His arms are too short.
Five hundred coaching wins, Barry Fitzgerald has earned the chance to pat himself on the back, at least a little.
Instead, he does what he always does. He dishes off instead of putting his name in the scoring column.
He credits the kids. He thanks the fans. And he goes out of his way to laud his assistant coaches, past, some of which he apologetically can’t remember, and present — Tom Kosin, Robert McCormack, Ryan Geoffroy and Katie Purcell.
And fighting back tears, the man who has taken the hits after heartbreaking losses and lavished praise on everyone around him after the wins, gives a brief glimpse into what has made this one of the most difficult seasons of his career.
Yes, he is now among the elite. He’s joined a select group of four locals who have compiled 500 coaching wins in girls basketball, Scranton Prep’s Ross Macciocco (649), Mid Valley’s Vince Bucciarelli (594), the late Rush Simons at Mountain View (528), and retired Forest City coach Carl Urbas (502).
He’d trade all of those to share one more victory with his biggest fan. His mother, Marion, died just three months ago, and that loss still has him stinging. It makes him even more grateful for those who support and surround him.
“She was one of my biggest fans. One of my few fans,” said Fitzgerald, moments after Wednesday’s 68-39 win. “This year at practice, I’m there physically, but I’m not there all the time.”
In addition to his mother’s passing, the Holy Cross family has been dealing with the death of Kathleen McDonnell, mother of junior guard Courtney McDonnell, whose battle with cancer ended a month before Fitzgerald’s mom died.
“I’m there at times as a spectator, and my four assistant coaches have helped tremendously,” Fitzgerald said. “Circumstances and issues, and I haven’t been able to deal with it like I would like to, but it’s been amazing. It’s the way it should be because now there are five of us. We do whatever we need to do to try to make these kids better.
“It’s never, ever been about myself.”
For the past 31 years, Fitzgerald has been the head coach at Mid Valley (one season), and spent the rest of his career at Bishop Hannan, which eventually merged with Bishop O’Hara and became Holy Cross. Along the way, he’s been blunt when required, nurturing when needed and always, above all else, honest. Often, there was a large dose of self-depricating in the mix.
Many coaches surround themselves with great assistants. Few have the guts to give them credit for the program’s success.
“The four I have right now…” his voice trails off as he tries to gather himself.
It’s obvious the impact they’ve made, especially over the past few months. And while there are solemn moments, it’s not all sadness.
“My mom was sick the last year or so and my dad (Jerry, 91) only lives in Throop, but he wouldn’t leave my mom to come to the games,” Fitzgerald said. “Now, he’s back out at the games and he’s back to telling me what I need to do.”
And there’s a twinkling in Fitzgerald’s eye as he tells the story. But at the same time, with the milestone comes a sense of finality, like win No. 600 won’t be a consideration, his voice tells you. And while it might not happen in March, and maybe not even next March, there is one game clock that keeps ticking.
“I’m getting older,” Fitzgerald said. “I told these kids now, I’m starting to see people who played for me, their kids.
“I know we’re getting close. It’s almost time. But I still love going there every single day.”
When you’re surrounded by a great cast, it makes the job a lot easier. The hard part is to stay humble when success continues to tap at your door.
And that, his supporters and detractors must agree, is something Fitzgerald has always been. That, and a winner.
His arms are too short.