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Making people better - including players at Carroll - is his business

After dinner was done, after the daily rosaries were recited, they'd all sit in a semicircle on the parlor floor surrounding their father, Owen Francis Nerney, a man with thick callused Irish hands and a thick Irish brogue. He'd read the evening newspaper to his five children, pushing his glasses up from the tip of his nose.

After dinner was done, after the daily rosaries were recited, they'd all sit in a semicircle on the parlor floor surrounding their father, Owen Francis Nerney, a man with thick callused Irish hands and a thick Irish brogue. He'd read the evening newspaper to his five children, pushing his glasses up from the tip of his nose.

There would be a tangible tremble in his lower lip, and his eyes would well up each time he came across a tragic story. Tom, the youngest, would sometimes sit on his sister Cathy's lap, and look quizzically at his dad. Frank, the oldest, would ask his father whether he knew those people. Dad would shake his head "No."

Although they all belonged to Owen Nerney. His empathy went beyond the front door of his house. Their pain was his pain. So were their stories, their faces, their suffering. It's where the genesis of the family's visceral urge to aid others began.

The lessons that Owen and Catherine Nerney imparted to their children was that whether it was across the street of their Drexel Hill home, across Delaware County or Philadelphia, or across the world, everyone is connected in some way.

So when Tom Nerney, 60, the multimillionaire CEO of United States Liability Insurance Group, a Warren Buffett-owned company in Wayne, is asked why he wanted to be the head coach of the Archbishop Carroll girls' basketball team, the answer is rather easy.

"I think my upbringing, my setting that I grew up in, is probably why we just had a deep-rooted value system of doing things for others," said Nerney, a 1973 Monsignor Bonner graduate and 1977 graduate of Cabrini College, where he helped start the men's basketball program and the school's arena bears his name.

He had aspirations of becoming a college coach, but he couldn't see himself making a living coaching Division III basketball in the mid-1970s. So in 1978, he entered the insurance business and had success. He took one company public in 1993 and wanted to retire in 1996. That lasted all of about 48 hours, because he then took over USLI, which at the time had about 50 employees.

Nerney built it into a multimillion-dollar conglomerate that now employs nearly 1,000 and has offices throughout the country.

In the midst of his business achievements, Nerney maintained his basketball fix through coaching the AAU Belles from 1995-2008. After that, he was an assistant coach under Sherri Retif at Germantown Academy until 2013. And when Chuck Creighton stepped down at Carroll in April, after winning two PIAA Class AAA championships in nine seasons, Nerney jumped at the chance to be a high school head coach for the first time.

"I'm so glad that I took this path," Nerney said. "When I first got into business, without a business background, I was enamored by it in my first 10, 12 years. I was almost blissfully ignorant, which was a huge blessing. It helped me get through things. You're in this new world that's foreign to you, and it's not like you're really you. You're someone else.

"It's why I love doing what I'm doing now, because it's a total connection to who I really am as a person. The biggest influences in my life were my mom and dad; the value system came from them."

Owen and Catherine Nerney, now deceased, hoped their youngest would be a priest. Tom himself had ambitions of becoming a poverty attorney, but he couldn't get into law school. He was rejected, he says, by every school to which he applied.

Maybe it's why his Radnor home shows no signs of opulence inside. He answers his own door; there's no butler or maid to do it. And the only sign of a steward is a statue of a smiling butler standing off on the side in the foyer.

He's uncomfortable talking about himself and his many altruistic deeds. Things that probably not even Owen and Catherine would have known. Certainly things his sisters and brothers aren't fully aware of.

Tom just does them.

"I have the mindset to work hard; I'm not entitled to anything," Nerney said from his unobtrusive office den, with black-and-white pictures of him shaking hands with Buffett, a close friend, and President George H.W. Bush. "I know the greatest thing you can give to people is time. The people that influenced me the most are the people that gave me their time. That had an incredible impact on me.

"I don't enjoy cocktail parties, so I don't go. I enjoy going to the gym and coaching. When I'm with Warren Buffett and other CEOs, do I feel like I belong? No, I don't. I didn't go to Harvard or any of those other places. I couldn't get into any of those other schools. They all said no. I know what rejection feels like, but I also know it's going to be OK. My satisfaction with the girls on the Carroll team is how well I prepare. I want to make sure I give these girls 100 percent.

"I can't expect them to think the same way that I think. It makes you change how you go about doing things. Coaching is leveraging through others; running a business is leveraging through others. You can do that and you need to work at it, because it's hard, but that's the fun part that I enjoy."

A founding member of A Front Row Seat to Learning, which provides financial assistance to disadvantaged youth who cannot afford to pay for a private-school tuition, Nerney has forked over hundreds of thousands of dollars for children in the city to get an education.

He began La Salle Academy, located at 2nd and Jefferson in North Philly, that houses 90 children from third to eighth grade. The school takes in all applicants and has been in existence for 13 years.

But his giving goes way beyond that. He has four children, though, according to those around him, he's taken in many, many more from Russia, China and various other countries.

Sarah Lowe, the second all-time leading scorer at Lower Merion behind Kobe Bryant, said Nerney was instrumental in her development as a player. She was a 13-year-old point guard for his Belles AAU team. Eighteen years later, Lowe is still his floor leader, running the San Francisco office.

Lowe went on to play for Florida and is in the school's Hall of Fame. She returned to the Philadelphia area in July 2012 after two years of grad school at Oxford, and has been working for Nerney since October 2012.

"What makes Tom unique is his unwavering belief in people," said Lowe, whose AAU team received a goodbye present from Nerney - an all-expenses paid trip for the players and their families across Europe. "He truly wants to see people succeed; he wants to see people dive for the loose ball. He wants to give opportunities to people who aren't preordained. It's about giving opportunity to people that work for it.

"Tom has been an enormous influence on me. His attitude is always how he will grow tomorrow. There is a spirit of continuous learning that Tom embraces that goes beyond selflessness. Tom is as much motivated today as he was when he made his first million. He continually pushes himself, and, by doing that, he pushes everyone that's following him.

"I have no idea how good Carroll will be, but I can't emphasize this enough. He takes a great amount of satisfaction by taking a player from Point A to Point B. He wants to push you to a place where you don't think you can go. You can't play for Tom Nerney and not be impacted by him. He's the best coach I ever had. He's built a company that mirrors what it means to be on a sports team."

Sister Cathy Nerney, Tom's older sister, a nun and a Ph.D. who is a professor at Chestnut Hill College and also serves as director of The Institute for Forgiveness and Reconciliation, says her younger, successful sibling doesn't like charity from a distance. He built the science lab at La Salle Academy, and when he found out what some of the kids were returning home to, it was Tom who had plumbing done, or carpeting, or supplied furniture.

"I don't even know half the things he's done, because he doesn't talk about it, he just does it," Cathy said. "That's the way we were raised. My mother would hear someone in the neighborhood was sick and she'd cook them dinner. One time someone called the local church about a Mrs. Walton, who lived a half-mile away and was bedridden with rheumatoid arthritis. They called my mother, and each day for five years, I went to Mrs. Walton's home to empty her bedpan.

"My parents always did for others without preaching it. We came from a culture of tremendous love. Work was an honor to my father. He worked hard and never regretted one day of it. He went to work happy, and he came home happy. He loved his station in life.

"I think the seeds that my father planted, he himself wasn't able to really harvest. My brother took those seeds, and he's really helped the people my father cared so much about, but he didn't have the means to remedy. My brother doesn't realize that's what he's doing. Tom hasn't forgotten it. All of my brothers have turned into my father. My father would be proud of that."

His voice is still heard.