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Fran Dunphy back on practice court at La Salle, still aiming for ‘perfection’

"He’s into perfection,” former Temple point guard Shizz Alston said of Dunphy, who is taking over as Explorers coach. “Perfect footwork, perfect reads.”

New La Salle head coach Fran Dunphy working with Explorers players.
New La Salle head coach Fran Dunphy working with Explorers players.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

Fran Dunphy gritted his teeth — bared his teeth, really. A quick flash of old-style Dunphy anger. Forget the nicest guy in Philly hoops stuff you might hear about this man, not on his practice court. One of his new La Salle Explorers was out on the wing. Dunphy pointed to where the player belonged, in the corner. The player got over there, no words were exchanged.

“He’s into perfection,” former Temple point guard Shizz Alston said of his old coach. “Perfect footwork, perfect reads.”

Alston had shown up at a La Salle practice recently. Dunphy said he told Alston, “What you’ll tell me afterwards, ‘I can’t believe how soft you’ve gotten,’ because every generation that has visited practice says that: ‘I can’t believe how soft you are. That’s how you coach now? What is that?’”

Forget Dunphy’s own age (apparently, 73). Immaterial on this court. We’re not talking about the push-ups Dunphy still does with his players at times. Those seem designed to send a little “We’re in this together” message. More, the verbal critiques issued rapid-fire.

Who knows how long Dunphy coaches La Salle? Let’s assume he doesn’t know. Also, who knows what any of this will result in during the season? Hard to predict a win-loss record for this squad. When you go 11-19, then lose transfers to Providence, North Carolina State, and Delaware, you know you’ve taken hits. Players coming in from Lithuania and Spain and a couple of transfer twins from the St. Peter’s rotation aren’t suddenly going to turn this into a top conference contender.

But the practices? Same as it’s ever been. How many practices has Dunphy run in his life? Let’s say, ballpark, over a hundred a year, for three decades. (It’s more practices than that these days, with summer full-team practices allowed.) If Dunphy has been in charge of more than 3,000 college basketball practices, that’s pretty close to the number of practices run by the other four Big 5 coaches combined.

You’re hugging like crazy on this. The only thing I’m concerned about is you getting a foul in this situation early in the game ...

Now, add special assistant to the head coach Joe Mihalich’s 23 seasons in charge at Niagara and Hofstra … you’re over 5,000 practices these men have run, not even counting their years together as La Salle assistants under Lefty Ervin and Speedy Morris, or their other stops as assistants, or their playing years. (Three of the other four current Big 5 head coaches once worked as assistants for either Dunphy or Mihalich.)

» READ MORE: It takes more than a stroke to slow Joe Mihalich down

‘The biggest voice’

Mihalich stepped down at Hofstra after suffering a stroke in 2020. Back at their alma mater, how is Dunphy trying to use Mihalich right now?

“To start with, when we plan practices, he’s got the biggest voice in the planning of it,” Dunphy said. “Joe gets with the rest of the guys and they plan what they’re going to do for the day. Then they show it to me. I say, ‘OK, I like this, this, and this. Here’s something I’d like to change.’”

Dunphy said he wants ownership of what they’re doing spread around.

“To the point I’m going to our point guards and saying, ‘What do you think about the last 10 seconds of the shot clock? Do you want that big guy running out, clogging up everything? Or do you want to go make your play?’”

He isn’t looking to jump ahead to PhD work too quickly.

He’s not sure this pass is coming to him. Tough turnover to make here … If you have a chance to make a play right away, go ahead and do it. Let’s take advantage of the defense being scrambled ...

“So like yesterday, we’re going to put in a thing we used to do at Penn and at Temple … just a simple secondary break thing — then Joe shows me something different that he did,” Dunphy said. “I said, ‘OK, I want to hold off on that. Because I’m not comfortable teaching it.’ I need something to show our kids. Start there. But I want to evolve into [what Mihalich ran] … the screen happens here on the fourth pass, rather than on the second.”

Despite their 138 years, this isn’t some basketball remake of The Sunshine Boys. Don’t move too fast past the combined 999 wins, the conference titles in four leagues. Mihalich still has trouble speaking from his stroke, but his mind remains in full fast-break mode. As special assistant to the head coach, Mihalich isn’t allowed on the court during practice. He’s right at the edge of it, though. He’d done something at Hofstra, calling out specific defensive actions with a color. Blasting a screen, for instance.

