Peer Into Character® ep. 2 – Ed Cooley

A Coach’s Perspective on Character, Leadership and Team Culture.

Providence College men’s basketball coach Ed Cooley provides valuable advice for youth sports parents, coaches, and athletes as he shares his views on leadership, character, team culture, and why The Way You Win Matters®“. Coach Cooley joins Even Field’s Chuck Wilson to describe the qualities he looks for in a player and why integrity and character are essential to team performance. Plus, the coach describes a daily habit he believes is a difference-maker in sports and everyday life. (It is something most anyone can do!)

Peer Into Character® features thought-provoking and inspirational stories and observations about character and leadership shared by professional and amateur athletes, coaches, educators, and others.

Peer Into Character and Chuck Wilson on Sports™ are presentations of Even Field®, a nonprofit organization that promotes integrity, life skills, and leadership through sports.

You can watch this episode of Peer Into Character on Even Field’s YouTube Channel.

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Episode Quotes, an Audio Timeline, and a Transcript of this episode can be found below.

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Providence College Basketball Coach Ed Cooley shares a light moment with Chuck Wilson in this Peer Into Character conversation. (© Even Field)

This Peer Into Character® episode

Written and Produced by…Chuck Wilson
Onsite recording by…On The Outs Productions
Editing by Chris Gemma
Music by Symphonic Collective licensed through PremiumBeat.com
Theme music by MartynHarvey licensed through Pond5.com

Our thanks to Ed Cooley. The drive, passion, and resilience that come through from the coach have been hallmarks of his life, and his basketball program. In his first nine seasons coaching Providence College, Coach Cooley’s teams averaged 20-wins per season and made five NCCA Tournament appearances.

We also thank Even Field’s Board of Directors and the following, in particular, for their support of Even Field’s mission and this multimedia production.

Thomas J. Skala

The John and Jessica Pinkos Family Fund

And highly-regarded businesses in Rhode Island…

The Virtus Group, trusted advisors, led by Mark Cruise, providing an array of comprehensive financial planning services for families and businesses.

Epic Promotions — The Couto family has four decades of experience in printing, branding, and marketing. Thank you, Barry, Adam, and Keith.

Graphic Innovations – a New England leader in large-format printing, graphics, and vehicle wraps. Our thanks to Jim Larkin and his team.

Episode Quotes

“If you have a team of characters, you’re not going to win, but if you have a team with high character, you’re going to give yourself an opportunity to win.”

“Leadership drove me to be different, leadership told me you can be special.”

“The way you win is accomplishing something every single day. The way you win is by being humble, by being respectful, by doing the right thing all the time, by helping others out”

“My whole life, I was always told I wasn’t going to be anything. And that, to this day, still drives me. I want to prove you wrong. Every single day.”

Episode Timeline

  • Example of when “Character” made a difference for one of his Friar teams (1:57)
  • Why “Character” matters (3:00)
  • What Ed sees in youth sports regarding “character” (4:01)
  • What makes a positive team culture (5:26)
  • When scouting players, how he assesses character on and off the court (6:00
  • The questions he wants answered when evaluating character (6:35)
  • When Ed Cooley first realized that he had ability to bring out the best in others (6:56)
  • On why being “different” is important (7:38)
  • The importance of standing up for what you believe in (8:07)
  • What he remembers about his high school basketball coaches (9:20)
  • Challenges of his Central H.S. basketball team winning a 2nd-straight H.S. title (10:09)
  • The necessity of taking academics seriously in high school (10:37)
  • What The Way You Win Matters® means to Ed Cooley (11:26)
  • On the importance of empathy, compassion and kindness as leadership skills (12:13)
  • Reaction to Michael Jordan NIKE commercial about fueling success from failure
  • How he decides if a player/team needs positive reinforcement or tough love (13:39)
  • Identifies a daily habit he believes is a difference-maker in life (14:54)
  • Advice for youth sports parents on relating to their child (15:54)
  • How mental toughness is developed (16:46)
  • What he remembers as a young kid who had weight issues and a lack of speed (18:27)
  • Most challenging ethical situation he has faced as a coach (19:00)
  • Thoughts on youth sports parenting and the many kids quitting team sports (19:50)
  • On his drive to succeed in life (21:03)

