Five years ago, Bill Coen spent a night in the hospital.
Devon Begley was on his official visit with the Northeastern team, when his mother, Nicole, fell ill. Over 1,800 miles from their hometown of Pearland, Texas, the best place for Nicole was the emergency room. Naturally, Devon went along to accompany her.
So did Coen.
“He sat with her at the hospital until like two or three in the morning,” remembered Begley. “I feel like that’s really huge. You can just tell he just cares about who you are. That’s what he likes in his program.”
Sure, Bill Coen, who has been charged with leading the Huskies for the past 12 seasons, also cares about his team’s ability to play basketball. But with the crew he has assembled as of late, he need not worry.
The Huskies finished 14-4 in Colonial Athletic Association play. Four of his Huskies earned conference honors – Shawn Occeus, who led the CAA in steals (64), was named Defensive Player of the Year, Bolden Brace was honored as the Sixth Man of the Year, Vasa Pusica earned a spot on the All-CAA First Team and Tomas Murphy appeared on the conference All-Rookie Team. This Northeastern team, chosen to finish sixth in the CAA preseason poll – where they finished in the conference standings for the past two seasons – earned a share of the regular season title and made a CAA Championship appearance for the first time since the 2014-15 season.
Coen transformed his middle-of-the-pack Huskies into a squad that went 21-9 in the regular season to become the winningest Northeastern team since 1986-87.
“Throughout the season or in conference play he talked a lot to us about having a goal,” Begley said of Coen. “We started out with a goal to begin with, but he talked about it often to help us keep our hope alive and make sure we tried to believe in ourselves as a team, and make sure that he tried to help us believe in each other, to make sure that we were there for each other.”
On paper, it’s easy to see why the CAA honored Coen as the 2017-18 Coach of the Year and the National Association of Basketball Coaches pegged him as their All-District Coach of the Year for District 10 last month, the first such honors of his career. But Begley, the team’s lone senior, and Murphy, a standout freshman who has known Coen since his own rec league basketball days in Rhode Island, knew the recognition was long overdue.
“He understands what we are, what he wants us to be, what everybody here wants us to be,” Murphy said. “I think that his vision and picture of that is what keeps us getting better every year.”
During his eight-year stint as a graduate assistant then assistant coach at Rhode Island, where he landed after leading the Hamilton College Continentals to a national ranking as a basketball captain, Coen formed a close relationship with Murphy’s father, Jay. He was a constant presence in the lives of the Murphy brothers – the oldest, Erik, and the middle son, Alex, who played a graduate season at Northeastern last year, in addition to Tomas.
“When you get here and he’s your coach, it’s different expectations,” Murphy said. “It changes the relationship a little bit, but there’s always that sense and that feeling of a connection that you’ve had for a long time. I think that’s important, too.”
In a study room in Cabot Center, Begley and Murphy offered up words to describe their head coach. Murphy suggested “witty.” Begley cracked a grin and countered with “jokester.”
Old-school, suggested Begley, and the pair laughed. “Basketball in this generation is changing, but I feel like he’s used to his ways and that’s what he wants,” he explained. “I don’t know if he really knows how to adapt to it.”
“He knows that the game is changing, and he’s done a good job of adapting to that,” countered Murphy. “But he’s still old-school in the sense, the way he’s going to go about things and the way he’s going to teach things.”
Begley nodded, and it was settled. Coen is old-school. The coach spent countless hours in his office working on his computer, Begley shared, scouting opponents, watching film and discovering new strategies.
He’s self-aware. He’s even a little bit superstitious. Nervous. Excited. The players rid themselves of their anxieties the moment they step out onto the court, Murphy explained. Coen didn’t have that luxury. He spends all week preparing, Begley said, but even as the ball is tipped, he’s focused on every detail “so he can try to be as close to perfect as he can.”
To Begley and Murphy and the rest of the Huskies, Bill Coen is a lot of things, on and off the court.
“When he first brought me here he said this is a family, and no matter what I’ll always be able to call this a home,” Begley said. “We had our exit meeting from coach to player and he told me the same exact thing. ‘This is your family, you always have a home here.’”
Photo courtesy Jim Pierce, Northeastern Athletics