Speedy Morris’s Fall From Basketball Glory

Back in the '90s, a basketball coach from Roxborough hit the big time, leading La Salle to a national ranking. Then his career took a nosedive—or did it?

All the more crazy because on paper, at least, it was a miracle Speedy got there at all. He had no college diploma, and his only coaching experience, save the two years when he coached the La Salle women’s basketball team, was at the high-school level. But Speedy got a big break—right place, right time—and when it came, he made the best of it.

But then Speedy started losing. And the losing seasons started to pile up, the alumni grew edgy, and the ax came down.

It was a public firing, replete with all the headlines—not the first time he had to endure that particular indignity in his hometown.

This time, he was 59 years old. Everyone assumed that was the end. But then a funny thing happened. Because Speedy simply wasn’t done.

IT’S TEMPTING TO PAINT Speedy Morris with a broad brush, to portray him as an old-school coach out of Hoosiers, a God-and-country neighborhood guy with little in the way of book smarts or athletic prowess but possessed with the grit to inspire and bully others into doing what he couldn’t.

Particularly tempting in Speedy’s case, because so much of that rings true.

Speedy never liked school and was too slow of foot to be much of an athlete. He graduated in 1960 from Roman Catholic High, the all-boys school at Broad and Vine, near the bottom of his class.

He makes no apologies: “All I cared about was basketball.”

He got tagged with “Speedy” in the seventh grade when his coach at St. John’s used it to poke fun at how slowly he ran. Today, at community breakfasts and CYO banquets where his self-deprecating zingers score big with the parish crowd, Speedy likes to say he was so slow on the basketball court, he once got picked up for loitering.

He was a lousy student and not much of an athlete, but Speedy had one big advantage over other kids: He knew exactly what he wanted to do. So when the chance to coach CYO at St. John’s surfaced his senior year in high school, he went to his basketball coach at Roman, where he had somehow managed to avoid being cut, and asked for guidance.

“Take the job,” the coach said. “You’re not going to get playing time here anyway.”

So for seven long years he hung in with the little CYO guys, preaching fundamentals, teaching the three-man weave, ­biding his time, wondering if or when someone might take a chance on a guy without a degree who wanted nothing more than to coach basketball.

His break came in 1966, when he was asked to coach the JV team at his alma mater, Roman Catholic. A year later, Speedy, only 26, was named the varsity coach. In ’69, he led Roman to the Catholic League title, its first championship in 27 years.

Speedy had wasted no time establishing his balls-out, keep-it-simple, tough-love, take-no-prisoners approach to the game. He demanded total dedication of all who wore the Roman uniform. He pelted his players with inspirational notes in season and out, insisting they stay academically sound and combat-ready.

He was profane and explosive during games, a screamer, a tantrum thrower who would rip off his jacket and sling it across the floor to protest a call. Years later, when La Salle was playing Villanova, he once ripped his pants and had his wife Mimi sew them up at halftime. He was the Catholic League’s Bobby Knight, a street fighter, loved by the Roman faithful and loathed by opponents.

For 14 years he coached at Roman, snagging six championships and a school record for most wins. He had become a Catholic League icon, a media favorite, a house brand: Mr. Roman Catholic.