Episode Transcript

Providence College Men’s Basketball Coach Ed Cooley talks about character and leadership with Even Field’s Chuck Wilson. (© Even Field)

When Ed Cooley was hired as men’s basketball coach at Providence College in the spring of 2011, the school’s president at the time, Fr. Brian Shanley, said the school wanted a relationship builder, a coach who could teach players about the game of life

Ed Cooley was well-suited for that role. Growing up in the inner city of Providence, Rhode Island, Ed faced a challenging home life. But, he said he never lost hope and was determined to escape poverty, stay out of trouble, and make something positive of his life. 

The drive, passion, and resilience that come through in this conversation have been hallmarks of Ed Cooley’s life and his basketball program.

As we Peer into Character, Ed Cooley offers his perspective on the personal qualities he looks for in players, why integrity and team culture matter, and how failure is linked to success. Along the way, Ed offers advice for young athletes, coaches and parents, about goal-setting, leadership, and why being “different” is an asset.

In our 1-on-1 conversation, Chuck Wilson asked Coach Cooley to tell us about a time when “character” made the difference for one of his Friar teams.

(The transcript below has been lightly edited for clarity.)


Interviewee: Ed Cooley
Interviewer: Chuck Wilson

Ed Cooley: I’ll bring it back, it was November 2nd, 2013 played an exhibition game against Rhode Island College. Chris Dunn tore his shoulder for the second time. Two of our players were suspended for the year and we were down to basically seven scholarship players. Didn’t think we would win another game. We go on to win the Big East Championship. And when we had the trophy in our hand in Madison Square Garden, I just took a deep breath and said, ‘I never saw this coming, but I trusted what we were teaching. I trusted the fact that these kids had high character, they loved each other, they trusted one another, they cared for one another.’ 

“If you have a team of characters, you’re not going to win, but if you have a team with high character, you’re going to give yourself an opportunity to win.”

We have a motto that says, “Us, We, Together, Family, Friars.” That’s our motto every time we go someplace. And I think that really showed our mental toughness, our team unity, and the culture of our organization when less was more. 

Chuck Wilson: Why does character matter?

Ed Cooley: If you have a team of characters, you’re not going to win, but if you have a team with high character, you’re going to give yourself an opportunity to win. That means you’re totally bought into what is the culture of the organization. That means you’re bought in going to class, going to the weight room, eating the right way, staying away from drugs and alcohol, not being somebody who is arrogant in their approach. Character is, it’s from within, and when the lights are on at two o’clock in the morning and you’re at the stoplight, are you going through that stoplight? Because at two o’clock in the afternoon, when you know everyone’s watching, you’re probably not. Who are you when nobody’s watching defines the character with which you will live. And how you do one thing is how you’ll do everything, in my opinion. If you do 100% energy, passion, and emotion, you’ll get it. If you come in and you just half tail it through, that’s exactly the result you’re going to get in.

Chuck Wilson: What do you see in youth sports as regarding character?

Ed Cooley: Well, I think in today’s society, it is all “what can you do for me right now”. I don’t think people appreciate the process of what it takes to be a winner. It doesn’t happen overnight. I want to see kids fail first to learn. Not failure where they can’t get themselves back up. I’m talking about small failures that create hunger, that create a burning desire, “I got to get better.” versus somebody who just goes right to the mountain top, then fails and can’t get back to the mountaintop. That’s tough, you know. The process of development takes time and when you get there, I think you appreciate it because while you’re climbing the ladder, you never know how far you’ve come until you turn around, and you say to yourself, “Wow, I’ve come a long, long way, but I still got a long way to go.” And that’s where character and humility come in. 

