Harry Perretta’s 42nd and last season-opener as Villanova women’s coach still means straight talk | Mike Jensen
"Every game still means the world to him,'' said Perretta's friend Geno Auriemma, the UConn coach. "Every game, every play, every practice, every thing. He carries that weight around, every minute of every day. It takes its toll.”
Is it possible that somebody injected truth serum directly into the womb of Harry Perretta’s mother while she was pregnant with the future Villanova women’s basketball coach?
When you talk to Perretta, expect straight talk. Doesn’t matter that Wednesday night Perretta coached his 42nd and final season-opener as Villanova’s coach, which became official last week when Perretta announced that he will retire after the season. It’s time, Perretta made clear.
“I had trouble walking — I have arthritis in both knees,’’ Perretta said of when it really hit him late this summer. “I have some other medical issues going on. I felt like, hey, I just couldn’t maintain this pace anymore.”
The opener itself was not pretty, no storybook start to this season. George Washington had its way with the Wildcats, outcome rarely in doubt, 68-56 final. If you looked at Perretta courtside, he mostly looked aggrieved. (Winning or losing, Harry courtside mostly looks aggrieved.)
“Unfortunately, the game went a little bit like I thought it was going to go,’’ Perretta said immediately afterward. “It’s just that this group isn’t ready to play at this level yet. I think they need time.”
He knew what he was in for — Perretta said he had told Villanova athletic director Mark Jackson as much as they discussed the future.
“Better it’s me than whoever the new coach is going to be — drive them over the wall,’’ Perretta said he told Jackson.
This is a team, full of new or slightly different roles, with returning All-Big 5 first-teamer Kelly Jekot out for the season with a torn ACL. (Maybe a 10-point difference, Perretta said, when asked about losing Jekot.) It’s also maybe a typical-enough version of a rebuilding Perretta team, meaning it should be more effective in February than right now. As a teacher and tactician, Perretta long ago proved he was top-rank.
You don’t have to look at Perretta for more than one timeout to know that his last season will proceed like the rest. He noted how a year ago it was George Washington with injured players, struggling to score, and Villanova had its way down there. The college game can be like that.
For him — not for the school or the program — what are the pros and cons of having the retirement news out there going into the season?
“I think the pros are, the kids know what’s going on. You don’t dump it on them,’’ Perretta said. “They know — they have time to absorb it. … This team was going to struggle. I was kind of happy that I would be the one to take the lumps with them.”
Sounds like spin? Again, Harry’s not real into spin.
“I think it’s better that the person who’s been here 42 years takes that,’’ Perretta said. “I think it helps the program, helps whoever it is that’s coming in. The recruits know what’s going on. The three recruited still committed to Villanova; they’re still coming in.
"I had told the three recruits when I went to their home that I would not be here for their four years. Like, I didn’t know at one point I wouldn’t be here. But they knew I wouldn’t be here for all their four years. I felt like I was as honest as I could be.”
What about for his mindset, though?
“It helps me a little bit,’’ Perretta said. “At least I know what’s happening. I know that now my job is to make this group as best as they can be toward the end of the year, to get them ready for the future. I know that. I”ll put all my energy into that. … I want to stay as patient as I can with this group.”
This opener feel different? Perretta wasn’t sure about that.
“I know that each game is going to be one less game, one closer to the end of the season,’’ Perretta said.
Stop and think about 42 years. There has never been anything like it in Big 5 basketball, men or women. Aaron McKie and Billy Lange, new this year on the men’s side at Temple and St. Joseph’s, would have to still be going in 2061.
Up in Storrs, Conn., over the weekend, the coach of the UConn Huskies was asked about his longtime friend. Did Geno Auriemma try to talk Harry into retirement, or out of it, or did he stay out of it?
“I tried to talk him into retirement years ago,’’ Auriemma said after Sunday’s exhibition game against Jefferson University. “Every year for 10 years, he would say to me, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ I go, ‘Good. I don’t feel like coaching against you anymore. I don’t feel like coming down here and going through this excruciating pain of playing Villanova.' ”
The conversation, Auriemma said, usually continued along the lines of ...
“Find something else to do,’’ Auriemma would say.
“I don’t know what else to do,’’ Perretta would say.
“Then stop complaining.”
When Auriemma got out of practice last week, there was a voicemail from Perretta.
“Forty-two years is a long time to be doing something,’’ Auriemma said, noting, “he’s younger than me.”
Perretta is 64. He started as a kid head coach, right out of Lycoming, working construction on the side, figuring this could help him get his dream job as boys’ coach at his alma mater, Monsignor Bonner.
“It’s ironic that we’re going [back] into the Big East next year and he’s leaving,’’ Auriemma said. “He’s a legendary figure in the coaching world — and in his mind. … Both those things are true. Both those things are true.”
In truth, Auriemma quickly added, he knew Perretta had been struggling with some health problems bothering him.
“He puts a lot of pressure on himself,’’ Auriemma said. “He takes it very seriously, takes everything to heart. Every game still means the world to him. Every game, every play, every practice, every thing. He carries that weight around, every minute of every day. It takes its toll.”
You don’t always see that since Perretta also happens to be one of the funnier people on the planet. The honesty, you always get. Ask Perretta a question, sometimes you get one word in. Defensively …
“You see our inexperience; we’re out of position all the time,’’ Perretta cut in. “We physically are able to guard, but we’re just out of position.”
Just the start of a question gets you toward the truth. Some things, 42 years won’t change.