St. Xavier’s Tom O’Malley is achieving longevity

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For the Sun-Times

I wouldn’t argue that Tom O’Malley is a better basketball coach than Gregg Popovich or Mike Krzyzewski, the cantankerous NBA great and the heavily decorated college icon who enhanced their stature in their respective games by surpassing 1,000 career victories this season.

O’Malley, in his 18th season at Chicago’s St. Xavier University, is at 916 after his Cougars (19-10) trounced Trinity Christian 79-59 on Saturday, and it has taken him 50 years to reach that total.

Worth noting, though, is that 32 of those seasons were spent in high school, where a coach is pretty much dependent on who from within district boundaries comes out for the team. He can’t really recruit, and he doesn’t have a draft or free agency to assist in assembling a roster, which makes O’Malley’s average of 18.3 wins per year look pretty good.

At St. Xavier, the average is 22.8 wins per season, thanks to a sharp eye for the NAIA-level talent that abounds in the Chicago area and a knack for developing it. A decent showing in this week’s Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference tournament will get O’Malley to 20 wins for the 16th time in those 18 seasons; with a good showing, the Cougars could be off to the NAIA national playoffs for the 12th time.

What’s most amazing about O’Malley’s run is that it has gone 50 years uninterrupted. Who does that anymore, in any line of work?

“I take it year by year and keep going as long as I’m enjoying it,” O’Malley said. “I must still be enjoying it, because here I am.”

Gray-haired, bright-eyed and enviably trim, O’Malley turned 75 on Saturday. He looks as if he still could drain the jump shot that helped make him a standout player at Leo High School and Loras College, and he was a slow-pitch softball legend well into his 40s. But he has adapted to the times. The Cougars average 83.2 points a game and shoot 21 three-pointers, embodying a let-it-fly élan that suggests any open shot is a good one.

“There’s structure, but within that structure you’re free to play basketball,” said Brad Karp, who joined O’Malley’s coaching staff this season after finishing his four-year career as St. Xavier’s leading scorer. “I had a great experience here.”

St. Xavier basketball is O’Malley’s full-time job. During previous stops at Leo, Reavis and Evergreen Park high schools, his regimen included passing out socks and jocks, sweeping the gym floor and teaching a full load of classes. Tough to picture Rick Pitino with a broom in his hands, and you suspect John Calipari has always had a guy to handle socks and jocks.

O’Malley’s first contract, signed at Leo in 1964, called for him to coach basketball, assist with intramurals and teach six units of Spanish and U.S. History for $4,200. He’d been offered twice that to join a management trainee program with a department store chain, but there was no saying no to Brother Robert Coogan, Leo’s charismatic athletic director.

“My dad was an Irish immigrant, and he spoke with a pretty strong brogue,” O’Malley recalled.  “When I told him I was taking the coaching job he said, ‘Tom, I thought you went to college because you were smart.’ ”

With Tony Parker Sr. as its leading man, O’Malley’s 1973 Leo team dominated the Chicago Catholic League in the final year before the CCL joined the IHSA and gained eligibility for state tournaments. Rickey Green’s Hirsch squad, from the Chicago Public League, won that season’s Class AA event, but the Huskies decided their state title trumped a city title, and they refused to play Leo for the city championship, which signalled the beginning of the end for the Public League-Catholic League title game.

“That was disappointing,” O’Malley recalled. “A lot of people wanted to see that game.”

O’Malley had earlier opportunities to coach college ball, but the lifestyle seemed too nomadic for a committed family man. He’s still married to Carol, his wife of 48 years, and their three kids have presented them with 13 grandchildren.

“No regrets,” he said.

O’Malley’s longevity is all the more remarkable because he stayed with coaching after having me on one of his early teams. I was a terrible player, but I loved playing, and the experience helped me decide what I wanted to do with my life.

Forty-plus years later, I’m still hesitant to refer to “Mr. O’Malley” as “Tom.” These days he’s my friend, but he’ll always be my coach.

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