RICKARD MADE MARK ON, OFF BASKETBALL COURT
This article appeared in the April 3 Issue of the Times Herald-Record and was written by Sports Editor Kevin Gleason
MIDDLETOWN, N.Y. –The funeral home called to say it would need to print more mass cards. Flowers were arriving fast and furiously, and if you were lucky enough to have known Paul Rickard, you figure he would respond to the outpouring with something like this:
What’s all the fuss?
Rickard’s heart stopped the other day. He was diagnosed with bladder cancer in mid-December. He developed an infection in his lungs, son Tom explained, and ultimately passed away of a heart attack on Thursday morning (March 30) at New York University Hospital. Paul Rickard, who won more than 300 games as the SUNY Orange men’s basketball coach, a mentor to coaches across the Hudson Valley, a devoted husband of 50 years to Maureen, a father of seven, father figure to dozens more, grandfather of 13, was 72 years old.
Tom Rickard has taken to writing stories about his dad to help combat the insomnia since the call arrived early Thursday morning. Tom knows there will be countless other stories that his dad never shared, for Paul Rickard’s being was shaped by humility and grace. Few people knew that he was on a first-name basis with former St. John’s coaching great Lou Carnesecca, or that he roomed with former Princeton coaching great Pete Carril at basketball camps, or that he was known and respected by a bunch of other coaches who beamed nightly through our television sets.
“He never wanted any fanfare,″ Tom was saying. “He never wanted credit for anything.″
There was the time he went to the wake of a former player named Tim Coughlin, a victim of the World Trade Center attacks, whom Rickard had coached two decades earlier at St. Mary’s, a Catholic school on Long Island. He ran into Tim’s brother, Dennis, in the receiving line. Dennis, who also played for Rickard, had escaped the attacks by leading two panicky colleagues out of a tower.
“The things that you taught us in basketball, the toughness you taught us, are what got me out of that building,″ Dennis blurted to his coach of a lifetime.
I remember Rickard’s eyes watering telling the story. He knew he had some impact on kids, but I don’t think that even his brilliant mind – a math professor and hoops savant – could fathom the vast number of lives he touched. The texts, the notes, the phone calls, sent to the Rickards have a familiar ring.
“Your dad gave me a chance when nobody else did.″
“Your dad believed in me.″
“Your dad helped save my life.″
The junior college coach is a special breed. The 2 1/2-decade JUCO coach is a million-dollar Lotto ticket found in a Dumpster. Many of the players have unique academic and societal challenges. Many of them have been discarded more times than they care to remember. Many of them have no other college or athletic options or no one else to turn to.
Rickard loved those kids. He hate cutting players, and if the less-talented kid beat everyone in sprints and cleaned the floor chasing loose balls, Rickard found a spot for him not out of pity but of the belief that the kid had a greater chance to improve than the more talented slouch. He recruited almost solely Orange County kids – seeing prospective recruits twice during the season in case they had a bad game the first time – yet made an impact with many New York City kids as well.
Rickard ran a motion offense called “Red″, and a single defense, with the belief that if you execute them both, you will win. The opponent is you. He rarely raised his voice, reserving scoldings for the locker room to save the potential embarrassment of players in front of fans. He got three technical fouls in almost 40 years as a coach, one at Orange, and referees knew that if Paul showed the rarest of disappointment in a call, it was the wrong call.
“He never blamed the referee for losses,″ said Paul Rickard Jr. “He would say, ‘I don’t want to hear it. We screwed up plenty of things during that game.’″
Rickard retired from coaching after the 2005-2006 season and Tom, his dad’s assistant for five years, took over the program at Orange and remained head coach through the 2012-2013 season. Paul never stopped going to games, whether it were a college basketball game or a grandkid’s Little League game or a college lacrosse game refereed – yes, refereed – by son Paul. He took crazy road trips to see Stony Brook play while son Dan was an assistant. When Dan became associate head coach for the women’s team, Paul bought season tickets, ignoring the free allotment he could have gotten, so he could help “support the program.″
The timing of Paul’s passing is interesting, smack in the stretch run of March Madness, his funeral on the day of the national championship game and a full schedule of Major League Baseball openers, a sport he worshiped almost as much as hoops. The family had a tough time on Saturday without Paul’s presence at their annual gathering to watch the Final Four. The stories will never go away, however, even if Paul undoubtedly took some of them with him.