You walk in Lincoln University’s gym, the first person you see, just past the door … Jefferson University women’s hoops coach Tom Shirley.
Jefferson’s bench was down at the other end of the court, but a DJ was in charge of pregame sounds and Shirley was staying away from the speaker down in a corner past his bench.
“They either have a band or a well-placed DJ,” Shirley said of the places that have this down.
When the game began, Lincoln’s home-court advantage shot up fivefold. A Saturday afternoon down Route 1 in Chester County, how many people would be in the place? The gym wasn’t full, but it got loud, students not just in one section but all around the court. A Lincoln steal and a layup … you’d have thought you were in a full Palestra.
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When Jefferson left with a 70-69 win after a last defensive stand, Shirley’s career victory total rose to 803. Where does that put him on the all-time local women’s college basketball list?
Shirley is alone locally above 800, any division. Call it what it is, a staggering achievement. The only men’s college coach in this area with more is Jefferson’s legendary men’s coach Herb Magee, who is up in the stratosphere, above 1,100 in the last season of a Hall of Fame career. (Magee is called The King for a reason.)
As a pair, Magee and Shirley are the winningest active duo of men’s and women’s hoops coaches in the country, any NCAA division.
The other thing about Shirley … he looks like he’s the calmest person in the place, wherever the place, whatever the score.
His top league rival, Jackie Hartzell at the University of Sciences, remembers asking Shirley before a playoff game, “Am I ever going to get less nervous? You never seem nervous.”
Dan Hoban, PA announcer at Jefferson and Roman Catholic High when he isn’t a PGA club professional, said he’ll make sure he turns off the microphone when he sees Shirley coming over during a game after something has gone a little haywire, maybe a ref’s call has gone against Jefferson.
Not because Shirley is going to be yelling, Hoban explained. The coach is just going to hit Hoban with a one-liner and he doesn’t want his own laughter going out over the PA system.
Shirley has been head coach on Henry Avenue since 1989. He’s the school’s athletic director, too. So what agitates him?
“You get the question, have the kids changed?” Shirley said in response to that question. “They really haven’t. It’s the parents.”
College hoops – and we’re talking high-level NCAA Division II hoops here – is an adjustment. There might be initial confusion. Coming off the bench? Not even first off the bench? Not starting?
“Parents have a hard time turning them over to me because we’re not going to have the conversations you had with the high school coach,” Shirley said. “We’re [just] going to exchange pleasantries.”
Don’t get him wrong. He’s pleasant.
“When she goes to IBM and she doesn’t get promoted, you [as a parent] will not meet with the sales manager,” Shirley said.
Using IBM as his corporate example shows Shirley is old-school.
“I’m a Roxborough guy, a Philly guy,” Shirley once told me. “You go to the bar, I want a Bud, I don’t want a cosmopolitan. And not a diet Bud.”
Same conversation, I’d asked Shirley where he first picked up his X’s and O’s.
“I would say probably I learned it from watching Speedy Morris,” Shirley said. “Just being a kid, in seventh grade, idolizing Speedy Morris [when he] was the coach at Roman Catholic High School.”
His plan to go to Roman – he already had his bag, he said – changed when his parents moved. Plymouth Whitemarsh became his school. Speedy, now retired, remained his guy.
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When Shirley, at his second college coaching stop, got the Philadelphia Textile job, before it turned into Philadelphia University, then Jefferson: “I was on my way to Notre Dame. I’ll come here to Division II, then I’ll shoot over to Division I. I never left.”
Old school, but still trying to listen to his players.
“They’re always relevant with things,” Shirley said.
What’s the key to finding the type of players who can keep winning you 20 Division II games a season, year after year? Shirley said college coaches probably can walk into a gym a lot of times, see warmups, leave then, knowing who has talent.
“Block out two hours of a day to look at kids you’ve never heard of, never seen,” Shirley said. “I do that now.”
What he means, in big showcase high school games or on the elite summer circuit, everyone is watching the same players. But a player at a school with 83 students in the graduating class, and not on a big travel team … Shirley gets extra interested. He might “get a superstar because of a specific major we have,” but otherwise, he’s often looking for a bit of a weakness in a game.
Not two weaknesses.
“Most of the kids I get have that one thing that is a deficiency,” Shirley said, explaining that he actually will look for that deficiency. “You may not get off [the St. Joseph’s] bench, but you can start for me.”
A center who is a step slow, but has skills and smarts.
“When you sit with the Big 5 coaches, they might say, ‘I love Mary Jones, but she can’t shoot,’” Shirley said. “I’m like, ‘Let me see Mary Jones.’ Maybe I can teach her to shoot.”
So Shirley may not look agitated, but he’s paddling as fast as he can under the surface. Those 800 wins didn’t just show up in his gym uninvited.
“People don’t realize how hard it is to win a college basketball game,” Hartzell said. “I definitely have appreciation for him winning 800 of them.”
Hartzell says some things you’d expect, how Shirley does a great job recruiting and preparing his players. He has averaged 21 wins a season over 32 seasons. His team is younger this season, coming off a season completely lost to the pandemic, but is 7-2 so far, the number up to 804.
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“I think he always plays to the strength of his personnel,” Hartzell said. “I don’t think his team is the same year to year, which can make it more difficult to play against it. I also think he does a good job of scouting his opponent. It’s not the same thing every year.”
It isn’t, but it is. If ex-players are talking, what is a quintessential Shirley-ism?
“The six Ps,” said Kelly Heineman, class of 1994, who had shown up at Jefferson last week because there was a pregame ceremony honoring that 800 milestone, a banner unfurled from the rafters. “Prior planning prevents piss-poor performance. It’s been something I’ve never forgotten.”
She first heard that?
“Day one,” Heineman said. “I think it kind of set the stage for me as a young adult trying to adapt to the college environment. It really set almost the basics of who I wanted to be as an individual, how I was going to show up.”
Maybe those words holding up for 800 wins is a feat, but the 800 “aren’t staggering to me,” Heineman said. “I’m definitely not shocked. … He believes in this. It’s in his DNA.”
A tough game at Lincoln, the result basically a coin flip – he’ll use that down the road, Shirley said, at a place where maybe guys aren’t jumping out of their seats to high-five a Lincoln freshman after a blocked shot.
“We’re losing to these guys?” Shirley said he’ll be prepared to say. “Lincoln was twice this.”