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A HALL OF FAME SURPRISE

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POTSDAM — You don’t need the hyped-up hoopla of “Midnight Madness” to make the first preseason practice a memorable day for a college basketball coach.

Starting his 56th season of coaching on Tuesday evening, SUNY Potsdam assistant coach Stan Cohen calmly walked into the Jerry Welsh Gymnasium expecting to see players stretching, jogging, creatively shooting layups or indiscriminately launching jumpers.

Instead, candidates for this year’s Bears squad were lined up on either side of the door clapping and cheering.

The startled and confused Cohen then saw retired Ogdensburg Free Academy coach Bill Merna, who informed him, on behalf of the Basketball Coaches Association of New York State, that he was entering the New York State Basketball Hall of Fame as a member of the induction class of 2014.

The 2014 class, which also includes former Beaver River coach Bob Giordano and former Jefferson County Community College coach Bob Williams, will be inducted on March 16 in Glens Falls during the state boys basketball championships final four weekend.

“Coach Cohen, I want to welcome you to the Hall of Fame,” said Merna, also a member of the Hall. “Fifty six years of coaching says it all.”

To make the evening even better, Cohen’s son and daughter-in law, Hal and Barb Cohen, and their daughter Brittany of Baldwinsville, soon appeared along with several longtime friends.

Hal Cohen, who set a world foul shooting record at a Canton high school practice before going on to Syracuse University, nominated his father for the state hall of fame and compiled his dad’s epic basketball portfolio. He also orchestrated Tuesday’s surprise celebration.

Stan Cohen’s portfolio includes an all-star caliber playing career at Cortland High School and Hobart College and 1,017 wins as head men’s (16 years) and women’s coach (7 years) at SUNY Canton and 40 years as a SUNY Potsdam assistant coach.

In his men’s basketball coaching career, he was involved in two of the great eras of north country college basketball.

His career drew its origin from a day at the YMCA in Cortland when a friend informed Cohen that a two-year school in Canton, then Canton ATI, was looking for basketball coach and accounting professor.

“I must have been the only one that applied,” quipped the 79-year old Cohen, whose soft-spoken nature contrasts with the blazing passion that marks his coaching career and playing days.

His career and 39-year tenure at SUNY Canton began modestly with a 6-10 record in the 1957-58 season but quickly took off. In his second season he led the 16-4 Northmen to a number one ranking in the East and a number 10 national rank at a time when NJCAA rankings included junior colleges of all sizes.

Cohen’s teams went on to a 247-143 record, won the notoriously strong Empire State Conference championship four times, earned number one or two rankings in the East three times and successfully competed against freshman teams from Syracuse, Cornell and Colgate University. His 1964-65 team went 26-3 and took seventh in the nationals.

Leading the Northmen were 10 players who went on to play at the NCAA Division I level, headed by All-Americans Ken Goodwin (1960), Bob Davis (1970) and Willie McBride (1971). Davis, who went to Weber State, was the 14th overall pick in the 1972 NBA Draft by the Portland Trail Blazers.

Willie Brown (1961) went on to play for Texas Western (now UTEP), the Dallas Chaparells of the ABA and the Harlem Globetrotters.

Cohen credits Brown for having a major impact on the Canton program.

“Willie came to Canton from the Bronx and over the years he helped bring many players to the program,” Cohen said. “Willie also helped bring key players for the Texas Western team which won the national championship (the 1966 NCAA Division I championship team featured in movie “Glory Road”).”

Those players led teams that brought great electricity to the north country sports scene.

“When I first moved to Canton in the 1960s, I would go and watch Stan’s teams play all the time,” said retired Canton Central School teacher Pat Casey. “They played at a very high level and the place was always packed. It was just a great atmosphere.”

Cohen helped create the same kind of atmosphere at Maxcy Hall after becoming an assistant coach for Jerry Welsh at SUNY Potsdam in 1973.

He helped shape two NCAA Division III national championship teams (1981, 1986) and three NCAA Division National runner-up squads (1979, 1982, and 1985).

Every game became must-see entertainment around the north country as the Bears forged a 53-game home winning streak in 1984-88, a 56-game regular season winning streak 1984-88, and a 60-game winning streak 1985-1987.

Now he assists head coach Sherry Dobbs’s efforts to make the Bears a force in the strong SUNYAC Conference and enjoys what he loves the most about coaching.

“I just like the kids and working with the ball players who really haven’t changed much over the years,” Cohen said.

Cohen is a member of the SUNY Canton and SUNY Potsdam athletic halls of fame and his college team is enshrined at Hobart College.

But his greatest honor may have come in 2011 when a former player Bob Rogers (1961) donated $100,000 to SUNY Canton in Cohen’s name.

Hal Cohen saw the impact of his father, too.

“Growing up I would attend his team’s practices, live and die with each of games and go on recruiting trips throughout the state with him,” said Hal Cohen, a longtime radiologist in Syracuse. “What has always struck me was his special relationship with all his players and the people he has met along the way.

“Through his actions he has shown myself and his players on how to be truly a good person. Despite all his basketball wins, I believe this will be his greatest legacy.”

A legacy that current SUNY Potsdam captain, Zac Adams of Potsdam.

“Coach Cohen is someone you can always go and talk to. He has so much knowledge and he always has great advice,” Adams said. “I talk to him everyday before practice.”

Dobbs said that Cohen’s knowledge of the game and his experience are invaluable, but his biggest contributions may come at practice.

“He brings an energy and passion every day. He comes into the gym and he is ready to go,” Dobbs said. “He has a place on our staff as long as he wants to coach. And I hope he keeps coaching for many more years.”

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