletter:  “A basic quality of high self-esteem is necessary for success. Any young adult in any environment can acquire productivity given the basic conditions for the development of self-esteem.”

Way back 40 years ago, before the 3-point shot, Skip Werley coached Ursinus College to the Division III Final Four and the Final Eight in consecutive seasons while creating an everlasting bond with those players. 

For the players on those teams, really, the last four decades have been even more memorable than those historic NCAA tournament runs in 1981 and 1982. Truly, over these 40 years, we really saw what elevated him to be such an outstanding coach. He lifted us up. We tasted his sweet sauce of how to connect teenagers and even trickier, how to keep them connected throughout life.

He was the best connector who I have ever met. And I was a sports writer for 33 years for a South Jersey newspaper, so I saw hundreds of coaches and teams up close. I’m lucky enough to still write about basketball for the City of Basketball Love website and continue to witness coaches and players and their interactions.

Longtime Ursinus Coach Skip Werley, left, who died on Wednesday, poses with former player and Penn men's basketball coach Steve Donahue. (Photo: Courtesy)

However, for a better endorsement than myself of the lasting impact Coach Werley had on us - and still has - this is what former Ursinus teammate and current Penn basketball coach Steve Donahue tweeted out Wednesday night:

“Today the basketball world lost one of the best coaches and one of the finest people. Skip Werley coached Ursinus to a Final 4 and an Elite 8. All of us who had the privilege to play for him are much better people for having been coached and mentored by Skip.”

On Wednesday, Karen (Healey) Lange, the former Temple star guard and current boys assistant coach of Caravel High School in Delaware, texted me to offer condolences on the passing of Coach Werley. She suggested I should write a story about him, saying we “need more stories about coaches and how they really affect so many athletes.”

Also on Wednesday, Bob Cooney, the former Camden Catholic standout guard and veteran sports radio host at 97.5 The Fanatic, also texted to offer condolences. These gracious two texts reminded me of how many people Coach Werley touched and connected in the Philadelphia area basketball region since he started sending out his newsletters in 1973 as the coach of Springfield High.

I apologize to my former teammates and friends for including the following memories because so many of them have more inspirational stories and even closer relationships with Coach Werley, but this is what I know, what I will always remember.

Following my junior season and the trip to the Final Eight in 1982, which included an opening round win over No. 1 ranked Scranton in Division III and No. 2 ranked Widener in the second round of the NCAA tourney, I got to know Coach Werley the way many of my older teammates had from our 1981 Final Four team - by just being around him more outside of basketball.

Back then, there was a little weight room next to his office and on week nights that spring, I would lift to rehab a shoulder injury (I can confess now, but I never told him then, that it was a torn labrum suffered three days before basketball practice started on October 15 while trying to make a tackle in a fraternity football game – I never said all Coach Werley’s players were smart). 

Most of those nights, Coach Werley would be in his office meeting a recruit or just doing offseason paperwork. I greatly admired how he grinded at coaching considering he was still a math teacher at Springfield High. After driving from Delaware County following school every day to Collegeville, Pa. for games and practices from October through March, he still made that hour-drive in the spring.

On those nights, we would always small talk outside his office and weight room – just a free throw or so from the court – but for only a few minutes. You see, Coach Werley didn’t need many words to make you want to play for him. You saw how much effort he packed into positioning our team to win.

And the same energy he brought every day to coaching, he delivered for years and years after coaching us at Ursinus. Without saying any words, he kept his former players connected with those monthly newsletters.

I keep those newsletters in a vanilla folder stuffed in a downstairs file cabinet. I read those newsletters again on Thursday.

The 1981 and 1982 Ursinus men's basketball Mid-Atlantic Regional championship trophies. (Photo: Courtesy)

In those summer newsletters, mostly on bright yellow paper, in addition to including inspirational quotes, updates and basketball wisdom from the likes of John Wooden, Al McGuire and Pete Newell, he wrote stories about his weeks-long family vacations each summer traveling out West.