Chuck Wilson: When you were a player, what did you value in a teammate?

Ed Cooley: Sincerity. Trust. You know, can I trust you? I mean, we’re in the trenches together. Are you loyal? And loyalty is just not, “Hey, you’re my friend.” Loyalty is, are you a great teammate? Are you coming to practice on time? Are you willing to sacrifice for the team versus yourself? That’s the same way we recruit now, not what I would just look for in a team. I’m looking for that in a marriage. I’m looking for that in friendships, in the workplace. Trust is everything. 

Chuck Wilson: And this gets back to culture.

Providence College Men’s Basketball Coach Ed Cooley talks about character and team culture with Even Field’s Chuck Wilson. (© Even Field)

Ed Cooley: There’s a lot of things in your culture. A smile matters to people. It’s an icebreaker. A handshake means something. Eye contact means something. The ability to give back means something. I think when you have a culture that gives back and is of high integrity and high character, you’re going to find yourself blossoming, and it kind of feeds itself. It really does. Character is something that, you feed it and it just grows, and grows and grows and grows. 

Chuck Wilson: When you scout players for Providence college basketball, how do you assess character both on and off the court?

Ed Cooley: I think you have to do a lot of Intel.  Anytime we go to hire someone or we go to give someone a scholarship, you do a lot of background checks. You talk to the school janitors, you talk to the librarian, you talk to the principal, you talk to their neighbors, you talk to their teammates. The last person you really talk to is the person which you’re trying to recruit or hire because you want a snapshot picture of who they are. So I think all the Intel work behind, gets you to have a better picture once you’re in front of them.

Chuck Wilson: And what are the questions you want answered?

Ed Cooley: How do they say good morning? Do they have a great physical presence? How is their smile? Are they on time? Do they say thank you? Are they appreciative? And how does appreciation come off?  When they sit down, are people around them? I think a natural leader, people can’t wait to see them.  

Chuck Wilson: As a player, you developed some outstanding leadership skills. You become player of the year in the state of Rhode Island, two years, back-to-back state championships with Central High School. When did you first realize that you had some abilities to bring out the best in others?

“Leadership drove me to be different, leadership told me you can be special.”

Ed Cooley: Sometimes I think leadership you’re born with it. And, I use that term, “it”. No one has ever defined what it is to have “it”. And I thank my mom and dad’s gene for it because I always feel I was born with “it” and not being afraid to be different. 

Chuck Wilson: One of the things you talk about is ‘You have to want to be different.’ Why is that important?

Ed Cooley: I think it’s important to be different because so many people try to be the same. They’re not true when they’re trying to be the same with someone else. I think being different allows you to build your own identity as well. It allows you to grow and explore different things. It helps you find out who you are when you’re different and not being afraid to be different.

It’s okay to be different. It really is. And it’s okay to challenge people. It’s okay to have conflict because with conflict comes solution. 

I think so many people, especially the younger generation, they’re afraid to tell their friends they’re wrong. They’re afraid to say, no, I’m not doing this. I want to do this. And you’re going to come with me because what you’re doing is wrong. I think when you challenge your friends, especially the ones you truly love and care about and you get them to do the right thing. You find yourself on a path to prosperity and success, not so much to death and destruction. Unfortunately, with the climate today in particular in our inner cities, so many of our young men and women are being passed by because they’re either stuck in the status quo of their own environment or they’re afraid to be different. So those of us that have leadership skills and are not afraid to be different, and not afraid to challenge, are the ones you really read about. 

And in doing, you can be a leader in life. You can be a leader in your community. You can be a leader on and off the field or the courts or the swimming pool. 

Leadership drove me to be different, leadership told me you can be special.  

Chuck Wilson: Coach Harold Metz often says that he was surprised with both championship teams. What were the team dynamics that you were able to tap into in those back-to-back seasons as state champions?

