At Philadelphia U., Shirley is OK working in Magee's shadow

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany at the Penn sports law symposium. The Big Ten Network is a model for money-making.
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany at the Penn sports law symposium. The Big Ten Network is a model for money-making. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff)
Posted: March 03, 2014

Herb Magee isn't really chasing history. It's more like history is along for the ride as Philadelphia University's coach does his thing, year after year.

A first-round Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference playoff victory for his 23-6 Rams Saturday put Magee up to 983 in his career, the most in NCAA hoops. He's in a kind of race with Duke's Mike Krzyzewski for all-time winningest coach in men's basketball. Krzyzewski tied Magee a couple of times this season but hasn't gotten by him.

Here's the interesting thing: There's another guy who has been running right alongside Magee for the last 25 years.

The women's coach, Tom Shirley, who took over on Henry Avenue in 1989, went over 500 victories at Philadelphia University this season and is up to 661 overall in his career after the women won their first-rounder a couple of hours later. Shirley keeps getting 20 of his own, year after year.

Magee's story is well-known, befitting a Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer. But Shirley, who actually is Magee's boss as athletic director, is a great bookend.

"I'm a Roxborough guy, a Philly guy," Shirley said. "You go to the bar, I want a Bud, I don't want a cosmopolitan. And not a diet Bud."

Lunch means bologna with mustard, something like that, nothing cooked or fancy.

Shirley also might be "the only guy who went [straight] from coaching 10- to 12-year-old boys to coaching college basketball," as he said Saturday in his office before his team played. "I've never been an assistant."

Where did he first pick up his X's and O's?

"I would say probably I learned it from watching Speedy Morris," Shirley said. "Just being a kid, in seventh grade, idolizing Speedy Morris [when he] was the coach at Roman Catholic High School."

That's where Shirley was set to go to high school.

"I was living in Roxborough, right below Roxborough High School," Shirley said. "In eighth grade, I was ready to go to Roman. I had my Roman bag, my SEPTA tokens. My father said we're moving to the suburbs."

That meant Plymouth Whitemarsh High, then Allentown College (now DeSales University). His father, a World War II veteran (Shirley has a photo of him in his office, taken on a PT boat in the South Pacific after a battle), pushed him toward economics. Shirley then took a job with Ford as a district sales manager.

"I hated it," he said.

Looking for a job in sports, Shirley visited his alma mater, which had just let go of its athletic director, "for stealing," Shirley said. The priest running the college offered him the job.

"He said, 'I'm going to teach a businessman athletics, I'm not going to teach an athletics man business,' " Shirley said. When he said he'd also like to coach basketball at some point, the president pointed to three girls who were practicing in the gym and said, be my guest.

When Shirley moved on to Philly U, "I was on my way to Notre Dame. I'll come here to Division II, then I'll shoot over to Division I. I never left."

He became athletic director a couple of years later. When Stephen Spinelli took over as Philadelphia University's president in 2007, he made a point of talking to all the coaches about graduation rates. Shirley told him his team's rate was something like 65 percent.

"That's got to get better," Spinelli said.

"Really?" Shirley said.

"That's not very good," the president said.

"Oh, you mean undergraduate rate - that's 98 percent," Shirley said. "I thought you meant graduate degree."

In fact, Shirley said, 64 percent of his Philly U players have earned a postgraduate degree, either while they're playing or just afterward. That might be the best stat of his tenure. (Spinelli enjoyed the joke. He said they'd get along just fine.)

On the court, Shirley's team looked like a machine Saturday, racking up a 44-16 halftime margin over Dominican (N.Y.) on the way to a 69-51 victory, improving to 20-7. He's got a deep team, with eight players who could start, he said, most from the top leagues in the Philadelphia area.

If Shirley has spent a lot of his career in Magee's shadow, he's got no issue with it. Shirley talked about how Magee's 1,000th will be something big, and suggested nobody should be sure Duke's coach gets there first.

"You never bet against Herb - ever, ever," Shirley said. "Down 18, one second left, don't bet against him."


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