Every summer, he would drive with his family in the brown Chevy van – the one he crisscrossed the Philly region recruiting, scouting and even driving us to games – to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Because of his stories, I brought my family to Jackson Hole for a vacation in the late-1990s and we tried to connect with Coach Werley on our way up to Yellowstone, but he was still in Red Lodge, Montana at the time with his family and our days didn’t connect. 

But it didn’t matter. I was thankful I was able to tell him I was in Jackson Hole. I was thankful he encouraged me to travel and backpack and camp outdoors way back when I thought basketball was the only fun activity in life.

He replaced the monthly newsletters with daily emails sometime in the 2000s with what he called “Thought For The Day” (TFTD), which were short inspirational quotes from historical figures … and later himself. 

The email list had grown to over 120 former players and coaches from around the area, including Jay Wright.

I remember back in 2015, or perhaps it was 2014, one summer late afternoon at Twisties in Strathmere when the Villanova coach and his wife, Patty, walked in and we spent the next hour or so talking mostly about Skip Werley and his TFTD.

Looking over some of his TFTD in old emails on Wednesday night, or actually early Thursday morning, one of the last ones he sent in 2016 before his health started to fail was a quote from Clint Eastwood:

“If you realize each day is a gift, you may be near my age. As I enjoy my twilight years, I am often struck by the inevitability that the party must end. There will be a clear, cold morning when there isn't any "more." No more hugs, no more special moments to celebrate together, no more phone calls just to chat. It seems to me that one of the important things to do before that morning comes, is to let every one of your family and friends know that you care for them by finding simple ways to let them know your heartfelt beliefs and the guiding principles of your life so they can always say, "He was my friend, and I know where he stood."

That morning came Wednesday … years and years after so many of us former players had already developed and continued a wonderful friendship with Coach Werley and his wife, Mike, and their children, Brooke, Jenna and Shane. We also knew where he stood – right behind us as we always felt his support in our lives through his daily TFTD. 

He also, somehow, found a way to stay connected with so many, many of his former players through his presence.

Back in 2008 when I was coaching my son, Jackson, in eighth grade CYO basketball with his teammate Steven Vasturia, who went on the start four years at Notre Dame after becoming Saint Joseph Prep’s all-time leading scorer, coach Werley would come to games just to support my son and my coaching even though it was a solid hour and a half ride over the bridge into Jersey. I always invited him into the locker room afterwards and he would say a few encouraging words to the grade school players. I told our lads how Coach Werley was a great man, but not because he won a ton of basketball games. I told our young players that I hoped when they are old like me, they remain friends and stay connected like Coach Werley and his players.

One of Werley's legendary newsletters from his time at Ursinus. (Photo: Courtesy)

After one visit in February of 2008, he told me he had already seen 67 games that season involving former players who were coaching or former player’s sons/daughters who were playing in the area. When my son was a senior captain on the Camden Catholic basketball team, Coach Werley also came to a game to see him on the floor where he recruited Dave Pettita in 1978 and first saw me play as a junior. I told him he should write a book about all the former players he would go see coach and/or to watch their kids play.

After all, I told him, he already had the writing down with his newsletters and own TFTD he had started, like this one from November 2016:

“Call on a thoroughbred and he gives you every ounce of strength and courage he possesses; call on an ass and he kicks.” – Skip Werley           

Yeah, he was much more than a basketball coach, but he could really coach too. In his first season at Ursinus, he won one game in 1978. There years later, we were playing in the Final Four.

I always found it remarkable how the players from that one-win team became such huge supporters over the years. Their experience spanned way beyond their record. 

Former captain Mike Piotrowicz had us all over to watch the Super Bowl when the Eagles played – yeah way back in 1980 – and over the next 40 years, “Pogo” would host many summer golf outings, including an outing at Saucon Valley Country Club. 