Ed Cooley: I think the one thing I remember about coach Metz and about coach Rose and coach Connors was their toughness approach. And I think some of that is still instilled with me here as the Providence College coach, as far as how mentally tough you have to be. We were very fortunate to play with some really good players and people were coming after us. We knew we were going to get everybody’s best shot. So not only did you have to be talented, but you had to be mentally tough to overcome the adversity that you’re walking into. And again, we had a swag, we had a sense of confidence that you just weren’t going to beat us. And it’s okay to have that confidence, but it borderlines confidence and arrogance. And you want to have a balance of both, but be humble in your approach.

Chuck Wilson: What do you remember back were challenges during that season and how were they handled?

Providence College Men’s Basketball Coach Ed Cooley emphasizes the importance of academics for high school athletes. (© Even Field)

Ed Cooley: We felt the only team that can beat us was Central High School. And, coach did a great job keeping us humble. You know when you’re 17, 16, 15 years old, you think you can conquer the world. And I always tell our young kids now that we recruit… You don’t know what you don’t know so listen to the people that you care about, listen to the people that are going to put you on the right road. And nine out of 10 times, when you’re that young, the number one thing people don’t talk about is how important their education is going to be moving forward. 

“The way you win is accomplishing something every single day. The way you win is by being humble, by being respectful, by doing the right thing all the time, by helping others out”

You can be a great athlete. You can be a super sprinter, a great swimmer. You may kick every field goal, never miss one. But if you don’t take care of the academic component with the NCAA, you’re going to be shut out of that American dream to go to college. And college changes lives. You meet people that you never thought you would expect to meet. I never thought I would meet some of the people that I met once I went to college. Next thing you know, I’m on Pennsylvania Avenue in DC, you’re meeting presidents and meeting CFOs, CEOs, and it all starts with an education. 

If you can really take a snapshot picture of where you are today and put all your educational chips in there, later in life, you’re going to find yourself on top of the world.

Chuck Wilson: The Way You Win Matters® is our message on Even Field®. What’s that mean to you?

Ed Cooley: The way you win, always isn’t in sports. The way you win is by accomplishing something every single day. The way you win is by being humble, by being respectful, by doing the right thing all the time, by helping others out, by trusting, having loyalty. Know that you’re going to fail, but in failing, sometimes you win through failure because you learn from your mistakes. So when you tie all those in, it’s not about the game, it’s about the process of life and how you deal with it. 

Chuck Wilson: One of the things we don’t talk about much, Ed, is that empathy, compassion, and kindness are leadership skills. We don’t think of that so much in sports. Why do those abilities matter? 

Ed Cooley: Well, empathy and kindness, you show a real side of yourself. If a kid misses a free throw to win a game or turns the ball over to lose a game, I mean, you’re going to go put your arm around this person, “It’s okay. We have another game and if it’s the last game of the season, well, we gave it our best.” But one shot or one play is not going to define somebody’s character, not going to define if they’re a great player or not. The best players in the world have had the most mistakes. 

Chuck Wilson: Think about that Nike commercial with Michael Jordan. 

(The famous TV ad in which MJ is seen walking into a basketball arena and he says “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26-times, I’ve been entrusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”)

Michael Jordan in the famous NIKE commercial about success being fueled by failure. (Photo courtesy of NIKE.)

Chuck Wilson: When you first saw that, how did that resonate with you?

Ed Cooley: All of us have been there. If you’re in sports, you’re in life, you’re going to fail and it’s okay. Fail. (laughing) I always tell my team, fail fast so we can recover quick.

Coach Ed Cooley to Even Field’s Chuck Wilson: “I always tell my team, fail fast so we can recover quick”! (© Even Field)

Chuck Wilson: And take something positive away from it so that you learn from it, for the next time.

Ed Cooley: Learn from your mistakes. I mean, so many people get down when they fail, they act like it’s the end of the world. It’s not the end of the world. 

Chuck Wilson: How do you determine between positive reinforcement and a kick in the rear? How you make that determination of what a young man, what a team needs?

