NCAA

For Penn football coach Ray Priore, it's always been family first

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Penn Athletics

For Penn football coach Ray Priore, it's always been family first

A year before Bob Benson arrived at Penn as the football team’s new defensive coordinator, his brother Tom temporarily lived a couple of blocks from Franklin Field at the old Penn Tower. Frank was very sick with throat cancer, and the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Bob said, was one of the only places in the world where he could possibly be saved.

As you can imagine, it was an impossibly trying time for the Benson family. But for the four weeks Tom lived at Penn Tower and was treated at HUP, some of their pain was eased by Penn football coach Ray Priore, who went to Tom’s room on the 16th floor often, packed up his dirty laundry, and brought it to the equipment room at Franklin Field to wash.

Tom ended up passing away not long after his arrival at Penn — but Bob Benson will never forget Priore’s heartfelt gesture to a dying man and his family.

“I just think it speaks volumes to Ray’s caring,” Benson said. “He’s a family guy … just a really kind man. When he offered me the job here, I took it in about 30 seconds.”

Few people know Priore as well as Benson, who worked with him on the coaching staff at the University of Albany when both were getting their start in the mid-1980s and rejoined him at Penn in 2015. And in those three decades in between, he’s seen Priore do so many other things that show how important his family and friends are, remarking that, above all else, “he cares about people.”

In many ways, that’s one of the biggest reasons why Priore has remained at Penn for 30 years, rising through the ranks until he eventually took over as head coach ahead of the 2015 season, when he promptly led the Quakers to a share of the Ivy League championship.

“I had opportunities to leave,” Priore said. “But the folks here at Penn, the alumni are phenomenal. And [thinking about] uprooting my family, I always said, ‘Football’s football — why do you need to go somewhere else? You can still chase a dream here.’ And coaching has been great here.”

Family has certainly always been a constant for Priore at Penn. His daughter Jenna, now a junior in the college, has been going to Quaker games since she was seven months old, serving as a water girl when she was younger and, more recently, as a special assistant to her father, bringing him his headset before every game and helping to run the program’s involvement with the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation, which brought them 5-year-old team captain Vhito DeCapira, an inspiring young cancer patient.

And Priore’s older brother, Chuck, served with him on Penn’s staff from 1992 to 1999 with the two siblings commuting to work every day together from their homes in New Jersey and also sharing the joy of winning three Ivy League championships during that stretch.

So when you look at Priore’s decision to remain at Penn for so long through the lens of family, it makes perfect sense.

“Sometimes people change jobs just to change jobs,” said Chuck Priore, now the head coach at Stony Brook University. “He was comfortable, he enjoyed it, he had success and he continued to get better and took advantage of the opportunity right in house.”

For Ray Priore, having a brother who’s also a college football head coach has been a unique and rewarding experience. Every morning at around 5:30 a.m., when he’s driving across the Ben Franklin Bridge on the way to work and Chuck is riding on the elliptical, they have long chats on the phone about their respective programs. 

Of course by now, they’ve been talking about football for more than 40 years — one of the many sports that bound them from childhood into adulthood.

“Most of our family activities revolved around athletics,” Chuck said. “There really wasn’t summer vacations. It was summer baseball, winter hockey, fall football, spring baseball — that’s what we pretty much did as a family.”

Growing up in Long Island, their father was their first football coach in the local Pop Warner league. The two brothers were then part of the same football program at both Maria Regina High School and the University of Albany with Ray a freshman while Chuck was a senior. That made it easier for their dad and younger brother, Frank, to watch them both play. But even as the two eventually went their separate ways, their family members still found a way to go to almost every game. 

Last Saturday, for instance, their brother and father managed to go to Franklin Field to watch Penn beat Central Connecticut State 28-16 in the afternoon before driving down to Maryland to cheer on Stony Brook’s 27-20 win over Towson in the evening.

“You can’t get married in the fall in our family,” Ray said. “These are family events. The falls are very, very special.”

Because he’s so close to his family, leaving the comforts of New York to come to Penn in 1987 wasn’t easy. Priore was very young when he took the job as the Quakers’ assistant linebacker coach, moving to Philly and living next to Franklin Field on the top floor of the Dunning Coaches’ Center. He called it a “whole new world” and he never expected to stay at Penn as long as he did. 

But Priore grew to love the university and remained with the program even as his bosses changed, first working under Ed Zubrow and then Gary Steele and then finally Al Bagnoli, who returns to Franklin Field for the first time as a visiting coach for Saturday's game vs. Columbia (3 p.m.).