I remember having lunch in the large room where all the Bethlehem Steel big execs used to eat and looking around, seeing a dozen or so of us former players in that historic room with a ceiling as high as the Ursinus gym, and thinking how fortunate a kid like me from Pennsauken and my teammates were all because Coach Werley brought a bunch of like-minded teenagers together decades earlier.

About 10 of us even traveled to West Palm Beach a few too many years ago to celebrate Mike Brophy‘s 50th birthday. And, in between bogeys and double-bogeys, again thinking how Coach Werley not only brought us together, but kept us together.

I guess other teams have stayed close for over 40 years, but I’m not really sure.

You see so many of the players went to each other’s weddings and Coach Werley and his wife, Mike, would be there. We know each other’s children and they know us. We’ve been to too many funerals of each other’s parents. At my dad‘s viewing in March of 2020 as COVID was spreading, the first person I saw at the funeral home parking lot was former teammate Larry Davis.

I remember going to my Goddaughter’s wedding in Boston a few years back and crashing at former teammate Dennis Leddy‘s house outside the city for the weekend. His wife, Anne, and children were so gracious when I showed up at midnight that Friday.

Over the years, former teammate Mike Cola joined my brother, Rich, and I on backpack trips on the Lost Coast in Northern California and Desolation Wilderness above Lake Tahoe and on many hikes on the coastal hills at Pismo Beach. And with each adventure, thinking how this all happened because Coach Werley brought us together.

And Coach Werley is responsible for introducing me to Bill Daggett, who recruited him to coach Ursinus. And how all these years later, Bill visited our non-profit Urban BoatWorks shop in South Camden last year to see students build wooden canoes and then made a generous donation. And former teammate Mike Harte has donated also the last two years. Again all because of Coach Werley and the connections all those years ago.

And for almost 40 years – up until 2019 before COVID hit – many of us former Ursinus teammates gathered the first Saturday in August in Spring Lake, New Jersey to play in a pickup basketball tournament against other teams filled with former college players from as far away as New York and Boston. The round-robin tourney was organized by Dennis Leddy … as well as the proper memorable gatherings afterwards.

Here is a TFTD from December 2011:

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.”  - Robert Frost

I know Coach Werley’s players not only feel blessed to have chosen the road to Ursinus, but know how different, how much more shallow, our lives would be now if we didn’t.

I also know over the years and especially when Coach Werley’s illness progressed, how our former Final Four captains, Kevin McCormick and Mike Brophy, still showed us how to be leaders with their tireless compassion and care for Coach Werley.

Kevin, like so many of Ursinus former players, started coaching because of Coach Werley. He took over the Springfield job after Coach Werley resigned in the early 1990s. Coach Werley returned to coach Springfield, where he coached the Cougars to the Central League title in 1974 with Dave Batton (Notre Dame) after resigning at Ursinus since it was still a part-time job and the travel was way too much and won another Central League title in 1988. 

Kevin, who played at Monsignor Bonner, actually moved to the same block as Coach Werley and hired him as his assistant for the Cougars. Kevin was always keeping us connected with updates on Coach Werley.

“Broph,” who played at Archbishop Carroll, drove Coach Werley to many of Steve Donahue‘s practices at Penn, as well as to Fran Dunphy’s practices at Temple and Jay Wright practices at Nova. Broph was always keeping us connected with photos of him and Coach Werley from gyms.

In addition to Kevin and Steve becoming coaches, Dennis Leddy was a college assistant for Regis University outside of Boston, and former teammate Jay DeFruscio (Monsignor Bonner) went from playing to an assistant coach at Ursinus my senior year and later went on to coach at Wheeling University for two decades.

Larry Davis was an assistant coach under Tom Ingelsby at Archbishop Carroll when the former Villanova great’s son, Martin, who is now the Delaware coach, played in high school. The connection? Tom Ingelsby was an assistant coach with Coach Werley at Ursinus. 

And I think most of our former teammates coached their own children in youth basketball.

