McCaffery: New Cardinal O’Hara basketball coach Fran O’Hanlon was not the retiring type

Fran O’Hanlon thought he was ready last summer to enjoy life without basketball, to settle in Avalon, to breathe the salt air, to enjoy the quiet of the Jersey shore after 27 years as the head coach at Lafayette College.

That lasted about a week.

Maybe less.

“I learned that you could pass away down there in October,” he said, “and nobody would find you there until the spring.”

The shore solitude in the winter is not for everybody, and it certainly wasn’t for O’Hanlon. Though he, wife Nancy and their family had enjoyed their summers near the beach for generations, the forever man-about-Philadelphia-basketball had heard one too many seagulls and one too few coaching whistles. So he rented out his Avalon home and took residence in Newtown Square, leaving a vapor trail up the Black Horse Pike. Since O’Hanlon will need about a 10-minute commute to his new job, when he will resume coaching basketball this fall at Cardinal O’Hara High School, that was quite the convenient decision.

The emptiness of retirement already too much, O’Hanlon recently had agreed to assist Mike Richards, who had been hired to replace Ryan Nementz as the Lions’ coach. But Richards resigned before ever coaching a game, and there was O’Hara looking for a replacement. Turns out there wasn’t another applicant who had played major-league pro basketball in the ABA, won a Philadelphia Catholic League championship as a head coach, had a Big 5 Hall of Fame career at Villanova, assisted at Penn for years under Fran Dunphy and had taken three Lafayette teams to the NCAA Tournament. And that’s how O’Hanlon – who played at St. Thomas More in the 1960s and in 1988 coached Bonner to the PCL championship – wound up continuing a tour through the Catholic League that will have touched seven decades … and counting.

“One of my former players said, ‘Wait, you coached Bonner and now you’re going to coach O’Hara?’” O’Hanlon said. “How did you pull that off?”

It wasn’t so much tricky as it was notable, as there has not been a more intense Catholic League rivalry than Bonner-O’Hara, two schools within five miles of each other separated by parish lines and years of classic Friday night battles. But while there will always be that history, O’Hanlon knows that the league has changed, even since he was coaching Bonner, which is now a merged Bonner-Prendergast High.

Anymore, the idea is not just to boost Delaware County bragging rights, but to boost enrollment by recruiting players to compete for state championships and attention far beyond Springfield Road.

“It’s not the same league I played in or coached in,” O’Hanlon said. “Kids come from all over the place now. So it’s a whole lot different.”

O’Hanlon is confident he can recruit at O’Hara, as he did at Lafayette and Penn. He knows he will be able to tout the best basketball facility in the league, that Delaware County is still loaded with basketball talent, and that the league itself can be a draw. While such nationally recognized programs as Roman and Neumann-Goretti have decades of traction, O’Hara already has begun its new rise in the league. Recently graduated Izaiah Pasha, who had gravitated to O’Hara from the Harrisburg area, had been an All-Delco Player of the Year, and O’Hanlon can count on smooth shooting Aasim Burton to make an All-Delco push this season.

“I’m getting such a late start, but we will have to recruit,” O’Hanlon said. “I have some assistants who can help me with that.”

O’Hanlon is energized, and, having had only one year away from the game, still locked in. That would have been him last season regularly attending practices either at Lafayette, or at La Salle with his old boss Dunphy, or at Saint Joseph’s, or at Penncrest High or anywhere he could be comforted by the tones of a bouncing ball.

“There were times when I wanted to stop practice and change something,” he said, laughing. “Then I realized I couldn’t. I wasn’t the coach.”

Some habits are tougher to shed than others.

O’Hanlon had some opportunities to remain in the college game, but he was claustrophobic down the shore, let alone at some of the far-away places that had reached out. So he waited, and when the opportunity popped to assist at O’Hara, he talked to, among others, former Villanova great Tom Ingelsby and retired NBA referee Joe Crawford – two O’Hara grads with legendary basketball backgrounds. That’s when he was comfortable that the door would be open, even to a former Bonner coach.

“I’m still mad, though, at Joey,” O’Hanlon said, laughing again. “He called too many technicals on me when I played in the Eastern League. Of course, he always tells me he should have called more.”

A passionate player, a passionate coach, Fran O’Hanlon, 74, is headed back to a basketball bench with no more promises to hold back a basketball opinion than when he was 24. And no fewer plans to retire.

Contact Jack McCaffery at

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