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Tales from the Bench: Providence 1987 with Ryan Ford

Posted on September 13 2020

Ryan Ford was in the thick of “Friar Fever.”

A walk-on guard during Providence’s memorable 1987 run into the Final Four – a season that injected the names Rick Pitino and Billy Donovan into the nation’s basketball consciousness – Ford was part of a team that defied basketball’s then-prevailing pound-it-inside tendencies and weaponized the three-point shot.

In this installment of “Tales from the Bench,” Ford connects with The Chucker, High-Volume Shooters’ resident historian, to reflect on the Friars’ magical season.

As a high school senior in western New York, Ford verbally committed to Stonehill College, a Division II program in Massachusetts. After two knee injuries and a detour to prep school, however, he shifted plans and enrolled at Providence College, inspired in large part by his neighbor, then-St. Bonaventure head coach (and future Boston College and Ohio State coach) Jim O’Brien. “I decided to go to a school where I could be a manager and pursue coaching.”

As a freshman during the 1985-86 campaign, Ford rehabbed a torn knee ligament while serving as the Friars’ team manager. His first season on the Providence campus also coincided with Pitino’s arrival – and Ford was immediately taken by the young coach’s style. “His intensity, confidence, and directness as well as the high amplitude of energy that he had was mesmerizing, quite honestly. I found being around him was inspirational. You felt you were part of something significant.”

Pitino’s energy and acumen pushed the 1985-86 Friars to a six-win improvement and NIT appearance. “In Coach Pitino’s first year, there was this overriding sense that we won every game we should have and every loss was a dogfight.”

As a sophomore in the 1986-87 season, Ford earned a walk-on roster spot after tryouts. With the three-point line’s debut in college basketball, Pitino encouraged his Friars squad to play an up-tempo style and to let in fly from behind the arc. “He had been in the NBA for two years, so he knew how to use spacing and math to our advantage on the offensive end. His goal was to lead the Big East in three-point makes and attempts and that accelerated everyone’s feelings about what we could do.”

Notably, Pitino’s Providence staff was loaded with coaching talent, including future head coaches Herb Sendek (North Carolina State and Arizona State) and Stu Jackson (Wisconsin and the NBA’s New York Knicks and Vancouver Grizzlies). The staff also featured a young grad assistant named Jeff Van Gundy whom Ford got to know well. “I was a 5-11 walk-on guard and Jeff was a 5-7 grad assistant. Because we were short, Jeff and I had to practice every day against one another.”

Unranked in the pre-season AP poll, Providence ended their non-conference slate 9-1 and entered the Big East gauntlet with high hopes. “Part of the magic of Pitino is that he put you in a vacuum. You were only focused on internal expectations. Add that myopic focus and his unrelenting energy and encouragement to his brilliant understanding of the pace of the game and that’s why he’s a Hall of Fame coach.”

While the Friars dropped their first two Big East contests to #17 Pittsburgh and #7 Syracuse, they then won seven in a row, culminating in victories over #11 Georgetown and #15 St. John’s. Those wins pushed Providence to 16-3, a spot atop the Big East standings, and a #17 national ranking. “Until that Georgetown game, we had won all the games we were supposed to win, but we didn’t have any real signature wins. When we beat Georgetown on a last-second three by Pop Lewis, that was the moment we felt we had arrived. Then, we beat St. John’s (93-81) a few days later and got into the Top 25. That’s when the whole country took notice and our style of play became a huge story.”

Embracing the three-point shot more than any other team in the Big East, the Friars fast-paced, chuck-it-from-the-outside style led them to average nearly 87 points per game, the nation’s ninth highest mark. Providence shot 42 percent on nearly 20 three-point tries per game, nearly doubling their opponents’ attempts from behind the arc. Donovan, meanwhile, was among the nation’s leaders in three-point field goals made (97) and attempts (237) while averaging 20.6 points per game. “We got teams out of their comfort zone.”

The Friars closed the regular season 4-4 and 4th in the Big East with a 10-6 league mark. In the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden, Providence clobbered St. John’s 80-51 before falling to Georgetown 84-66 in the tournament semifinals. On the final day of the Big East Tournament, Pitino’s six-month old son, Daniel, died of a heart ailment. “On the bus driving back to Providence after the Georgetown loss, we get pulled over by state troopers in Connecticut. Coach and his wife are pulled off the bus and we saw them learn of the passing of their son. It was an emotional and unprecedented time.”

Ford says the team saw Pitino at his son’s funeral services, but the coach did not return to the court again until the day before his sixth-seeded Friars prepared to face Alabama-Birmingham (UAB) in Birmingham. Friars senior forward Dave Kipfer recalled it this way to reporters: “Coach called a meeting and told us that the best thing we could do for him and his family was to win as many games as we could to keep his mind off it. Nothing’s been said since, but deep down I think everybody’s trying to win for Coach.”

After downing UAB 90-68 in the opener, Providence faced upset-minded Austin Peay, soaring after a one-point upset over Illinois in the first round. Down 10 with about five minutes to go, Ford recalls a legendary timeout with Pitino. “He literally took both of his hands, grabbed his chest, and told us we had to pour our hearts onto the court. It was an all-time moment with us.” Providence crawled back into the game and Donovan’s last-second jumper forced overtime. The Friars eventually escaped with a 90-87 victory. “We had no business winning that game.”

In the Sweet Sixteen, Providence faced second-seeded Alabama, a squad that included four future NBA players. The Friars drained 14 of 20 three pointers and rolled to a 103-82 win. “They had never seen anything like us.”

With a spot in the Final Four on the line, Providence faced a familiar foe in Georgetown, then the #4 team in the country. “Van Gundy once called Pitino’s game plan against Georgetown the single greatest one-game coaching strategy he’s ever seen.” Pitino named Donovan and second-leading scorer Delray Brooks decoys. He revamped the offense and adjusted the spacing so that others on the court would have wide-open looks as the Hoya defense keyed in on Donovan and Brooks. The plan worked marvelously as reserves Steve Wright (12 points) and Darryl Wright (20 points) propelled the Friars to a 54-37 halftime advantage and 88-73 win. “Billy and Delray only took seven shots between them for the entire game and we still won by 15. That game was a combination of Pitino’s brilliance and the belief system our team had in him and each other.”

In the Final Four for only the second time in school history, Providence encountered another Big East rival in Syracuse. “It’s a shame we had to play a team so familiar with us.”

(For perspective on Syracuse’s 1986-87 season, read this “Tales from the Bench”  installment or listen to the 19nine podcast featuring Syracuse walk-on Joe Kohm.)

Providence struggled to find any rhythm against the Orange. The Friars trailed by 10 at the half and lost 77-63. “Syracuse’s zone makes you shoot threes. You need to make those shots and we missed them, which didn’t allow us to get into our press and control the pace of the game. And, let’s face it, they were also a really talented team.”

Following the Final Four loss, Ford remembers a “deflated” locker room. “It was like lightning in a bottle had been let out. None of us wanted it to end.”

For Ford, who played two more seasons with the Friars before spending six seasons in coaching, Providence’s 1987 run to the Final Four is a reminder of how quickly life can shift – for the good. “I started out that season as a manager and ended it as a walk-on on a Final Four team. At that point, I couldn’t contextualize how much things had swung in just a few months.”

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