Examining Tom Shirley’s remarkable coaching career

Tom Shirley (on the right). Photo: CBS Philly

Philadelphia-based sports reporter Matt Leon introduces the latest episode of his podcast (“1-On-1 With Matt Leon”) on longtime women’s college basketball coach Tom Shirley with an appropriate description: “model of consistency.”

What has made him consistent?

What has made him passionate about his job for decades?

Shirley is entering his 31st season at the helm for the Jefferson University Rams. He landed the coaching gig in 1989 at Philadelphia College of Textiles & Science, which became known as Philadelphia University in 1999. (Philadelphia’s merger with Jefferson University occurred in 2017. Both institutions of higher learning were established in the 1800s.)

Shirley has a 777-351 overall record, first running the show for DeSales (Pa.) University at the NAIA and NCAA Division III ranks from 1981-89.

Leading the NCAA Division II Rams, Tom Shirley is 628-278, including a school record 29-victory campaign — against three defeats in 2018-19. Under his leadership, the Rams have produced 22 seasons with 20 or more victories.

What’s more, they had 25 straight winning campaigns, from 1991-92 to 2015-16.

Asked about his longevity and if it “seems possible” that he’s had the job this long, Shirley responded by saying, “No, it seems like I was 26 yesterday … and I don’t know where the years went.”

Shirley’s mindset

Approaching another season, Shirley describes what lies ahead in runner’s language.

“Well, we kind of talk about the terminology of sprinting and jogging and walking,” he told Leon on the podcast.

“And now (in September) we’re in the sprint mode,” the coach/athletic director said.

Early on in the podcast, Leon asked him: “When did coaching becoming something that you thought would be a direction?”

His response: “I really didn’t think it was when I left college in ’76. I graduated from Allentown College (now DeSales).”

Tom Shirley credit: philadelphia.cbslocal.com

Becoming a coach

After college, he revealed, he worked for Ford Motor Company for about 4 1/2 years “because my father told me that’s what I should do.”

He continued: “I really didn’t like the corporate concept. I didn’t like the fact that I’d have to move. I kind of knew I was going to stay a neighborhood guy, and I wrote letters to school saying I just want to be in athletics. I want to do something in sport, and the next thing you know Father (Daniel G.) Gambet, who was the president of Allentown College, called me and said he had an opening for athletic director.”

It was a phone call that changed his life, leading to a career in sports.

Like anyone else, Tom Shirley learned on the job.

“I don’t think that the very first year or second year I knew that I wasn’t very smart, and I just kind of incorporated some basic things that I learned in high school, learned in college,” he noted.

It took Shirley a couple years to grasp that “it’s all about recruiting.”

Incorporating the coaching styles of Philly coaching legend Herb Magee (1,096 career wins entering the 2019-20 campaign), the men’s bench boss for Philadelphia Textile/Philadelphia/Jefferson since 1967, and others helped Shirley develop his own system.

“In my third or fourth year is when I really started to realize that I had to get smart and lean on other people and do some recruiting,” said Shirley.

In a results-based business, Shirley thrives on the daily measuring stick of having results out in the open.

“The thing I like about this the most is if I was to be car salesman, it may take me three months to finalize a deal,” Shirley related. “These deals are closed in 90 minutes, so you know at the end of the day — you won or you lost. And that’s how you’re judged, winning or losing. I like that part of it.”

A winning recipe

“If you have the right players in the right positions running the right stuff, you are going to be successful,” Shirley commented.

The 42-minute podcast episode can also be accessed via this link: https://kywnewsradio.radio.com/media/audio-channel/tom-shirley-model-consistency