'It truly has been a blessing to have coached such fine young men and watch them grow. What a great ride it has been'
Lafayette College men’s basketball head coach Fran O’Hanlon, who is the winningest coach in Patriot League history, retired following the conclusion of the Leopards’ 2021-22 season.
“As the saying goes, all good things must come to an end someday,” O’Hanlon said. “I am honored and grateful to have led our program for so many years. It truly has been a blessing to have coached such fine young men and watch them grow.
What a great ride it has been. From being supported by great staff, excellent student-athletes, terrific community and alumni support, and a loving family, we were able to enjoy many memorable moments.”
“Fran has meant so much to Lafayette over nearly three decades,” said Lafayette President Nicole Farmer Hurd. “As we started our Lafayette journey, Bill and I have had the honor of watching Fran on the Kirby Sports Center sidelines as well as on the road and his love of our student-athletes, our community, and basketball is palpable. Fran has left an indelible mark as a coach and mentor. I know our entire Lafayette family joins me in sharing our gratitude for his remarkable leadership and impact on our campus.”
“For nearly three decades, Coach O has been a committed leader of Lafayette Basketball and a beloved member of our Lafayette community,” said Lafayette Director of Athletics Sherryta Freeman. “He has had an exemplary career but most importantly, he has provided great experiences for the student-athletes he coached over the years. We are grateful for Fran’s unwavering love of Lafayette and he has certainly created a culture that will support success for Lafayette basketball in the future.”
The 27-year veteran has won three Patriot League regular-season titles, been named conference Coach of the Year on four occasions, and has taken the Leopards to the NCAA Tournament three times.
One of just five head coaches to direct the same Division I program since the start of the 1995-96 season along with Jim Boeheim of Syracuse, Mike Krzyzewski of Duke, Bob McKillop of Davidson, and Tom Izzo of Michigan State, O’Hanlon has coached 779 games and counting for the Maroon and White.
O’Hanlon took over a team that won just two games prior to his first year in 1995-96 and had the Leopards in the Patriot League championship game just three seasons later while earning his first Coach of the Year honor.
When O’Hanlon came to Lafayette in 1995, he brought with him a winning pedigree from the University of Pennsylvania where he was an assistant coach under former Temple head coach Fran Dunphy for six seasons. With his assistance, the Quakers flourished from 1992-95, earning three consecutive NCAA Tournament berths while recording a perfect 42-0 record in Ivy League play.
Prior to joining the Penn staff, O’Hanlon spent three seasons as the head boy’s coach at Monsignor Bonner High School in Drexel Hill, Pa. He led Bonner to the Philadelphia Catholic League Tournament in each of his three seasons, winning the title in the 1987-88 season. A two-time Catholic League Coach of the Year, he compiled an overall record of 36-23 at Bonner.
Basketball has taken O’Hanlon to Scandinavia, South America and the Middle East. During the 1983-84 and 1985-86 seasons, he served as head men’s coach of two entries (Hapoel Haifa & Maccabi Haifa) in the Israel Professional League, and was twice tabbed with Coach of the Year laurels
A 1970 graduate of Villanova University with a bachelor of science degree in education, O’Hanlon averaged 13.1 points per game and served as team co-captain for the 1969-70 Wildcat squad that reached the NCAA Tournament quarterfinals. O’Hanlon, who prepped at Philadelphia’s St. Thomas More, still holds the Villanova school record for assists in a game (16 vs. Toledo, Feb. 24, 1970) and finished his collegiate career with 689 points. He was inducted into the Villanova Hall of Fame in 1992. O’Hanlon and his wife, the former Nancy Callery, reside in the College Hill area and have two children, Timothy and Gigi, both Lafayette graduates.
O’Hanlon’s experience with the sport on the international stage has inspired a number of former Lafayette players to continue their basketball careers in the professional ranks overseas. Sixteen past Leopards have gone on to play in Australia, England, France, Hungary, Iceland, Israel, Italy, Poland, Lebanon, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland and Syria.
