The Legendary Stan Spirou

MagazineSpring11CoverStory

By: Mike Cullity

For more than a quarter century, Stan Spirou has paced the sidelines as the SNHU men’s basketball coach. To Penmen fans, his game-time persona is legendary; exhorting his players and pleading with referees, Spirou wears his heart on his sleeve, making no effort to hide his desire to win – or his frequent exasperation. 

But those who have come to know Spirou during his time at the helm, a tenure that has produced 510 victories, will tell you that there’s far more to the man than his coaching demeanor suggests.

''There's this perception of him on the court of this wild man, hot-tempered and losing it,'' said Tom McDermott, SNHU's sports information director from 1990 to 2007. ''People who don't know him think that he might be like that all the time, but the thing that’s amazing about Stan is he can be that passionate on the court and then five minutes after the game is over, whether it's a win or a loss, he's cracking jokes and he's back to good old Stan.''

With his trademark fervor – and a penchant for one-liners – Spirou has established SNHU as one of the top Division II basketball programs in New England. He has led the Penmen to 14 NCAA tournament appearances, four NCAA regional titles and two national Final Four berths. Inducted into the New England Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009, he earned his 500th career victory last November, when SNHU defeated Thomas College in its 2010-11 season opener. 

Those close to Spirou say that although winning basketball games is important to him, he is more interested in teaching his players to excel in life. And while the 60-year-old coach relishes memorable victories, he derives greater satisfaction knowing his teams' success has contributed to SNHU’s growth as an academic institution.

''It's one of the best educational stories around, and I'm just glad that I’ve been part of it,'' he said.

The Early Years

His success drew the notice of Tom Sullivan, the head coach at SNHU (then New Hampshire College), who brought Spirou aboard as a part-time assistant in 1982. When Sullivan left in 1985, the school tapped Spirou to take over the program, which had first earned acclaim with consecutive NCAA regional titles in 1980 and 1981. 

''We wanted to get the best coach, and he was the best coach,'' said SNHU Athletic Director Chip Polak, who hired Spirou and has worked closely with him since. ''He combined the familiarity with what’s going on locally with his passion and his knowledge of the game.''

While building upon the program’s early success under Sullivan, Spirou has remained mindful of those who helped him along the way. He has sought to repay his debt of gratitude by paying it forward, whether by offering scholarships to his summer basketball camp, putting on clinics for local schools or helping his players finish their education and launch their post-college lives.  

''Basketball is Stan's passion, but I really do think in some ways his mission in life is making opportunities available to people,'' said SNHU President Paul LeBlanc. ''He's as apt to talk about the importance of education or the importance of the university or the transformational impact on his players' lives as he is to talk about the x's and o's of the game.

You’d be hard pressed to find a more expert coach, but in reality I don’t think coaching is the end product for Stan. I think it's the way he reaches people and engages in the world.''

'We Wanted the Best'

His success drew the notice of Tom Sullivan, the head coach at SNHU (then New Hampshire College), who brought Spirou aboard as a part-time assistant in 1982. When Sullivan left in 1985, the school tapped Spirou to take over the program, which had first earned acclaim with consecutive NCAA regional titles in 1980 and 1981. 

''We wanted to get the best coach, and he was the best coach,'' said SNHU Athletic Director Chip Polak, who hired Spirou and has worked closely with him since. ''He combined the familiarity with what’s going on locally with his passion and his knowledge of the game.''

While building upon the program's early success under Sullivan, Spirou has remained mindful of those who helped him along the way. He has sought to repay his debt of gratitude by paying it forward, whether by offering scholarships to his summer basketball camp, putting on clinics for local schools or helping his players finish their education and launch their post-college lives.  

''Basketball is Stan’s passion, but I really do think in some ways his mission in life is making opportunities available to people,'' said SNHU President Paul LeBlanc. ''He's as apt to talk about the importance of education or the importance of the university or the transformational impact on his players' lives as he is to talk about the x's and o's of the game.

You'd be hard pressed to find a more expert coach, but in reality I don’t think coaching is the end product for Stan. I think it’s the way he reaches people and engages in the world.''

Paying It Forward

Under Spirou’s tutelage, Will Flowers '93 enjoyed a stellar playing career at SNHU, scoring more than 1,000 points and leading the Penmen to an NCAA Final Four berth as a senior. After graduating, he spent a decade as one of Spirou’s assistant coaches and in 2000 was inducted into the SNHU Athletic Hall of Fame. Like many of Spirou’s former players, the Connecticut native lives in Manchester, teaching marketing at the John H. Sununu Youth Services Center for juvenile offenders and refereeing high school and college basketball games.

Heavily recruited out of prep school, Flowers chose SNHU in large part thanks to Spirou's pitch, which wasn’t all about basketball. 

''One of the things I always remember he said to me as a recruit that I really liked was, 'Listen, basketball is a small part of college life. We're also in the business of helping prepare kids for life after college.' '' Flowers said.

Flowers also recalls how Spirou used basketball as a teaching tool. In a close loss to cross-town rival St. Anselm his freshman year, an SNHU teammate lost his cool, drawing a late technical foul that most believed cost the Penmen the game, Flowers said. But Spirou saw things differently.

''I think right then and there most coaches might have gone off,'' Flowers said. ''But I just remember him saying, 'Hey listen, we win as a team, we lose as a team. You guys learned a valuable lesson about letting your emotions take the better end of you.' ''

Off the Court
Although Spirou takes basketball seriously and demands a lot from his players, his worldview transcends three-point shots and zone defenses. Senior Cory Vejraska, who co-captained the 2010-11 squad, said the coach pushed him and his teammates, but put the game in proper perspective.

''There's a bigger scheme of life going on other than basketball, and he understands that and he helps me understand that, too, that basketball really isn't everything,'' Vejraska said. Education has long been high among Spirou's priorities. Former SNHU assistant coach Bill Foti, who for the last 19 years has been the head coach at Colby-Sawyer College in New London, N.H., played for Spirou at Central High School. He said the coach, who also taught at Central, took great interest in his players' academic performance.

''He was always asking for excellence,'' Foti said. ''He'd always be asking about your grades. I never had a coach ask me that stuff before.''

Although Foti didn’t play college basketball, Spirou gave him his start in coaching, hiring him as an SNHU graduate assistant in 1986.

''I owe him a lot, because he did have confidence in me,'' Foti said. ''For him to take a chance on a guy who had no experience gave me a lot of confidence.''

Spirou invests himself in others' success, even in difficult circumstances. Ed Ithier '87, who played on Spirou’s first NCAA regional title team as a senior, recalls how the coach treated one SNHU player who encountered academic problems.

''He went out of his way to make sure that the kid found another school to finish out his education,'' said Ithier, adding that the player eventually earned his degree.

Deep Roots

It's logical to think that Spirou might have parlayed his success at SNHU into a Division I coaching job. But while Spirou admits the idea crossed his mind, he said he's never applied for any other positions.

''I never wanted to leave my family or this community,'' he said. 

Since Spirou established roots in Manchester as an immigrant, his family has grown to include his wife, Pat, professor and chair of SNHU's marketing department, three children and three grandchildren. But the coach’s kin are not limited by blood, Pat said.

''He's got a passion for his players, even after they go,'' she said. ''And I think that's what he enjoys the most, the large basketball family that he has.''

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