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Morris' 1000th win an accomplishment for the ages

01/13/2018, 2:45pm EST
By Josh Verlin

Speedy Morris (above) celebrates his 1000th career win with his wife Mimi by his side. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

Every year, college basketball crowns multiple national champions at its various levels. There are first-team All-Americans, McDonald’s All-Americans, Jordan Brand All-Americans and more. There are various league and conference championships in high school and college, literally hundreds of programs around the country accomplishing goals they set out to achieve prior to the season, at whatever level of amateur basketball you want to pick.

They all define success, in some form or another.

Winning 1,000 games is a milestone that stands above all of them.

It’s something only two Division I coaches, Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Boeheim, have ever done, though Boeheim’s official total is now 73 wins short due to NCAA infractions and penalties. Expand the list to include women’s Division I coaches and non-Division I men’s college coaches, and seven other names can be added, including Jefferson’s Herb Magee, who got his grand in 2015. An eighth coach, Rutgers’ C. Vivian Stringer, is just a few wins away.

Aside from Tennessee’s Pat Summitt, all are still actively coaching.

According to the National Federation of State High Schools, there are 15 boys’ basketball coaches who have ever surpassed the 1,000-win mark. There are now 10 girls’ coaches who have also done so, with Pascack Valley (N.J.)’s Jeff Jasper becoming the latest on Thursday night.

That’s a grand total of 32 coaches in the sports’ century-long history who have done so, at least in this country.

On Friday afternoon, William “Speedy” Morris became No. 33.

The win over Lansdale Catholic, never in doubt from the outset, became almost the sidestory to what was going on at Kelly Fieldhouse. It was a celebration of a man who became Roman Catholic’s head coach in 1967, Penn Charter’s in 1982, La Salle University’s women’s coach in ‘84 and the men’s coach two years later, finally taking over at St. Joseph’s Prep in 2001, where he’s been ever since.

All told, it’s been 50 seasons with Speedy on the sidelines; he hasn’t missed a season since the one  between his last at Roman and his first at Penn Charter.

“I was driving over here, thinking about just the math of it,” said Tim Legler, the former La Salle University standout who starred under Morris and went on to play 10 seasons in the NBA and now serves as an ESPN analyst. “If you win 20 games a year in basketball, you’ve had a really good year. Now do that for 50 years. Pretty mind-boggling.”

Legler was far from the only Speedy disciple who was in the building as the Hawks knocked off the Crusaders. At the end of the post-game ceremony, the PA announcer -- longtime Phillies and Drexel mic boss Dan Baker’s all-too-familiar voice providing the backdrop for the occasion -- asked all those who had played or coached with Speedy to come to the floor for a photo; no fewer than 100 stood alongside him.

They came from all eras of Morris’ tenure, beginning with his first teams at Roman Catholic.

Keith Coady, who not only played under Morris at Roman but even before then, at St. John the Baptist CYO in Manayunk in the 1960s, was in attendance. He’s the namesake for Keith Morris, now an assistant alongside his dad at Prep.

“It was absolutely fantastic,” Coady recalled. “It’s good to play for a guy that’s aggressive and as talented as Speedy was. He also learned how to coach as we learned how to play...he was very animated, and he demanded respect.”

Quite a few of Speedy’s former players have gone on to be coaches at various levels; the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Mike Jensen covered the Speedy tree exceptionally well in his column last month. Combined, they’ve got several thousand wins over their own; solo, nobody’s going to come close.

“I know for sure I’m not going to be around for a thousand,” said Neumann-Goretti’s Carl Arrigale, who played for Speedy at Penn Charter as a junior and senior and has racked up more than 450 wins as the Saints’ head coach. “Five hundred is right around the corner -- and if I make 500, I’ll be thrilled to death.

“We’ve been fortunate, we won state championship four years in a row, seven out of eight years,” Arrigale continued. “Usually the first person I think of when I wake up the next day, because I’m so beat up and exhausted from the whole year, is (Speedy), and how in the world has he done it over and over.”

Morris’ influence throughout basketball can’t possibly be measured. In addition to all his coaching disciples, he’s spoken in front of thousands of children at the camps he ran each summer, as well as at other camps and clinics around the area. His tree has limbs whose branches have branches, all the way down.

“He has touched probably tens of thousands of people through the game of basketball,” said John Griffin III, who played under Morris at Prep in the early 00s and went on to star at Bucknell, where he currently serves as an assistant coach. “Everyone has a story, an experience with Coach Morris, he’s made them feel like they were a part of it.”

Also in attendance Friday were numerous coaches who didn’t play for Speedy but served as his opposition over the years. Like 87-year-old former Princeton coach Pete Carril, who made the trip to Philadelphia and was in his seat well before tipoff. Or St. Joe’s head coach Phil Martelli, who first coached against Morris in the Catholic League in 1979, when Martelli was at Bishop Kenrick High School and had to face Morris’ Roman squads, which won six Catholic League titles along the way.

Martelli’s first interaction with Morris came even earlier than that: in 1970, when Martelli was a sophomore on Prep’s team. Morris’ last game at La Salle, in 2001, was against Martelli’s St. Joe’s Hawks. Now, Martelli coaches two Morris products, senior Kyle Thompson and junior Chris Clover.

“To get to 1,000, it’s not an accident, it’s not luck, it’s belief in a process that started in 1969 at Roman,” Martelli said. “Hasn’t changed. I would say that yesterday’s practice here at St. Joe’s Prep was the same as the first practice he went into at Roman. It’s extraordinary.”

And even though Morris is now 75 years old, his teams haven’t stopped winning. Beating Lansdale Catholic lifted this St. Joe’s Prep squad to 10-1, including 3-0 in the PCL. The Catholic League is much deeper than it was when Speedy began, but he’s adapted to the times, still deploying his short rotation (blowouts aside, he’ll go seven deep at most) but not afraid to let his talented players get up and down the court.
It’s his best team since 2012-13, when future Notre Dame guard Steve Vasturia and current Drexel guard Miles Overton led the Hawks into the PIAA class 4A state semifinals, winning 24 games along the way.

“I think it’s because he’s so loyal,” said Hofstra coach Joe Mihalich, an assistant under Morris for 12 years at La Salle. “He’s so loyal to his players, his players know he loves them, and it just keeps going back and forth. They’re loyal to him, they love him, and when your players love you, you’re going to have a good team.”

It’s unclear for how much longer Speedy Morris will be a head basketball coach. Publicly, he claims he has no plans to retire, as long as he’s healthy. There’s always a chance for another Catholic League championship -- he hasn’t won one since 2004 -- or a state title, which he’s never won, considering Catholic League teams only joined the PIAA in 2009.

But Friday afternoon was the ultimate culmination of Morris’ career, the celebration of the coach, the man. No state championship game will ever bring out the collection of players and coaches that were there, no Catholic League title will ever make a strong argument that Morris belongs in the Naismith Hall of Fame.

It was a chance for the current generation of Morris’ players, like current Prep senior Darius Kinnel, to see just what it all meant. It’s one thing to hear about 50 years and 1,000 wins; having it materialize in Kelly Fieldhouse was something else entirely.

“He’s touched and impacted so many people,” Kinnel said. “I’m so blessed to be part of his history, to be part of Philadelphia basketball history.”

Certainly all in attendance Friday feel that way now.

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