Selected in the eighth round of the 1970 NBA draft by the Philadelphia 76ers, O’Hanlon played with the Miami Floridians of the American Basketball Association for one season before journeying overseas. He went on to play for the Hageby Basketball Club in Sweden for seven seasons, while coaching its farm team. Following his time in Sweden, O’Hanlon took over coaching duties for Panteras De Lara in Barquisimeto, Venezuela in 1982, where his squad captured the league title.
Director of Athletic Communications Phil LaBella reflects on his time spent with a Lafayette coaching legend
“Of all of my friends … you’re one of them.”
Wearing a wry smile, Fran O’Hanlon dropped that line to me at a bar in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, circa 2007, on the eve of a game at Mount St. Mary’s University. It stuck with me, because it was meant to be funny and a little bit insulting (both of which I appreciated), and was skillfully delivered.
Some of the details of that night are foggy, less to do with what was consumed and more to do with the passage of time and hundreds of bus trips blending together over decades. For certain, I remember being in a place that I knew to be a hub of activity in the summer. But, it was scarcely inhabited in late December, a time of the school year that athletic administrators at schools like ours are limping into the winter break after going strong since August.
The team had practiced that night at Kirby Sports Center, boarded a bus and headed to the Gettysburg motel, which was a short ride to Mount St. Mary’s. On these trips, before ride-sharing changed the travel landscape, a small group of staff would venture on foot from the hotel/motel to explore entertainment options. Beyond the 12 stores that offered Civil War reenactment costumes and battle maps, there was one bar that was close by.
The night was like many others—just people sitting around and talking about sports, politics, family, travel, etc. That night Fran had made the walk with us and was telling stories.
From my first year at Lafayette, I recognized that he is a gifted storyteller with a quick wit and a dry sense of humor. He’s an occasional punster and always enjoys a good laugh. Fran is at his best telling stories at the breakfast table or at the bar. His audience is usually hanging on each word—not the way reporters do in a press conference looking for a story but with a rapt attention that all good storytellers demand.
My first year at Lafayette was 1998. I had applied for a job, knowing very little about the school despite being a lifelong Pennsylvania resident. I had some real-world experience—first as an undergrad at St. Bonaventure University and then in a postgraduate internship at the University of Cincinnati. When I came to the Lehigh Valley, newly married to my wife, Julie, I figured we would settle in for a couple of years and then move on to the next stop, like a lot of young professionals.
The main reason I initially took the job was to work with men’s basketball, and I had a good feeling about the people here at Lafayette. It didn’t hurt that I knew Fran had turned around the men’s basketball program and was coming off a 19-9 mark in 1997-98 when Lafayette advanced to the Patriot League championship game.
In my first basketball season on the Hill, 1998-99, Lafayette won the Patriot League championship, snapping a 42-year span between NCAA Tournament appearances. The NCAA Tournament rolled around, and we found out that Lafayette would travel to Boston to play in the FleetCenter. I was excited beyond words to be working with a team in the NCAA Tournament. That was the first of two straight NCAA Tournament appearances for Lafayette, which ran off records of 22-8 and 24-7.
I learned after the trip to Boston that I was close to being bumped from it by the athletic director at the time. I wasn’t exactly sure of the reasoning (money, staffing, experience?), but I later found out that Fran went to bat for me, saying that I had been with the team throughout the season, and I should be with the team at the tournament.
As I look back, had I been unable to go on that trip, it would have been a big blow to me, and I know I would have moved on professionally. But, here I sit at my desk (albeit a different desk in a different building) 24 years later about 30 feet from Fran’s office. He did that for me because he felt it was the right thing to do. He had known me for all of a couple of months. I have never forgotten that, and I am thankful for that experience.
Like his players, I’ve learned a lot from the way he treats and interacts with people. I’ve certainly learned about basketball (and I thought I knew a fair amount coming in) and about how much he loves coaching it. I learned the value of his teams practicing his offense in 5-on-0 drills at nearly every workout and the benefits to changing defenses. I learned that the questions he asks his players when coaching them are usually rhetorical. Only the older players know how to answer those queries.
