By Joseph Staszewski
Most coaches say they don’t care about reaching personal milestones and want to keep the focus on their teams. Legendary St. Francis Prep Coach Tim Leary actually proved those mottos were true for him.
The school celebrated his 600th victory at a pregame ceremony before the Terriers’ 74-61 win against rival Holy Cross in CHSAA Class AA boys’ basketball last Friday night.
More than 50 former players along with his family, friends and colleagues joined a standing-room-only crowd. Leary was presented with a commemorative ball and framed jersey with the number “600” on the back and the number 15 from his playing days when the school was in Brooklyn on the front.
But the festivities may have come a year or so late.
Leary never publicly corrected the school, but he hinted afterward he might have hit the 600-win benchmark prior to this year after his bio in the league media guide was not updated along the way.
He was correct.
This year’s media guide has Leary in his 39th season and entering the year with 589 wins, according to school Athletic Director Sal Fischetti. Leary and New York City basketball guru Tom Konchalski confirmed he took over the varsity in the 1973–74 season, making this Leary’s 41st season.
The correct number of Leary’s wins, however, remains a mystery after an exhaustive investigation, but the evidence suggests that the 603-victory figure the school has him at now is incorrect. Leary himself said those trying to find the answer would never be able to tally the exact number.
He won his 500th game in 2002-03 and was listed as having 566 victories when he entered the New York State Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009. It was a bio Leary verified at the time, according to Basketball Coaches Association of New York Executive Director Dave Archer. Leary’s listed number of seasons in the same bio (39) was, however, wrong.
My research found Leary had tallied approximately 100 wins during a review of his time on the bench from 2003-13, with a whole season unaccounted for in 2007-08.
The Terriers tallied 38 victories since Leary’s Hall of Fame induction, according to nybasketballarchives.com. That brings Leary’s win total to approximately 604 entering this year. That number matches up with the New York State Sportswriters Association website’s total, which also came into question. St. Francis Prep has won 14 games this season.
Leary just shrugged it all off.
“I don’t keep track of that stuff,” he said.
Leary leads the league’s active coaches in wins and is the longest tenured boys’ coach in the CHSAA, following the death of Molloy’s Jack Curran last year after 55 seasons. Christ the King Coach Joe Arbitello called Leary “the best coach in the league.” The Breezy Point resident is the fourth winningest boys’ coach in New York City history.
It is because of all of this that his correct number of wins should matter to the school and the CHSAA. Leary is part of the basketball history in New York, a sport played at the highest level in the state. He is one of the school’s most revered figures next to St. Francis Prep football Coach Vince O’Connor, who has been at it for 60 years. Who knows? O’Connor may have a few extra wins lying around, too.
People don’t coach for this long anymore and each victory moves Leary further up the all-time list. That should mean enough to get something as simple as victories and years coaching correct.
No matter how many wins he has, Leary’s concern has always been demanding a first-rate effort from his players in order to bring out their best and make them better people.
“We will be [competitive] in games because we play hard,” said Frank Fontanetta, Leary’s former player and assistant coach for the last 22 years. “That’s because he will not let them not play hard.”
Leary believes in immediate reinforcement. It starts with a stern yell that gets a player’s attention and ends with compassion.
“He’ll scream at you and then later talk to you calmly,” Terriers senior guard Michael Fields said. “It’s not that he is yelling at you, it’s he expects you to play a certain way.”
The school should honor Leary’s expectations of giving one’s best effort by not leaving his wins a mystery. Get out the books, break out media guides and honor your legendary coach by righting history.