And he learned different things from each one — particularly organization from Zubrow, defensive strategy from Steele and how to effectively delegate responsibility from Bagnoli. Of course, when he finally landed his “dream job” as head coach, he put his own spin on the position, using his determination and family focus to galvanize a program that had fallen on hard times in the two previous seasons and win Ivy League Coach of the Year honors.

Through his first eight Ivy League games, he’s already beaten every conference opponent, becoming the third-fastest coach in Ivy League history to complete the sweep. Only Zubrow (7-0 in 1986) and Yale’s Jordan Olivar (7-0) did it quicker.

“I think Penn made a great choice with Ray,” Benson said. “It’s very rare someone would stay at an institution or place of employment for 30 years. I think it’s a credit to him and his belief in Penn that he stayed here. That’s the story for me — his belief in the University of Pennsylvania. There’s not much of that around. That’s pretty remarkable in my opinion.”

Benson added that one of Priore’s best attributes, aside from his kindness, is his work ethic and drive, pointing out that winning last year’s Ivy championship only made him want more titles. And Chuck said that his brother’s commitment to Penn might just be what keeps the Quakers on top this year and for many more to come.

“You can really tell recruits, ‘This place is an awesome place, and if it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be here for 30 years,’” Chuck said. “I think he has a great handle of what Penn can do for a student-athlete.”

Priore certainly takes recruiting seriously, doing his best to create special relationships with everyone he brings into the program, from the time they first step foot into campus to long after they leave. According to Benson, Priore is on the phone or computer “every day” talking to many of the alums who passed through the program over the past 30 years — men who learned about football but even more about life.

“The most important part of coaching in my opinion is that we are teachers and motivators,” Priore said. “We work at a kid’s game but so many life lessons can be taught on the field. I think we all as coaches are very blessed to have that opportunity to impact so many kids’ lives.

“When the kids come in, I say to them, ‘I have one daughter but I have 110 sons.’ You want to treat these kids as if they’re your own.”
 

Villanova set to renew old-school rivalry with UConn

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Villanova set to renew old-school rivalry with UConn

NBC Sports Philadelphia anchor/reporter Amy Fadool and senior producer Sean Kane get you set for all the weekend’s local college basketball games with Fastbreak. Friday. Look for this column every Friday during the college basketball season.

No. 1 Villanova (17-1, 5-1 Big East) at Connecticut (10-8, 3-3 AAC), Saturday, 12:00 p.m.
SK: 
Villanova and UConn renew an old-school Big East rivalry on Saturday afternoon, the first meeting of a three-game series that extends to the 2019-2020 season. The two teams have not met since the second round of the 2014 NCAA Tournament when the Huskies upset the Wildcats en route to a national championship.

While top-ranked Villanova has flourished in the revamped Big East, UConn's basketball program has become somewhat of an afterthought the past three years in the AAC under Kevin Ollie. The Huskies finished with a 16-17 record a year ago and are a middling 10-8 this season. UConn enters Saturday's matchup fresh off a 24-point loss at Memphis on Tuesday.

Villanova, meanwhile, is coming off arguably its most impressive performance of the season an 88-56 drubbing of Georgetown on Wednesday. The Wildcats dominated the Hoyas in their own building from start to finish, leading by as many as 44 points in the second half. Jalen Brunson finished with 18 points to lead six different Villanova players in double figures. They shot a collective 60 percent from the field and 51 percent from three-point range. 

Sophomore sixth man Donte DiVincenzo continued his torrid pace with 13 points on 6 of 9 shooting from the field. DiVincenzo's performance came on the heels of his career-high 25-point outburst at St. John's last weekend, a game in which he connected on six three-point field goals. The fact that DiVincenzo isn't in the starting lineup speaks to the strength of the Villanova program. It's not an exaggeration to say that DiVincenzo would start for 98 percent of the teams in the country.

Villanova's improvement defensively is a welcomed sight for Jay Wright. After allowing an average of 92 points in their first three conference games, the Wildcats have clamped down considerably on the defensive end — surrendering an average of just 64 points in their last three games. Look for that defensive resurgence to continue on Saturday against UConn, a team that has struggled to score as of late.

Villanova 79, UConn 65

Temple (9-9, 2-5 AAC) at Pennsylvania (12-5, 3-0 Ivy), Saturday, 2:00 p.m. on NBC Sports Philadelphia
AF:
 This is always one of my favorite games to write about because of the connections between the two schools. Steven Donahue coached at Penn under Fran Dunphy, who enjoyed a lot of success as the Quakers head coach.