Fran is a unique guy. There aren’t a lot of coaches who will sit down in a hotel lobby and play the piano after a team dinner or who ride their bikes to work (a baby blue 10-speed ripped from the ’80s). There is no pretense about him.
A media organization once sent out a questionnaire asking coaches what fashion designers made their suits in an effort to set up a championship bracket for the “Runway to the Final Four.” It was early on in my career, so I asked him and he started laughing, saying that his wife, Nancy, did his shopping and that his sartorial selections were more likely to have come from Boscov’s than Armani.
I’ve traveled with Lafayette’s men’s basketball to all different parts of the country: everywhere throughout the Mid-Atlantic region, occasional trips to the West Coast, to Italy, Belgium, France, and England and many stops in between. I’ll never forget a harrowing ride in cargo vans from Salt Lake City to Logan, Utah, in a snowstorm. I’m certain that trip cemented that Lafayette would never play my alma mater during Fran’s tenure (despite my urging and some decent guarantees) because he himself played in Olean, New York, while at Villanova. He remembered the snow and the cold there, and told me that we can get that in the Lehigh Valley without a five-hour bus trip.
When traveling with the team as an administrator, you often get questions about the team and certainly the head coach—and I learned most of the answers. Here’s how the Q&A often goes.
Q: “Why does he substitute so much?”
A: Anytime the clock stops, it gives him the opportunity to get the best matchups on the floor. One player is a better defender than the other, who might be a better passer. A stoppage of play is a chance to get one of his best players, who might be foul-prone, off the floor when he sees a call going against him in the near future because of the flow of the game.
Q: “Is that a strut or is he in pain?”
A: My typical response was that it was a little bit of Philly swagger and a little bit of needing hip replacements from years of playing. The hips are new, but the swagger remains.
Q: “How much longer is he going to keep coaching?” has been the question for the last four or five years.
A: My answer to that was an honest “I don’t know” followed by my not-so-subtle reminders to people of what he inherited, what he built and what his program accomplished at Lafayette over nearly three decades.
I know that Fran has had many opportunities to leave Lafayette for what those in basketball coaching circles would perceive as better opportunities—more money, a higher profile conference, a bigger office or coaching staff, less stringent admission requirements, a return to his hometown, etc.
But with each opportunity, Fran stayed—looking to continue what he built on College Hill. He will leave Lafayette as the school and Patriot League career wins leader. Detractors will point to losses, but they forget that he recruited and coached without scholarships for many seasons after the rest of the conference adopted athletic scholarships. Ask anyone in the coaching business what that would mean to their programs.
I’ve been around long enough to know that being a Division I men’s basketball coach, regardless of your level of success, means that 75% of fans/alums love you most of the time, and the other 25%, typically more vocal, can’t wait to see you go. Perhaps it’s that way with lots of jobs, but college coaches are in a more intense spotlight.
So, I have mixed emotions. I’m sad I won’t run into him in the lobby four or five times a day or walk by his office when he’s on his 12th phone call of the afternoon, talking with an old friend with a recruiting lead. Conversely, I am happy for him and his family, and I’m sure retirement will be significantly less stressful than coaching basketball. What he has done in basketball and in life, and the class with which he has done it, isn’t easy.
As he winds down his final season, I think back to his first title seasons when he introduced a mantra that would define his time on College Hill: “Leave it better than you found it.”
He did just that.
When you talk to coaches that he has mentored and the people with whom he has worked, they tell stories about his knowledge of the game and his ability to teach it. The coaches say that it puts him on par with any great coach in the country, and they all point to his character. They consider him a friend.
The guy has a thousand friends on Facebook (literally). He probably has thousands more in real life—spread across the country and the world thanks to his playing and coaching career. Some knew him as “Rainbow Johnson” in the Baker League in Philadelphia, in his time with the Miami Floridians of the ABA, overseas in Israel and Sweden (where he was sometimes known as Francis Francis Dribbler) or his time coaching in Venezuela. He’s been “Coach O” since his college coaching career started in the mid-1980s with stops at Temple, Monsignor Bonner High School, Penn and finally Lafayette, his home for 27 seasons.
So, of ALL of his friends across the world, I AM honored to be one of them.