Feeley Started Luckie-LaRose Pipeline To Sacred Heart
Updated: Oct 3, 2020
BY DAVE SHEA
The late Don Feeley was a man of amazing people skills who enjoyed success as a college basketball coach and PGA Resident Golf Professional at the highest level.
A free spirit who always thought outside of the box, Feeley made friends like millionaires make money. It just came natural to him right up until he passed away recently at age 82.
One of his best friends was the late Tom Luckie Sr. who came to Ogdensburg from New York City to become a beloved citizen as the longtime Executive Director of the Ogdensburg Boys and Girls Club.
The two were very much alike with their New York City accents, their abilities to get things done in conventional and unconventional ways and most of all their ability to influence and motivate young people.
Feeley earned a place in basketball lore when he made a trip to Africa and brought 7-7 Manute Bol back to the United States to become a college basketball and NBA sensation and later a sensational humanitarian. Feeley's called his trip to the Sudan 38 years ago a "game changer" and the student-athletes from Africa who followed the trail blazed by Bol across the oceans have made a collective impact of landmark proportions.
In a 13-year career as men's basketball at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., Feeley went 240-111, with four trips to the NCAA Division II tournament, culminating with an Elite Eight finish in 1978.
Years later he would start a pipeline for the Luckie-LaRose families which has brought several Ogdensburg Free Academy standout athletes to the Sacred Heart campus.
It started with Bippie Luckie who became an All-American Softball player at SHU, a member of Connecticut Softball Hall of Fame and went on to a Hall of Fame career as the Pioneers' Softball Coach and SHU athletic administrator. Her brother Eugene Luckie followed as a baseball standout and another brother Michael Luckie started a Division I basketball officiating career while being involved SHU Athletic Department.
Cavan and Kinnon LaRose, the sons of Monica Luckie LaRose and Steve LaRose both flourished as SHU basketball players and a third brother Breton LaRose started his college baseball pitching career at SHU and went on to become a school record closer at Loch Haven State.
I only met Don Feeley once when he made arrangements for Tom Luckie Jr. and I to play an early season golf round on a course where he was a teaching pro.
Like most people I liked him immediately.
Asked about his approach to teaching golf he said "Sit on the throne and bow to the queen. That is all I got."
We all laughed.
Below is a story written by Jeff Jacobs of Hearst Media and CT Insider. After reading it I felt very lucky that I had a chance to meet a man who truly lived by his wit and wisdom and lived life to the fullest.
On his own terms.
FROM FAIRFIELD TO SUDAN SHU COACH DON FEELEY
FOLLOWED A LONG UNCONVENTIONAL ROAD
BY JEFF JACOBS
Don Feeley liked to plant pansies each spring and loved to make egg sandwiches for his three daughters. Grilled the onions, broke the eggs into a little frying pan, with cheese on top. Had to be on an English muffin. Had to have ketchup.
“He served them as the ‘Feeley Special,’” his daughter Dawn Fox said Wednesday. “It was our thing.”
It is 6,302 air miles from Fairfield to Khartoum, Sudan, and this was 38 years ago. A man, who would split his career coaching basketball and teaching golf, stepped over a hill in Africa and caught his first glimpse of a 7-foot-7, 190-pound stick figure. The greatest “Feeley Special” J. Donald Feeley served to the world went by the name of Manute Bol.
“I remember my dad said ‘This is going to be a game-changer,’” Fox said.
Feeley, who lived his final two decades in Woodbury, died Friday at age 82. And when I called longtime Sacred Heart coach Dave Bike, his successor at SHU in 1978, for a column on Feeley, Bike had a quick answer.
“Just one?” he said. “Don was a unique individual. He was ahead of a time in a lot of his thinking. I remembered how he pushed for getting rid of consolation games (in tournaments). They told him, ‘You can’t do that. It’s sacrilegious.’
“He wasn’t afraid to say sacrilegious things. He (was) always looking for something innovative. He was one of four men who were most instrumental in my career. And as I’m talking about him, I’m smiling.”
So you weren’t surprised he discovered the tallest player in college and NBA history in Sudan?
“I wouldn’t have been surprised by anything Don Feeley did,” Bike said.
Feeley, who received his master’s degree in physical education at Bridgeport, got his coaching start at Fairfield Warde High School. Bike was just completing his senior high school year at nearby Notre Dame as Sacred Heart started varsity sports in 1965-66. Feeley became the school’s athletic director and head basketball coach. Bike, who had signed a pro baseball contract with the Detroit Tigers, wasn’t allowed to play any other sports by the NCAA. He couldn’t play basketball at Fordham. He went to Sacred Heart as a student.
And a coach.
“I was Don’s assistant coach as a freshman in college,” Bike said. “I coached the freshmen and assisted him with the varsity. It was only Don and I. Did it for two years. It was a unique experience.”
Feeley was only 28 at the time.
Bike said Feeley was always looking to adapt to new things. He ran the shuffle offense, a predecessor of modern motion offenses. With Sacred Heart not fully funded for athletic scholarships, Feeley would recruit kids who needed financial aid.
