TIM COHANE MAY BE the only basketball coach in America who turned the O. J. Simpson trial into a recruiting tool. It happened last spring when the University at Buffalo coach went to Los Angeles to visit his former college classmate, Rockne Harmon, a member of the Simpson prosecution team.
"I'm sitting with Rockne in a meeting in the district attorney's office and Marcia Clark walks in," Cohane said. "She looks at me and says, 'Who the hell is that guy?' Rockne says, 'He's the basketball coach at the University at Buffalo.' Marcia says, 'That's nice, get him the hell out of here.'"
Cohane left, but decided to do some basketball business on his trip to L.A. "We needed a rebounder, so I decided to check out this high school kid in Palm Beach." It was Marshall Freeman, a 6-8, 240-pound post player, who received his league's MVP award. Not many thought Cohane could convince Freeman to leave the sand and surf of California for the snow and ice of Buffalo winters, but, as usual, Cohane beat the odds.
"I felt pretty good about getting a kid from California to come to Buffalo," Cohane, lean and lanky, said with a mischievous grin. "Thanks to O. J., we now have the players to compete."
It's just another example of why opponents and colleagues never underestimate Tim Cohane.
"Cohane always goes the limit," said Nelson E. Townsend, UB's director of athletics. "He is a very focused individual. I really think he outworks everybody else when it comes to basketball. He dedicates his every waking hour to the game."
Cohane's dedication has turned around the men's basketball program at UB. The Bulls won five games the season before Cohane arrived two years ago. In his first year, the team went 10-18. Last season, the Bulls upped that mark to 18-10. This year will be another challenge. At press time, they are 7 and 5, despite the loss for the season of last year's leading scorer, Rasaun Young, due to an ankle injury.
"We have a lot of young players and I hope people will be patient; this is a rebuilding year," Cohane emphasized. "We've got some good kids and we're going to keep on trying to revitalize college basketball around here."
Cohane has stamped his unconventional personality on the program and the team. He is an impressive mixture of discipline and commitment, with a little blarney thrown in for good measure. Cohane, in his early 50s, considers coaching not only an occupation, but almost a spiritual quest.
"I love being a coach," he said. "There's a special bond and rapport on a basketball team that is like being in a family. I like working with kids and watching them grow.''
Part of that growth is education and that's why Cohane and his players start daily practice at 5 a.m. during the season. "I'm trying to instill discipline," Cohane said, preaching his favorite sermon. "We practice in the morning so they can be students the rest of the day."
Cohane's job path followed a Forrest Gump-style route that stretched from Fenway Park to Vietnam to Wall Street and finally UB's Alumni Arena. Cohane's father, the late Tim Cohane Sr., was sports editor of Look magazine from the mid-1940s until the mid-1960s.
It was the golden era of sports in America and Tim Cohane had a front row seat, thanks to his father. Cohane watched his father talk and socialize with major sports figures, ranging from Ted Williams to Vince Lombardi. Young Tim was even a bat boy for the Boston Red Sox at the baseball shrine of Fenway Park.
Cohane played college basketball and, after graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1967, spent a tour on a riverboat in Vietnam. He returned with two Bronze Stars, a Purple Heart, and his passion for basketball intact.
Cohane began as a high school coach in 1971 and four years later started a basketball program at Manhattanville College, a Division III school in Purchase, N.Y. He took the head job at Ivy League Dartmouth in 1979, but, for the only time in his coaching career, wound up with a losing record over four years, and was out of work.
Cohane was 40 and he and his wife, Lisa, had three children, Sean, Tim and Josh. But Wall Street beckoned and Cohane decided to earn his fortune as a mortgage specialist for Salomon Brothers. He later founded his own mortgage security company before selling the business in a deal that made Cohane a millionaire.
Money provided security, but Cohane needed the emotional satisfaction only a coaching job could bring. He found one in 1988 at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. He led the team to a 45 and 12 record over two years. Cohane moved to Boston College as associate head coach in 1992, and a year later was named head coach at UB.
The bond between this coach and his players is cemented in mutual respect.
"The thing about the coach is that he really trusts us," said Jamie Anderson, a 6' 7" senior forward. "He's very strict and his word is what goes, but he doesn't take advantage of you.
"He's a lot of fun and of course the coach loves basketball, but he cares about us more than just as basketball players. He's trying to teach us to succeed beyond basketball."
One of Cohane's most successful players is Rasaun Young, a 6-3 junior from New Rochelle. Last season Young averaged 18 points a game and scored a season total of 486, a UB record for a sophomore. Until his injury, Young was considered the Bulls' most potent weapon.
Young's biggest adjustment to life with Cohane was learning to live with 5 a.m. practices. "In the beginning it was tough, I didn't really like it but the coach has a reason for everything," says Young. "It was another way for him to teach us discipline, and he always talks about discipline."
For Young, and many of his fellow Bulls, Cohane is more than a coach; he is also a teacher and guiding force. "He's like a good friend," Young says. "He gets on you sometimes, but you know he'll always be there if you need him."
Anthony Violanti is a writer for the Buffalo News.