Ed Cooley: Well, I think you have to have a relationship with your team and a relationship with the individual players. Now, I think you treat everyone fair, everyone will be treated fair, but not everyone is treated equal. Not in sports, just don’t happen. Because there are different ways to motivate each individual. Collectively you can motivate a group, but individually, who are they? What are they going through? And I think the young kids today have to have a relationship with their coaches because we’re human, we’re always going to take time for you, but you’re not always going to like what we do as an adult, because you’re not supposed to. 

I like to use psychology a lot in coaching because it comes back during games and in life. You’re lucky if you can play professional sports at 32.  32! The average person now is living what 79, 82. 

50 years of life, what are you doing? Who are you? What did you give back? Whose life did you touch that can now come back and help you? So you give them a big picture on an everyday conversation.

Chuck Wilson: What do you want to say to middle school aged kids about starting down the path, if they haven’t already, on the habits that are going to make a big difference in their life.

Coach Ed Cooley: “Every morning when I wake up, I write down what’s important today and what do I have to accomplish”. (© Even Field)

Ed Cooley: I used to write down three or four things that I wanted to accomplish in a day. I remember being at Roger Williams middle school, and I remember sitting at the cafeteria. This is what I want to try to accomplish today. And if you can see here, I’ve got my sheet that I have to accomplish today right here. I wrote it down and I still write it down. That’s a habit that I never, ever ever forgot. And I still write it down to this day. Every morning when I wake up, I write down what’s important today and what do I have to accomplish? So I think if you can have it small for the middle school people that are watching. 

Make sure you have an accomplishment every day. And it could be something as easy as spelling the right word, riding the bike. What can you feel good about every single day? Touching someone else’s life, calling someone you haven’t talked to in a long time, just to get them to smile. I think little things, little accomplishments, give you a big goal in the future. 

Chuck Wilson: And how, as a youth sports parent, can I help my son or daughter develop those kinds of values that are going to help them in everything they do?

Ed Cooley: When your kid makes a mistake, don’t overreact. Be the adult all the time in that situation, don’t come down to their level. Let them know you love them. Let them know you care about them. I think when we get our kids to know we’re truly disappointed in them, it hurts them more than actual punishment. And I think when you have a relationship with your kid, the more powerful you can be together, so they don’t want to let you down, is a great message for your kid. Let them know you love them and you’re proud of them all the time. Give them a hug, go spend time with them. At your busiest moment, send him a text message. At your busiest moment. They may not know, but later in life, they’ll appreciate it. When they know you took time out for them. 

Chuck Wilson: Ed, everybody wants their child to be able to have mental toughness. How is it developed?

Ed Cooley: I think mental toughness is something that can be developed over time, on conversation, on putting our kids in situations where you don’t want them to fail, but you want them to come close to failing and see how they handle adversity. Adversity to me brings out toughness. 

In the toughest of toughest times, how can we accomplish the tasks that we set out to do? Are we focused? Are we really concentrating on what it is that we have to do? And I always put it this here, when it comes to mental toughness. Everybody wants something, but what do we really need? So there’s a want versus a need.  

I want to win a national championship. I want to win one so bad. Well, what do we need? High character individuals. We need young men who are humble, appreciative, know how to say thank you, carry themselves in a community as an ambassador, not just for the college, but for themselves, for their family, for the schools of which they left, for the schools of which they could be going to. 

When somebody talks about John Green, the first thing I want to hear is what a great kid, not what a great player. “Oh, man. He does an unbelievable job in the community. Wow. Does he do a great job around school? Wow. He picks up after himself. He’s trying in the classroom.” Those are the things that are going to attract people because nobody hires a resume anymore. They hire the person. I know when we go to hire someone, yeah you have to have a certain qualification just to get in the door but at the end of the day, I’m going to meet the person, not the paper.

Chuck Wilson: You know when you were young, sports didn’t come right away to you. You had some weight issues. You were a little on the slow side I understand till middle school.  What do you remember about that period?