Before I get to the success that Penn has enjoyed this season, I have to discuss the Owls' string of recent heartbreak.

They’ve only won two of their last six games. But here’s the rub; if you throw out the loss to UCF, which I’m sure Coach Dunphy would appreciate, Temple has had those remaining five games decided by a combined 11 points. One basket, that could have been the deciding factor in turning one or more of those losses into wins.

So up next, a tough test at the Palestra, Dunphy’s old stomping grounds. Penn is off to its best start to a season since, you guessed it, Fran Dunphy was the coach. Just like back in the 2002-2003 season, the Quakers are also 12-5 at this point. That year, Penn went undefeated in Ivy play. So far this season, Penn is undefeated in Ivy play.

Yes, they have a long way to go in order to stay that way, but the Quakers are looking like the team to beat right now in the Ivy League. A.J. Brodeur is coming off his best game of the season, a 30-point effort with six three-pointers in the win over Columbia. Penn has two Big Five matchups before continuing league play in February, Temple then St. Joseph’s.

This weekend I think Penn keeps the good times rolling and the former assistant gets the best of his mentor.

Penn 72, Temple 70

Fordham (6-12, 1-5 A-10) at St. Joseph's (8-9, 3-3 A-10), Saturday, 1:00 p.m.
SK:
St. Joseph's rebounded from a pair of agonizing losses to George Mason and UMass to defeat Dayton, 81-65, on Wednesday. The Hawks are currently 3-3 in A-10 play but could easily be 5-1 if those heartbreaking losses turned out differently, which they easily could have.

The senior duo of James Demery and Shavar Newkirk combined for 36 points in the win over Dayton, while freshman forward Taylor Funk added 18 points and six rebounds. Then there's sophomore Pierfrancesco Oliva, who recorded a bizarre but beneficial stat line of 0 points and 15 rebounds.

St. Joseph's should be able to build on the momentum of Wednesday's win against Fordham on Saturday. The Rams have lost four straight games and six of their last seven, generally not showing much fight in the process. Expect the Hawks to set the tone early and cruise to a second straight victory.

St. Joe's 74, Fordham 59

La Salle (8-11, 2-4 A-10) at Richmond (5-13, 3-3 A-10), Saturday, 2:30 p.m. on NBC Sports Network
SK:
Before I get to how this matchup of struggling A-10 teams will play out, a salute to Dr. John Giannini.

The La Salle head coach recorded his 500th career win with the Explorers' 75-67 victory over Fordham on Wednesday. Giannini has endured his share of ups and downs during his 14-year tenure at La Salle. But the bottom line remains; he's done an admirable job in less than ideal circumstances. Any realistic La Salle fan will admit that recruiting is a challenge, something Giannini has dealt with by pursuing a number of transfers in recent years. In most cases, these transfers are Philadelphia kids who are looking for more playing time — guys like B.J. Johnson, Tyrone Garland and Ramon Galloway. It's a formula that helped Giannini take La Salle to the Sweet 16 in 2013 with Galloway and Garland playing key roles.

On occasion, you'll hear or see La Salle fans on social media calling for a coaching change. I don't understand that logic. I continue to believe Giannini is a good fit at La Salle and he deserves the opportunity to get the program back to where it was five years ago.

As for this Saturday's visit to Richmond, it will be a challenge for the Explorers. The Spiders are down this season but have found their footing over the last week with wins over George Washington and VCU. I expect Richmond to make it three straight wins at La Salle's expense this weekend.

Richmond 70, La Salle 65

Drexel (7-13, 1-6 CAA) at James Madison (5-13, 1-6 A-10), Saturday, 4:00 p.m.
AF:
 After picking up a marquee win over the College of Charleston two weeks ago — which was also their first conference win — the Dragons have hit a serious slump and dropped four straight games.

Zach Spiker’s squad is certainly struggling with scoring, but perhaps more importantly, is getting beat on the glass, sometimes almost two to one by their opponents. And any coach will tell you second-chance points are a real killer, not only to the momentum of the game but also for team morale.

In Drexel’s most recent loss, falling 90-68 at Towson, the rebounding differential was 46-25 in the Tigers' favor. It could be a problem for the Dragons this weekend against James Madison.

