The nation’s leading basketball junkie? A current contender: Joe Mihalich, also one of Philadelphia’s great coaching exports. These days, call Mihalich a student of the game in a different way. What is he watching?
“Oh man, everything,” Mihalich said over the phone recently. “Every … thing. Not a game goes by that I don’t have the TV on.”
The last game Mihalich coached was the greatest triumph of his seven years at Hofstra, winning the 2020 Colonial Athletic Association title game, earning an NCAA berth. It was his last game because there was no 2020 NCAA tournament, March Madness canceled by COVID-19. So the last game was a win for the ages. Wherever Mihalich has been, improvement has followed. He recently attended his own induction into Niagara’s Hall of Fame, for shepherding that program to multiple NCAA berths.
The former Speedy Morris assistant from some La Salle glory days, a La Salle player himself under Paul Westhead, the son of a La Salle philosophy professor, now 65 years old, has added another triumph, maybe topping the list.
» READ MORE: Speedy Morris coaching tree rooted in Philly hoops
“It was August 15,” Mary Mihalich said. “Players were starting to come back and move in.”
This was the summer of 2020, up at Hofstra.
“I knew it was going to be busy,” Joe’s wife said. “I went to the shore.”
They’re Philly people. Ocean City was still their shore town. Heading down the Garden State Parkway, Mary tried her husband’s cell phone.
“When he did answer – I knew from your speech, something was wrong,” Mary said to her husband, talking together on the phone.
Let’s cut the suspense …
“The term was brain hemorrhage, a type of stroke,” Mary said of what was going on. But she did not know that. She called Colin Curtin, a Hofstra assistant, who has been with Mihalich going back to being a Niagara manager, going back further to a phone call from Mihalich to Speedy Morris at St. Joseph’s Prep – Curtin happening to answer the office phone, this guy Mihalich asking him about his own future, then changing its course.
Curtin will not forget the phone call from Mary. … Was he with Joe? He lived about 25 minutes from Hofstra campus. Mary Mihalich explained, he said, that she was talking to her husband and “all of a sudden the conversation went quiet. She called back, Coach answered and still nothing.”
Curtin raced to his car, called campus security on the way, a search party of sorts looking for Mihalich. Colin went first to the basketball office … empty.
The Mihalichs rent a house on the edge of Hofstra’s campus. Curtin’s next stop. Campus security arriving at the same time.
“As I approached his driveway, there was Coach Mihalich, just walking in his driveway in his classic summer outfit, Hofstra basketball T-shirt, khaki shorts, flip flops,” Curtin said. “I yelled out ‘COACH!’ and in typical Coach Mihalich fashion, he looked at me, threw his fist in the air and started to walk toward me.”
“Coach, is everything all right?”
Mihalich tried to say something, couldn’t.
“Coach, shake your head yes or no, do you need to go to the hospital?”
Mihalich shook his head yes.
His wife already had turned the car around.
“I don’t know how many Hail Marys you can say in three hours,” Mary Mihalich said. “But I think I set the record.”
“Colin was the guy who saved my life,” Mihalich said.
A team effort, really. Surgery that night. What would be the result? Mary got her first clue in the hospital. They have three sons, all coaches. Joe is a Penn basketball assistant, Matt a Hartford basketball assistant, Matt’s twin brother Tony a George Mason cross-country and track assistant.
“It was really COVID times – it was really difficult to get into the hospital,” Mary Mihalich said, explaining that only people from states adjoining New York state were supposed to even enter the state at that time. Tony’s Virginia license was spotted coming into the hospital. He couldn’t go in.
The twins hatched a plan. Matt visited, then got outside and switched hats and glasses with his brother. Mom worried about the scheme from a different angle
“Oh my God, this is going to be confusing,” she said. “Joe is going to be confused.”
They carried out their plan. Tony got to the room. Dad couldn’t talk.
“He looked at me and winked,” Mary said. “I said, ‘Oh, thank God.’ That was the moment I knew Joe was going to be OK. He knows what we’re pulling off.”
He couldn’t coach Hofstra, but remains in the same house, now a special advisor to the athletic director.
“I couldn’t say the word ‘stroke,’ ” Mary said of the initial weeks. “I really struggled to tell people.”
Mary said to her husband, “There was a really good chance you weren’t going to make it.”
“A year and a half ago, I couldn’t even talk,” Joe said, his speech now slower but easily legible. (His texts, grammatically perfect, and full of exclamation points.) During an extended phone interview, Joe made sure his wife was on to elaborate on thoughts.
His whole ordeal had included three weeks in ICU, then three more weeks in a rehab hospital. Then the work really began.
“His right side was affected,” his wife said. “It came back … I shouldn’t say little by little. It was just his herculean effort. He’s the hardest-working human being out there. I would have given up long ago.”
“Now, I walk like two miles a day,” Joe said.
“I can’t keep up with him,” Mary said.
They name all the people who helped on the medical front and the emotional-support front, a list that never ends since Mihalich, separate from his wins and losses, is one of the more popular human beings in his sport. His phone piled up with thousands of texts.
“Forget about coaching – that speaks for itself,” Curtin said. “He is one of the best people I know.”
Husband and wife now travel to see games, were at the Palestra earlier this season, get to Hofstra games, home and some road games.
“I’m the worried parent and they’re the crazy teenagers,” Joe Jr. said. “They drove to George Mason, then drove to Duquesne that night, like 16 hours in the car.”
“That stroke was nowhere near the basketball part of his brain,” Mary said. “It’s amazing.”
Her evidence, a Hofstra game at Maryland in November. (A barnburner, Terps by two.) … Mihalich talked to Maryland assistant Matt Brady, another Philly coaching export. Mary was “flabbergasted” by the conversation.
“I asked him what he might do differently,” Brady said. “And he communicated that he might like to see more zone because of our team’s size and average lateral quickness.”
Any insights come from experience. Mihalich is on a pretty short list of Philly coaching products who pulled off these lifetime achievements … wasn’t a starter but played six minutes for La Salle in a 1978 NCAA game against Villanova at the Palestra, was a Morgan Wooten assistant at fabled DeMatha High, coached in the NCAA tournament multiple times as an Explorers assistant, then coached Niagara and Hofstra to March Madness berths.
At Niagara, they just named the basketball suite after Mihalich, surprised him when he was up there.
“Oh, man,” Mihalich said of that one. “It’s just emotional.”
He paused … no words coming over the phone. This time, a most happy silence to his wife’s ears.