Forget, for the moment, that the Rancocas Valley boys' basketball team won the NJSIAA Group 4 state title this year and equaled a school record for wins in a season.
Even without those lofty accomplishments, Jay Flanagan would be regarded as an outstanding coach because of the way he cares for his players and commands their respect, say those close to the program.
"He has a great rapport with the kids, and he's always looking out for them and making sure they're doing the right thing," Rancocas Valley athletic director Tony Lotierzo said. "He has the team over to his house for pasta dinners, and all the players came together and became good friends. "
Fostering that tight-knit unity created an all-for-one mentality that helped the Red Devils rely on each other in crucial on-the-court situations.
And more times than not, Rancocas made the key plays down the stretch. The result? A 27-5 record and the third state title in its history.
For directing Rancocas to the eventful season, Flanagan has been named The Inquirer's South Jersey coach of the year.
In the closing seconds of Rancocas' 55-43 win over Piscataway in the state final at the Rutgers Athletic Center, the normally subdued Flanagan abandoned his familiar crouch position, stood and raised two clenched fists before blowing kisses to the crowd, including his wife Dawn, and 12-year-old daughter, Kelly.
"After 22 years in coaching, I was never happier at any athletic event in my life," Flanagan said. "It was an incredible ride, and I was just so happy for the kids because it couldn't have happened to a better group. The chemistry was unbelievable. "
Before becoming Rancocas' coach in 2006-07, Flanagan was a successful coach at Burlington Township, compiling a 158-96 record in 10 seasons. Flanagan also had coaching stints at Riverside and Moorestown Friends, and he has an overall career record of 233-198 in 17 seasons.
Flanagan, 43, served as an assistant at Riverside and Burlington Township prior to becoming a head coach. He credits the two head coaches at the time - Riverside's Harry Johnstone and Burlington Township's Ken Faulkner - for being his role models.
"Harry Johnstone taught me to do things the right way. He said, 'You're not going to be able to please everybody, but as long as you can look yourself in the mirror, you'll be successful,' " said Flanagan, a former guard at Delran. "And Kenny Faulkner taught me how to operate a program and how to treat it like a family - and to keep things in the family. It was so much more than Xs and Os. "
Both of his mentors sent him congratulation cards after the season. Faulkner attended the state final.
"It made it extra special that he was there," said Flanagan, whose team reached the Tournament of Champions semifinals.
In a Tournament of Champions quarterfinal, Flanagan benched his star player and team leader, Andre Byrdsong, for the first quarter because he had committed a minor school infraction.
Byrdsong led the first-quarter cheers from the bench, then scored 11 second-quarter points to ignite a 72-55 win over Lincoln.
Lotierzo likes the discipline Flanagan has brought to the program.
"It doesn't matter who you are, if you don't do what you're supposed to do, you sit," Lotierzo said. "And they respect him for that. He doesn't play favoritism. "
Rancocas is 51-8 in Flanagan's two seasons. Before his arrival, the Red Devils had one winning season in their previous six seasons.