Seton Hill boasts legendary coach

| Wednesday, Dec. 24, 2008

Spending a single season away from basketball made legendary women's coach Ferne Labati appreciate how deeply it fed her spirit.

She was itching to get back when serendipity smiled on her after she visited good friend and Pitt women's basketball coach Agnus Berenato in 2006 and saw an opening at a little school in Greensburg.

That summer, Seton Hill signed Labati, a coach with more than 400 career victories and a history of building a winning program.

Two years ago, Berenato described Labati to the Tribune-Review as "a terrific educator whose teams run the best fast break."

Her college coaching career began outside Philadelphia, at tiny Immaculata College, a program storied in women's basketball lore and winners of the first three women's national championships (1972, '73 and '74).

Labati served as an assistant for two years at the end of Immaculata's mighty run before become head coach at Trenton (N.J.) State, with a four-year stop at Fairleigh Dickenson, then landing at Miami (Fla). in 1988.

In 17 seasons at Miami, her teams earned nine postseason invitations (six NCAA Tournaments and three NIT appearances), two Big East Conference titles, 1992 Big East Coach of the Year and 2004 Russell Athletic/WBCA Region 1 Coach of the Year honors.

Labati, 63, was inducted into the Miami Athletic Hall of Fame in 2004.

The university dismissed her the following year after a 13-16 season. Many questioned athletic director Paul Dee's judgment. Others point to Miami-native, blue-chip recruit Sylvia Fowles choosing LSU over Miami.

The firing shocked Labati, but recently, her age discrimination suit was adjudicated in favor of the university.

Seton Hill is another chance for her, an opportunity to get back to her roots.

Seton Hill has opened the season with a 4-3 record, including a recent, 75-66 victory against Shippensburg, which was then undefeated and ranked 15th in the USA Today/ESPN poll.

"It was really funny, but starting out at Immaculata, I never thought I would end up at another small, little Catholic school," she says of her circuitous career.

If 30 years of weathering the challenges of big-time coaching and the Miami firing had tamped down her passion, it was unnoticeable at a morning practice where she darted around Salvitti Gymnasium, vigorously reminding her players to box out, challenge every shot.

Later, comfortable in the dark wood and brick of the dining center, Labati asked her assistants, "Remember the Shepherd game• I was running out (to argue with officials) after halftime because the clock didn't start."

Then, she entertained by acting out the time a Miami assistant pulled her off the court by the scruff of the neck. She was mortified to learn it made ESPN's "SportsCenter."

In the evening, her team defeated East Stroudsburg, 82-72, but her posture on the sidelines throughout hinted at a readiness to defend the paint herself. Watching her players fail to box out, she turned to her bench and bit off, "Do you know how (mad) I am right now?"

Coaching is the fun part; overcoming hurdles off the court less so.

Recently, she had to straddle two associations, as the school moved from the NAIA membership to NCAA Division II. Led by school president, JoAnne Boyle, the school secured approval as an NCAA member in just two years, a remarkably short wait.

For the coach, such quick resolution led to equal footing for her in terms of recruiting.

"She's wonderful. She's really progressive, and she does things the right way," says Labati of Boyle, who was excited about the basketball team's academic achievement last season, posting an overall GPA of 3.591 -- third in the country in the WBCA Division II.

Reflecting on her new home, Labati said, "I've been very lucky. It's really funny, the first day at Immaculata, I went by the Grotto. And I did the same thing here. It was just meant to be."

Subscribe today! Click here for our subscription offers.


Show commenting policy