Ed Cooley: I just remember the drive to try to be something, I didn’t know what I wanted to be. Especially, you know, going through middle school and then the early part of your high school year, you’re just trying to fit in where you can kinda be somebody. You had your friends who were playing sports, you had some of your friends who were just out in the street kinda not doing the right things. A big part of my philosophy always growing up was do the right thing all the time. And that’s hard. That’s hard when you’re a kid without means. 

Chuck Wilson: What’s been the most challenging, ethical situation you’ve ever faced as a coach?

Ed Cooley: Oh, I think recruiting. Anytime you deal with recruiting, you’re going to deal with ethical situations. We’re governed by a big book, a compliance book, that you can go outside the lines. You really can. You can go outside the lines, but just like in golf, if you’re out there playing by yourself and you know you have to take a stroke because you either moved the ball or you grounded your club in an area that’s not… You know what’s right and wrong and nobody else may never know, but you know, and I don’t want that guilt hanging on my shoulders. I want to do the right thing all the time.

“My whole life, I was always told I wasn’t going to be anything. And that, to this day, still drives me. I want to prove you wrong. Every single day.”

Chuck Wilson: The youth sports parent today, we’ve seen a lot of youth sports coaching, which has taken the professional and high college model down to youth sports. We still have three out of every four kids leaving youth sports by the age of 13 or 14. What are your thoughts on that?

Ed Cooley: I think some of the parents seriously just got to chill out. Sometimes when you pull kids out of situations, you don’t allow them to be kids. They become professionals at seven, eight, nine, 10, 11, 12, 13. They’re not ready for that. So you can burn your kid out and he’s not going to be happy or she’s not going to be happy. Let your kids be a kid. You know what I mean? Let them go scrape their knee on the neighborhood playground. Today nobody plays out in the street anymore. Nobody plays kickball, Wiffle ball, the parks, football, basketball courts, tennis on the tennis… Nobody’s outside, everybody’s inside. Or to your point, they’re working out with trainers. Everybody has a trainer now. I’d love to know statistically, how many of them have become something when they got to college? Did they get scholarships? Did they become professional players? Hopefully, they become professional people. If you’re a professional person, you’ll be successful.

Chuck Wilson: You somehow had that motivation within you to be different. Tell us about resilience.

Ed Cooley: “My whole life, I was told I wasn’t going to be anything. And that, to this day, still drives me. I want to prove you wrong” (© Even Field)

Ed Cooley: My whole life, I was always told I wasn’t going to be anything. And that, to this day, still drives me. I want to prove you wrong. Every single day. I was always told I wasn’t going to be anything. And to this day, I’m still not. So I still want to prove to those that always had question marks, that always thought about how can you do it, where there’s a will there’s a way, but you can’t do it alone. Got to allow other people to help you and there’s hundreds of people that helped me get to this seat to be the head coach at Providence College. 

No one would have ever thought… Think about this, 20 years ago, 30 years ago, 40 years ago, would you ever think you would see a minority coach as the head coach at Providence College? Absolutely not. Absolutely not. I’m living the ultimate dream and it started with character, lucky, education, integrity, but more importantly, knowing people.


Our thanks to Ed Cooley. In his first nine seasons at Providence College, Coach Cooley’s teams averaged 20-wins per season and made five NCCA Tournament appearances. This interview was recorded on July 25, 2016

Chuck Wilson on Sports and Peer Into Character are presentations of Even Field. If you enjoyed this program, please like us on Facebook and subscribe to our podcasts. And, if you are in a position to support us — a donation of any amount, big or small, would be appreciated.

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2 Comments

  1. polly reynolds on October 12, 2021 at 10:48 PM

    a memorable interview and more than a couple of pointers in playing the real game and playing it conscientiously.

    • Chuck Wilson on October 13, 2021 at 10:30 AM

      Thanks, Polly. Ed Cooley certainly has the “it” factor when it comes to leadership. He has provided inspiration to countless numbers of kids and adults.

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