I was walking along the sidewalk at Gampel on Wednesday and I saw George Blaney carrying a cup of coffee. He waved and quickly made his way into the building and out of sight, and I thought, “hmm, that’s not like him.” I wondered if something was up …
Usually, whenever he’d see me, Blaney would come over to talk about the Yankees, one of his other great passions. I wondered if something was up. Whenever I’d ask Blaney about retirement – especially as last season drew to a close – he’d say with a twinkle in his eye he was “day to day,” or “I have a one-day contract.” Obviously, he did not want to be asked that question, since the day had come.
This was his deal at UConn, which eventually lasted 12 years, to age 73. Day to day. Get up, go to the gym and enjoy the day, and George Blaney never seemed to have a bad day if he was on or near a basketball court. The word “gym rat” is over-used, but it applied to this man well.
The word “gentleman” is rarely used these days, but it also applies to George Blaney so well. He is one of the great, true gentlemen I’ve ever been around – gracious, patient, soft-spoken, respectful. I wrote a long piece about him in 2010, this was before I joined the UConn beat and he was reluctant to be interviewed for it; he didn’t want to make his time filling in for Jim Calhoun about him.
After it ran, he sent me a hand-written thank-you note. This past year, on an off-day in need of a story, I called the office and asked for Coach Blaney. Just wanted to write a little something on how he was doing with a new role, a new coach. He called back, spoke to me for as long as I needed. … and sent another hand-written note.
So it’s no wonder that his conference call with reporters on Thursday was filled with ‘thank yous,” from Blaney, which were not necessary, and from of us, which were very necessary. He was a pleasure to be around in any capacity.
Those are my personal impressions. But Blaney’s great contributions were to the game of basketball, especially at the college level, and the young people he coached. Dan Hurley, struggling with the weight of the Hurley name and high expectations, was ready to quit basketball before Blaney became his coach at Seton Hall. Hurley told me in 2011 that Blaney “saved his soul in the game of basketball.” Don’t need to know much more than that, as far as the mark this man is leaving.
Many have said similar things about George Blaney through the years. Rare is the man who can start playing basketball in the early 1950s and remain relevant, able to connect with its players and coaches nearly 60 years later, but Blaney was such a man because he never looked back, never dwelled on what he had done, but stayed true to who he was and understood the game, any profession, was really all about people, and how you treat them.
For whatever reason, George Blaney, 73, came to the conclusion this week that he was no longer “day to day,” that Thursday was the day he would finally leave coaching. The game, and UConn men’s basketball, is richer for having him in it so long, and poorer for having him slip away.
Now in retirement, as the great Bob Ryan defined it, he can “do what he wants to do, and not do what he doesn’t want to do.” George Blaney and his wife Maryellen have earned that, as he earned, in his modest words, “all the good things that have happened to me.”