Jim Henderson / Eyewitness Sports
NEW ORLEANS -- On a cold, mid-winter’s eve, Pay Conroy is wrapped in the warm embrace of his most ardent readers, paying wrapped attention to his every word.
At the Garden District Bookstore on Prytania, they’ve turned to hear the author of, among others, “The Great Santini” and “My Losing Season.”
A central figure in each is an oppressive and an abusive father, very much Conroy’s own, who rather than take the blame for the scars he left on his son, took credit for the inspiration he gave him.
“’I should have beaten you more. You’d be a lot better writer,’” Conroy said, repeating his father’s words. “I said, you’d beat me much more, I’d have been Shakespeare.”
The Great Santini earned Robert Duvall a Best Actor Oscar nomination. “My Losing Season” chronicled Conroy’s final year as a basketball player at the Citadel, the military academy whose plebe system he portrays as cruelly sadistic.
Besides himself, only one other person in the audience this night experienced both.
Pat and Ed Conroy, Tulane’s first-year basketball coach, are first cousins. Pat’s dad, Don – The Great Santini – was the oldest of nine children; Ed’s dad was the youngest of those nine.
The legacy Pat left at the Citadel didn’t so much pave the way for Ed to go there first as a player and then later as a coach, as to literate with landmines of venom.
Ed’s nametag read Conroy, a synonym for mud.
“My freshman year there was some members of the senior class, whose job it is to make things tough on you anyway, wasn’t particularly fond of the portrayal,” Ed said.
But he went there and he coached there because he trusted his instincts about people, just as he trusted what he saw in Pat’s father rather than what he read about him.
“My dad went to one of my college basketball games at Citadel. He went to 40 of cousin Ed’s,” Pat said.
As the Bulldogs coach, Ed Conroy tried to make the game fun at a place that seldom is, even if that meant as his expense, such as when a spontaneous post-game celebration made him the dousee rather than the douser.
“Part of that moment is just teaching those guys how to enjoy winning and the game and those moments. It can be a demanding place and tough,” Ed said.
After four seasons at the Citadel, a call came from New Orleans from a University with its own unique challenges.
“I think we know how to put a plan together, and I think in time people will see those results,” Ed said.
Tulane is used to waiting for a return to what passes as their “glory years,” some 15 years ago. As he makes Tulane better, he battles conference foes who have bettered themselves.
To catch up, to surpass, he’ll need better players. Not everybody could or wanted to go to the Citadel; the challenge is a little different on Freret Street.
To find them, to get them, can require in-season recruitment trips to the snowy northeast in the dead of winter when your hopes of your winning season may be dying as well.
One recruit can turn around a program; one missed shot can turn around a game; one significant player who starts tuning out your message can become a cancer in the locker room.
“I laughed this morning because as the calendar turns to February now, you see a lot of us starting to snap,” Ed said.
But whether it’s halftime of a game or a season, he’s alert to what must be altered in his team or himself.
“He’s brilliant in making adjustments. He’s a brilliant floor coach. Smart, organized, but what you’re going to see is exciting basketball – kids that get after it, kids that do it because they love Ed,” Pat Conroy said.
Pat Conroy, like Ed, is from a family of seven. He has felt the comfort of approval from the hand of his millions of readers and he has felt the back of the hand from a man whose approval he sought much of his life, without success.
He knows about the enduring value of character because he has experienced the difference.
“He’s just a good man,” Pat Conroy said of his cousin, “and the best I think our family has produced.”