The Dukes are coming off a marquee win of their own, when they beat Elon in overtime Thursday night. They erased a 10-point deficit in the final 90 seconds to take down the Phoenix, which also was their first CAA win.

A player of note in this one, JMU’s Stuckey Mosley is averaging 19.5 points and one of four Dukes who average double figures. Neither team is going to contend for the CAA this year, but both have shown flashes. The road has not been kind to the Dragons.

I hesitate to pick against them because they win when I predict a loss, and lose when I predict a win. So I’ll go a little reverse psychology and say that they will win ... and I really mean lose.

JMU 78, Drexel 75

Prediction Records
Sean Kane:
15-8
Amy Fadool: 12-13

No. 1 Villanova hands Georgetown worst loss in decades

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USA Today Images

No. 1 Villanova hands Georgetown worst loss in decades

BOX SCORE

WASHINGTON -- After watching Villanova make 3-pointer after 3-pointer and build a hard-to-fathom lead -- 20, then 30, eventually all the way up to 44 -- Georgetown coach Patrick Ewing did not want to offer any sort of assessment about what this game indicates about his team's status in relation to the No. 1 Wildcats.

Understandably.

"I'm not even thinking about that," Ewing said. "All I'm thinking about is that they're a good team and tonight was their night. That's it."

Wright and Villanova gave Ewing a rude welcome back to the schools' rivalry, handing the Hoyas their worst loss in more than 40 years, 88-56 on Wednesday night.

"I've had my butt kicked before -- fortunately it was as a player -- and all I can do is get ready for the next one," Ewing said. "You can't dwell on it. Just got to look at the film and make adjustments and get ready for the next game."

Jalen Brunson led the way with 18 points and seven assists for Villanova (17-1, 5-1 Big East), which finished 17 for 33 on 3s, while Georgetown went 4 for 15.

Mikal Bridges scored 17 for the Wildcats, winners of seven consecutive games against the Hoyas, Villanova's longest streak in a series that dates to 1922.

"I'm just happy to be on this side of it. I've been on the other side. I feel for those guys, because we've been there," Villanova coach Jay Wright said.

"Patrick's doing a great job with this program. They're very organized. They know what they want to do," Wright said. "And he's going to build this thing."

The last time Ewing faced Villanova in any capacity was in the last game of his college playing career at Georgetown, a surprising 66-64 victory for the underdog Wildcats in the 1985 NCAA championship game. It was quite clear, quite quickly, on Wednesday that there would be no such tight outcome --nor any chance of an upset by Georgetown (12-6, 2-5).

Villanova went on an 18-0 tear to go ahead 31-8 and that was that for any semblance of drama.

"This is our first game where we were just blown out from the beginning," said Jessie Govan, who led the Hoyas with 12 points.

Aided by a 1-2-2 press that Brunson said he thought "may have got to them a little bit," Villanova led 42-20 at halftime. Until then, Georgetown had more turnovers (nine) than made baskets, shooting 8 for 26, including 0 for 8 on 3s.

Asked about the 18-point run, Ewing replied: "I don't even remember."

This is his first season as a head coach at any level, and he opted to go with an easy-as-can-be non-conference schedule to try to build his players' confidence. Now that league play is underway, especially against a foe like Villanova, the gap between the Hoyas and the best teams is obvious.

Villanova just kept pushing the margin after the break, going up by 30, then 40, and then reaching the apex at 88-44 on a layup by Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree with about 3 minutes remaining. Less than a minute later, Wright finally sent on the subs and pulled any remaining starters.

"It's always fun," Brunson said, "when our team's making shots."

Big picture
Villanova: Since its only loss, 101-93 at Butler on Dec. 30, Villanova has won four games in a row, propelled by an efficient offense that gets a lot of its work done from beyond the arc.

Georgetown: This was the Hoyas' largest margin of defeat since a 33-point loss to Maryland, 104-71, on Dec. 10, 1974.

Injured and ill
Villanova: Collin Gillespie returned from a broken hand and had two points, three rebounds and two assists in 15 minutes. ... Reserves Tim Delaney and Jermaine Samuels sat out with a virus.

Georgetown: Backup PG Trey Dickerson left in the first half with a back spasm and did not return.

Up next
Villanova: Travels to UConn on Saturday in a matchup between former Big East rivals and the Wildcats' first game at Hartford in five years. Villanova is 12-0 in non-conference games heading into the last one on their schedule.

Georgetown: Hosts St. John's on Saturday, the teams' second meeting in less than two weeks. The Hoyas won 69-66 at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 9.