“Coach Mihalich, is that red on the double team?” Dunphy called out during a July practice.

“Green,’’ Mihalich called over from his seat.

“Green?” Dunphy said to himself. “I’m thinking about Christmas colors.”

It brings you back to a story Speedy Morris tells, how when he moved over from coaching La Salle’s women’s team to the men in 1986, he was told he didn’t have to keep either Dunphy or Mihalich, the two men’s assistants.

“Where am I going to find two better guys than that?” Morris remembered saying.

“We talked many, many times over the years — many phone calls,” Dunphy said of Mihalich. “It seemed like it might be a great fit. Might be great for La Salle. Might be great for Joe. And it’s certainly going to be good for me.”

‘I’ve got the minutes’

That practice, they were trying to go from a secondary break into two primary offensive sets. It would be Dunphy presenting it to them. The value of that?

“I say to the kids all the time, I’ve got the minutes,” Dunphy said, holding one hand out. “Two hundred of them, right here. How many are you going to get? Everybody here wants 40. Nobody is going to get 40. We’re going to get 31, 27, 24 — whatever the combination is. How many guys are we going to play? Are we going to play eight guys, 11 guys? What is it? And I’m a scorekeeper. Every day, in my mind, every single day, every little pass, can I trust that guy, three minutes to go, with the ball? There’s a trust there that has to be built up with practice every single day.”

Alston said if a Temple shot was missed, Dunphy wouldn’t fault the shot or the result, but might ask if the time was put in from 10 to 10:45 … the extra shooting time before or after a practice.

When you’re young as a coach, Dunphy said, you’re probably insecure.

“You’re given this job — you’re supposed to be this macho coach, make all the decisions,” Dunphy said. “Then you start to say, I don’t have all the answers that I thought I had. Now, you start giving ownership to your assistant coaches. Now, when you get more secure, you call in your point guard and watch film with him, say, ‘Where do you want that screen set with 10 seconds to go on the shot clock? You want him to dive, you want him to space, you want him to screen away?’ Give him choices.”

Right now, he needs your help, you’re not there for him. … Your feet are way too happy here. Look at your feet, bouncing like crazy.

The assistant coaches are all holdovers from Ashley Howard’s staff. Dunphy said he wants to be challenged by them, but he challenges them back. I like that, but what’s your reason for doing it?

“I said, ‘Give me two, three weeks, show me what you’ve got,’ ” Dunphy said of the staff already there. “ ‘X-and-O-wise. And show me what it’s like to work with you every single day.‘ They all did a good job. They all proved to me they were ready to help La Salle basketball be the best it could be.”

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What’s he looking for in a practice itself?

“It doesn’t have to be as perfect as I wanted it to be when I was younger,” Dunphy said. “I’m willing to accept a kid maybe leaving his feet to make a pass because he felt it was the right thing to do even though we have told him jump-stop, pivot. Make a good decision is our mantra. Every once in a while he’s going to make a bad decision and I have to move on from that. You see where you can do it better? Move on.”

This hasn’t changed: Dunphy will point out what he’s looking for, constantly. Last week, a big screen was set up by the court, the previous practice was up for discussion. Dunphy was doing the discussing.

If we can avoid passing this much … In this case, you can always come to that elbow area. Maybe we even backdoor this … Pretty decent drive to the rim, then you leave your feet. I’d love to see you come to a jump-stop here. … Not a whole lot of bounces. Get the ball moving side to side. … Pretty good play to knock the ball out of bounds. … We don’t want to start our offense again 35 feet from the basket. … We can’t die on the screen here. … This isn’t good enough. You’ve got to be better on the close-out.

Just looking at the effort put in, if someone said La Salle was opening the season this Saturday, you might believe it. Alston, for one, wasn’t fooled by what he saw. His coach is still into perfection.

Like after they worked on the secondary break … Later, as the Explorers scrimmaged, Dunphy stopped things and pointed out something missing: the secondary break.

That’s the way life works, Dunphy told his players. We all rely on what we’re used to, what’s comfortable. They were in the gym on a hot August day to expand their comfort zone. Maybe that somehow goes for the coach, too, even if he sometimes grits his teeth.