By Laura Amato
Tim Leary didn’t always want to be a teacher. He never really planned on being a coach either. More than 40 years after he became both, Leary can’t quite imagine anything else.
The longtime St. Francis Prep boys’ basketball coach, retiring after 43 years on the sidelines, was honored at the Terriers’ final home game of the season Sunday afternoon as former players and students packed the gym to celebrate his unexpected and incredibly successful career.
“I was going to be a cop like everybody else in my family. I had taken the test and I was waiting to get on the job out of school,” Leary said. “I just got married out of college and I needed a job, so while I was waiting I took to teaching. And I was like ‘this is great.’ I’ll be on the beach during the summer and I never really looked back after that.”
Leary – a 1963 Prep grad – was a star on the hardwood before he started pacing the sidelines. He played both basketball and baseball for the Terriers and went on to compete at Manhattan College, leading the Jaspers to two NIT appearances.
But while Leary found success in his own game, his ability to help an entire generation of Prep stars excel on the court has defined his career even more.
“He put as much hard work as he expected out of his players,” said three-year starter Kevin Fitzgerald, who went on to play at Boston University. “He really cared about his players, whether he was hard on us or not. He was always behind us and always came us a lot of confidence to play well.”
Leary is the winningest coach at St. Francis Prep and leads the CHSAA’s active coaches in wins, racking up over 600 victories over the course of his career.
He was inducted into the NYS basketball coaches hall of fame, the Prep hall of fame and CHSAA hall of fame, but the accolades never meant much for Leary. He was – and still is – always focused on his players.
“That’s what it’s about, to be honest with you,” Leary said. “I was excited about how many kids and how many players came back [today]. I’ll get a chance to see them all and that was really good.”
Leary had been considering retirement for several seasons – already retired from the classroom – but said he wanted to wait for the right time to walk away from the game.
“I would have given it up sooner for a variety of reasons, but one was my wife was very sick for four years and I was home. So it was something to do and she was pushing me to be here,” he said.
Leary’s influence on Prep is unquestionable – Sunday’s crowd was a testament to that – and it was never just about basketball. It was about life and lessons and being a good person. It was about learning how to exist within a community and make sure you were, always, an asset.
“I played for the man, I’ve worked on his staff now for close to 15 years,” Lynch said. “You see what he does on the court, gives us a great product on the court, but if you know that man off the court, like I do, he’s just a tremendous guy.”
Leary was quick to point out the Terriers’ miscues after falling to Holy Cross Sunday, but while the season hasn’t exactly been picture-perfect, he can’t bring himself to regret a single moment.
He never quite planned on this path, but now that he’s walked it, Leary is nothing but thankful for the journey.