“He’d say, ‘Warm fuzzies and cold pricklies,’” Bike said. “You know how some people say you get more with honey than vinegar? He was an easy-going guy. He knew how to stroke the guys.
“He knew the game. He was a tactician. He also let the guys play. He was encouraging. He wasn’t throwing chairs or getting in kids’ faces.”
He was a warm fuzzy.
Dawn remembers going to the games with her sisters Donna and Debbie, sometimes on the team bus. One time at a tournament in New Britain, her younger sister had an appendicitis attack. Star players like Ray Vyzas and Tony Trimboli? They were household names to them. She read all about her dad’s exploits in the old Bridgeport Post.
“When I was young, anytime I’d walk into a restaurant with my dad, he knew everybody,” Dawn said. “He was always happy to see people. He was a really loving father. What I liked about him, he was 100 percent present when you talked to him. He even tried to teach me golf, but I was terrible.”
Over 13 years at Sacred Heart, Feeley would build a 240-111 record, with four trips to the NCAA Division II tournament, culminating with an Elite Eight finish in 1978. Feeley became assistant coach at Yale for two years. Bike, who had been an assistant at Seattle, replaced Feeley as Sacred Heart head coach and would take the Pioneers to a DII national title in 1986 and lead them into DI in 1999.
“We didn’t have big recruiting budgets in the early days and you took recommendations from people you trusted,” Bike said. “There was one player Don said I ought to recruit. I had never seen him play. He turned out to be one of my All-Americans: Rhonie Wright. Don said it. It was good enough for me.”
Feeley became head coach at Fairleigh Dickinson in 1980. He went 45-37 at FDU, including 12-3 to finish first in the conference in 1982. Despite the school’s best record in 24 years, he was fired in 1983. The school announced “incompatible philosophies.” The New York Times reported his aggressive recruiting led to a number of players failing in school.
While in Africa for a month-long clinic in 1982, Feeley spotted Bol working with the Sudanese national team. The Dinka tribesman had taken a multiple-day train journey of more than 600 miles from Gogrial, South Sudan. He was a cattle herder, but he also could dunk from his tiptoes. He could stretch his arms and touch both sides of the backboard. He was missing several teeth, some from a tribal ritual to manhood, others from hitting the rim the first time he dunked.
Manute’s mom was 6-10, his dad 6-8 and his great-grandfather was said to be 7-10. His son Bol Bol, who now plays for the Denver Nuggets, is 7-2.
Feeley brought Bol and another player, Nhial Deng, to the U.S. and hoped to get an assistant coaching job at Cleveland State under Kevin Mackey. Mackey listed him at 21 years old to the NCAA. He may have been years older. Bol was listed as 19 and 5-2 (Bol said he was measured sitting) on his passport.
The Clippers drafted him in 1983, but he decided not to play pro. He needed to learn English. Five years later, the NCAA — in one of its infamous decisions of punishing the small and not the powerful — placed Cleveland State on two years’ probation for improper financial assistance to Bol and two other African players.
By then, Bol’s legend at the University of Bridgeport was cemented.
“Don was very good friends with (Bridgeport coach) Bruce Webster, but he did let us know Manute was in the country,” Bike said. “We kind of backed off. We weren’t equipped to facilitate him. We didn’t have dorms at the time.”
Bridgeport also was one of 21 schools in the nation with an English language program for foreign students, and DII, without an age requirement, would allow him to play four years. Overnight, Bol became a national sensation. He sold out Hubbell Gym. He averaged 22.5 points and 7.1 blocks a game in 1984-85 and led the Purple Eagles to the NCAA Tournament.
“The first time we played them, they beat us, and I went to my assistant Bobby Jenkins, ‘Damn, maybe we should have gone after him,’” Bike said.
The teams split four meetings, Bridgeport winning in the conference tournament and Sacred Heart winning in the NCAAs. That season became part of the three-decade DII lore between the two schools before SHU stepped up to DI.
Bol went on to a long career in the NBA and a life of service to Sudanese refugees before dying in 2010.
Feeley would turn to golf.
An outstanding golfer himself when his putter wasn’t defying him, Feeley became a PGA resident pro at numerous courses, including Mount Airy in Mount Pocono, Pennsylvania; Don Shula’s Golf Club in Miami; and Yale Golf Club. He was honored by the PGA as a member of the Quarter Century Club.
“He was always a golfer; actually, I think it was his first love,” Dawn said. “Growing up, he was a caddie in New Jersey, always around the course. Once basketball became something in the past, it almost (was) like getting credentials for something he always was.”
True to form, he’d go to clinics all over the country, take what he learned and incorporate it into his own teaching. Always looking for ways to try to help people be better. Over several years, he and his longtime partner, Sharon Rado, golfed every day until late November. They’d go to South Carolina in February and golf the entire month until hydrocephalus began to take its toll in recent years.
“I used to tease him I couldn’t understand how he was a teaching golf pro,” Bike said. “He was controversial and innovative in his thinking. I’m thinking he was teaching some anti-Bobby Jones stuff or something.
“He was the out-of-the-box thinker that people talk about nowadays.”
And one day that led him to a hill in Sudan.