Did a divine sign lead Hartford into Big Dance?

WEST HARTFORD, Connecticut – At 1:17 a.m. last Wednesday, as Hartford coach John Gallagher watched film at home, he felt an earthquake rumble beneath him. Who knew that a seismic event could double as a cosmic sign of a program’s first-ever NCAA tournament bid?

Gallagher spent the past year riddled with regret over the lost opportunity of 2020. Hartford reached the America East title game for the first time in his 10-year tenure, only to have the opportunity taken away 35 minutes before the team bus left for Vermont. So earlier that day, he’d asked God for a sign while praying the rosary at Holy Family Catholic Retreat Center in Farmington.

The greater Hartford area isn’t exactly located on the San Andreas Fault, so the rumble of the earthquake hit Gallagher much harder than the 1.9 it registered on the Richter scale. And he became more convinced of the cosmic nature of his plea when he next spoke to Father Terry Kristofak of Holy Family. “He said, ‘You know the epicenter was right there, two miles below the Mary statue.’”

Whether it was karma, coincidence or the divine will depend on the retelling of the story. But Hartford collided with history on Saturday afternoon. The No. 4 Hawks beat No. 6 UMass Lowell, 64-50, in the America East final to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time in 37 years of Division I play.

In the telling and retelling of the story – and Gallagher specializes in elongated telling and retelling – there’s certainly room for celestial embellishment. “One day,” joked Penn coach Steve Donahue, “his life is going to be a movie.”

One year after the pandemic seized Hartford’s generational opportunity, which Gallagher called a “cruel joke,” everything aligned for the Hawks. They upset Vermont in the semifinals last weekend and got 19 points from graduate student Traci Carter and 17 from senior Austin Williams to pull away on Saturday. The rumble proved prophetic.

Hartford coach John Gallagher shouts instructions to his players during a game against Bowling Green on Dec. 31, 2019. (Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Hartford coach John Gallagher shouts instructions to his players during a game against Bowling Green on Dec. 31, 2019. (Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

And with the win, the NCAA tournament became a much more colorful place. Gallagher, 43, resonates as one of the sport’s most over-the-top characters, the outsized caricature of the over-caffeinated and fast-talking coach in a profession defined by them. Gallagher is a spigot of energy with a personality bigger than his Final Four bar tabs. Someone needs to warn the press conference stenographers in Indianapolis to ice their hands in preparation.

“Does Indianapolis actually know who is arriving?” Gallagher said after the game. “I just looked at my phone and there’s 472 text messages. And every one of them is coming to the game.”

Don’t laugh. Gallagher is one of the game’s most enthusiastic and relentless connectors, one of 53 first cousins from the Delco area outside Philadelphia who had an estimated 750 people at his wedding. (Everyone from the Pump Brothers to Denzel Washington was invited.) “John has 100 best friends,” Donahue said.

Gallagher has preached the theme of neighborhood during his 11 seasons at Hartford, and his neighborhood is about go national. Don’t worry, he’ll find a way to still chat with everyone.

Amid the postgame celebration, Gallagher sprinted over to the four-person cleaning crew to celebrate with them. He hugged Triscia Wright, the custodian who services the Smith Center, like she’d scored the winning basket. “It meant the world to me,” she said. “I always feel welcome and a part of the team.”

A few minutes later, he screamed to the upper deck of the empty Chase Arena to veteran local columnist Jeff Jacobs of the Connecticut Post: “Jeff! We did it. We did it. Yes!” After that, he FaceTimed his parents on the court and yelled to his team: “Hey guys, this is my dad and my mom. Say HEY!"

“We’re the firefighter, the cop, the blue-collar fans who wants to bring their kid to the game,” he said of the Hartford community. “This means a lot to a lot of people."

Gallagher holds a rare reverence for coaches. Have a few beers with him, and he’ll attempt to convince you that former Lafayette coach Fran O'Hanlon is John Wooden, Penn coach Steve Donahue — or “Stevie” as he calls him — is Henry Iba and former St. Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli, his college coach, is Phog Allen.

Gallagher name-checked enough coaches who helped him along the way in a conversation with Yahoo Sports this week that he practically read the NABC directory – David Pauley (former University of the Sciences), Bob Burton (former Cal State Fullerton), Fran Dunphy (Temple AD), Speedy Morris (La Salle) and Joe Mihalich (Hofstra). “I was like a wild horse,” he said. “They literally, literally made me who I am.”

And after coaching 666 games — a devilish coincidence that promoted a sign of the cross — as an assistant and head coach, he’ll be on the sideline in his first NCAA tournament. “He’s exploding,” said Hartford assistant Tim Brooks.

That passion has made Gallagher the heartbeat of a group of coaches that go by the Motley Crew, bonded by Final Four trips, sitting together at AAU games and, of course, listening to endless stories from Johnny Gal. During COVID-19, those conversations switched from barstools and bleachers to Zoom, where the group would gather twice a week.

“We’d talk basketball for two or three hours and sometimes it would flow into happy hour for another two or three hours,” says Loyola Chicago coach Porter Moser. “It was therapeutic."

Brown coach Mike Martin, who worked at Penn with Gallagher, sent him a video text this morning to wish him luck. Martin knew he’d be tightly wound, so he hummed out the CBS theme song a cappella and asked how many times he’d watched the Selection Sunday Show and heard it. “This morning you do it, brother,” Martin said. “Enjoy it. Your team is ready. We all love you. You are ready for the NCAA tournament.”

The sweet gesture spoke to Gallagher’s role as the heartbeat of a teeming group of friends. Gallagher is so loyal he walked up to Loyola Chicago athletic director Steve Watson during their Final Four run and embarked on some impromptu contraction negotiations for Moser. “I’m going to make this easy for you,” he told the unsuspecting AD. “Ten years at $1.5 million. Let’s not mess around here.”

There’s a soft side as well. Arkansas assistant David Patrick told the story of Gallagher going with him to clean out his mother’s home in Australia after she passed from breast cancer. “He was part of that for me, helping talk me through it,” Patrick said. “I couldn’t really be there with her at the end. He helped close my house down. That’s a bond you don’t have with other coaches.”

The next time Gallagher can gather with his crew, they’ll toast the accomplishment, relive the America East run and, likely, chuckle at a few of Gallagher's lines while on a bigger stage. “We’re not going to Indy to say hello to people,” said the coach who says hello to everyone. “We’re going to win.”

The Hawks (15-8) could end up in one of the First Four games. They won’t be higher than a No. 16 seed. The safest prediction — at least until there’s another earthquake — is that they’ll be undefeated in the news conferences.

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