Ah, how to explain what it’s like to be a Providence College fan? The definition of a Cinderella in modern-day college athletics. A school from the nation’s tiniest state with a small enrollment and paltry endowment, trying to tussle with the heavy hitters.
The rewards of rooting for PC are incredible, but few and far between. Unfortunately, frustration is the most frequent emotion associated with pulling for the black and white. Worse, apathy has become the predominant feeling surrounding the program lately. Thanks Tim Welsh…But, we digress. Maybe it’s best we start at the beginning…
It all starts with Joe Mullaney. Mullaney took the path all great men travel (born on Long Island, attended Chaminade High School and landed at PC as coach in 1955). Simply put, Providence was a power under Mullaney. The Friars won the 1961 and’63 National Invitation Tournament championships. At that time, the NIT was the prestigious, national tournament. Under Mullaney, the Friars reached the NIT four other times and the NCAA tournament (as it began wrest control away from the NIT) three times. His record while at Providence was 319-164.
Mullaney, who finished his first stint at Providence in 1969 (he returned to coach from 1981-’85), also started the trend of PC coaches as innovators – he invented the zone defense.
Mullaney’s protege, Dave Gavitt took the reins after Mullaney left to coach the Los Angeles Lakers. The success from the Mullaney year’s continued with Gavitt at the helm, as the Friars advanced to the Final Four for the first time in school history in 1973. Gavitt coached for ten years and his team’s reached the post season in eight of those campaigns. He led PC to the NCAA tournament five times (’72-’74, ’77, ’78) and the NIT on three occasions (’71, ’75, ’76). The eight consecutive (’71-’78) appearances in post season tournaments is a school record.
During his coaching tenure, Gavitt also served as athletic director at PC and oversaw the implementation of many of the women’s athletic programs under Title IX.
Gavitt’s reach extends far beyond just Friar lore, however, as he carried on Mullaney’s innovative legacy as well. The formation of the Big East Conference was Gavitt’s conception, and he served as the first commissioner from 1979-’90.
After Gavitt’s departure Providence basketball entered a dark period that stretched until the hiring of Rick Pitino in 1985, when inherited a squad that had gone 11-20 the previous year. But, in just his second season as the head man, Pitino guided the Friars to the 1987 Final Four.
Like his predecessors, Pitino was a visionary on the bench. His teams were some of the earliest to fully take advantage of the three-point shot in college. The three-pointer, coupled with tenacious, full-court defense became staples of Pitino-led teams.
After Pitino left to coach the New York Knicks (that went well), his assistant Gordie Chiesa took over for one, horrific season before he was replaced by Rick Barnes.
Barnes’ tenure was an interesting one. He was an excellent recruiter and reached the post season five out of six years, including three trips to the NCAA tournament, but fans rarely were satisfied with the way his coaching and the way his team’s finished each year. He never won an NCAA tournament game while at PC. Barnes did guide the Friars to their only Big East Tournament title in 1994.
Following Pitino’s example, Barnes parlayed his success on Smith Hill to a pay raise (Clemson), and Providence hired Pete Gillen from Xavier. Gillen’s first two years saw the Friars advance to the NIT, which led to much hand-wringing among the faithful. But, the a disappointing ’97 squad responded in March (novel, eh?) as a 10-seed to upset Marquette and Duke (oh, such a glorious day) and knock off fellow-Cinderella Chattanooga to advance to the Elite 8.
Oh, that Elite 8 in Birmingham (I still get tears in my eyes watching that – and it has nothing to do with listening to Billy Packer). Watching the end of that game still brings pain (and pride), as PC fell to eventual National Champion Arizona in overtime. Gillen returned the following year, which was another underachieving one, before accepting the job as Virginia’s head coach.
Which led to the hire of Tim Welsh.