In 2018, in the honor of his 40 years of coaching at Ursinus, about three dozen former players and assistant coaches for the unveiling of the Coach Skip Werley Team Room, which the former players gifted.

Another TFTD from December2011: 

“I think our lives are meant to travel certain paths, that we are all pigeonholed to a certain degree, and that where that path takes us is our journey.” -  Jerry West

Man, were we blessed to be on this journey with Coach Werley.

Not surprisingly with his openness to ideas, Coach Werley was ahead of his time in basketball concepts, some of which he surely developed, but I suspect most of them that he borrowed from his many connections in the coaching world.

He installed the Hubie Brown “Atlanta” man offense, which later became well known as the Flex. Years after running this offense, and still hearing Coach Werley’s voice “reverse the ball … two dribbles … then pass … the timing has to be exactly when the baseline cutter is moving under the pick on THIS side of the basket,” I saw so many teams running this pick down- and-pick across motion in the Philly area that I’m convinced Coach Werley popularized the offense after visiting with Brown during at a summer camp when the famed TV analyst was coaching the Hawks in the early 1980s.

He also employed a press break that’s the best I’ve ever seen to this day. I can’t watch a game and see teams struggle against the press without thinking of Coach Werley and his inverted press break. I remember our eighth grade team playing in the championship game of the prestigious Saint Joseph Prep Christmas Tournament against future Villanova national champion Ryan Arcidiacono’s CYO team, and after the game Prep coach Speedy Morris saying he liked “my press break” and I told him it “was Skip Werley’s press break.”

Werley attacked the 2-3 zone from the mid-point on the baseline and set interior picks against the zone. He ran a secondary fastbreak.

Every minute of every practice was scheduled. As the season wore on, the practices were cut shorter. During our Middle Atlantic Conference and NCAA tourney runs, practice would be a crisp one hour. Our bodies were fresh.

Coach Werley was also ahead of his time in building team chemistry. On road trips, when we played in the NCAA tournament and traveled to different parts of the country during Christmas break, he would always switch up roommates – seniors rooming with a freshman usually. Of course this was his way, like the monthly newsletter and TFTD e-mails, to build unity, keep us together and tight.

“Broph” sent out an email to 40 of us on Wednesday morning letting us know Coach had passed. He gave us a boost when Broph said he talked to Coach Werley’s wife that morning and she said, “Skip waited for March 1 to pass because he loves March Madness.”

Last October, Ursinus recognized our March Madness by honoring the Final Four and Eight teams with a halftime ceremony since we couldn’t do it the year before because of COVID restrictions.

After the game, I was standing next to Coach Werley, who was in a wheelchair. We were outside his old office and the old weight room – now both storage closets – where we used to small talk briefly on many spring nights 40 years ago.

Although Coach Werley wasn’t able to speak, I was able to bend down, and taking his advice all these years in letters, e-mails and his actions – and the advice in the Clint Eastwood quote he sent – to tell the people you care about what they mean to you, I got to say goodbye to him by giving him a soft hug and saying I loved him.

We both knew my gratitude wasn’t because of going to the Final Four and Final Eight in consecutive seasons.

So, coaches if you feel like you’re getting beat up by parents and administrators and even your own players, consider what Coach Skip Werley also wrote in his June of 1980 Newsletter:  

“Study successful people. You’ll find that one ingredient is common in all of them – persistence.”

That persistence might just show itself over the next 40 years.

Next weekend, Jack Devine, my college roommate for four years and the only connector I know who can rival Coach Werley, has invited 12 of us up to stay at his place in Central Jersey, playing golf on Friday and then going to Steve’s Ivy League playoff game at Princeton on Saturday afternoon – so Coach Werley still brings us together after his passing. Surely, we will have proper memorable gatherings after the golf and the game. 

(Sidenote: Jack and I were captains in 1983 to halt Coach Werley’s streak of three-straight NCAA tournament trips).

Coach Werley always ended his TFTD emails with his trademark signature: 

Make it a great day today!  Enthusiastically, Skip Werley

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