The Coach

The Coach

Tucson, AZ (KOLD) – The man sits silently against a rack of basketballs. He's wearing a blue shirt underneath a navy jacket that is only a few shades lighter than the painted wall behind him. The attire almost acts as camouflage. You'd be forgiven if you didn't notice him, though he may prefer it that way.

His Adidas hat is pulled a little low but not low enough. You can still make out the dark bushy eyebrows, the wire-framed glasses and those eyes. It's the eyes that catch your attention. Their focus. He's not merely watching the Arizona women's basketball team practice.

He's studying it.

"He's really good at skill development," said Wildcat head coach Adia Barnes. "He really has a good instinct for the game. It's like having a free consultant."

"Free" because Santino Coppa is the father of Barnes' husband and assistant coach, Salvo. Which makes the elder Coppa her father-in-law. And in the world of women's basketball, Coppa is a coaching legend.

"This is my life," said Coppa with a thick Italian accent. "Basket is my life."

What a life it's been thus far. In his time as a head coach, Coppa has won two Italian Championships, one Italian cup, one European Championship, one Euro Cup, and enough Coach of the Year honors to line the shelves.

"The key to my success," said Coppa,"is because I think one player is different from another player. No possible use the same key for everybody because, like door, no possible one key open all door."

In other words, you can't coach ever player the same way. It's a philosophy learned and perfected over forty years in the profession.

Coppa was born and raised two hours south of Sicily in the city of Ragusa, Italy. When he was a teenager, his family moved east to Priolo in the province of Syracuse. It was there that a friend introduced him to basketball.

"My friend is one good, good player," said Coppa. "And I go see the game."

He liked what he saw. Soon, Coppa, then a physical education teacher, got into coaching. He founded a team made up of 14-year-old boys. In his sideline debut, his team lost by double digits.

"The other team is older and more experienced," said Coppa. "But this is important because I see my work. And after two years, I play against the same team. And I win."

Coppa made it his dream to become a European champion. But championship dreams were expensive. The amount of money needed to put together a men's team far exceeded whatever funds Coppa could come up with. But a women's team?

"I begin with women because for budget, is more easy."

Coppa started the club in Priolo and gave his players a steady dose of his trademark intensity. In return, his players gave him championships, medals, and notoriety.

"I have passion for basket, women's basket," said Coppa. "I understand the woman and the woman understand me. I have a good result."

"They never had the biggest budget," said Barnes. "So he would take players from all over Eastern Europe. They would be mediocre players and he would build them up. Most of the time, they would go on to the national team from his club. He's a really good coach."

Barnes would know. During the off-season following her second year in the WNBA, Barnes played for the Ukrainian team Dynamo Kiev, eventually facing off against Coppa's Priolo in the Euro Cup. Later, with an Italian passport in hand, she returned to take on Priolo as a member of league foe, Pozzuoli.

"It was a really hard environment to play in because he had the gym packed," said Barnes. "You just never could win in his gym."

That problem disappeared when in 2010 Barnes, now engaged to Coppa's son Salvo and in the twilight of her career, signed on to play for Priolo.

"He's one of the best coaches I've ever had," she said. "I wish I would have had him at twenty-two or twenty-three. I would have been a lot better skilled."

Santino Coppa isn't slowing down anytime soon. He recently became the head coach of the Luxol basketball club in Malta, Italy. Still, he keeps an eye on a certain desert city across the pond where his son and daughter-in-law have taken the reigns.

"This is, for me, is my dream," said Coppa. "It's another dream."

The man in the dark jacket and wire-rim glasses continues watching practice. He gives a small smile and nods his head respectfully as a trainer walks past. He jots down a note, perhaps an observation he'll share later with his son and daughter-in-law.

The coaching never stops.

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