New regime: La Salle seeks return to glory

Naveen Ganglani
New regime: La Salle seeks return to glory
La Salle aims to live up to its rank of being one of UAAP's powerhouses in men's basketball

MANILA, Philippines – Do you want to know the best-kept secret in Taft Avenue? Here it is.

Since the departure of Franz Pumaren from the team, the De La Salle Green Archers basketball program hasn’t lived up to its reputation.

Think about it. When Franz handled the Green Archers, they made finals appearance one after another and collected championship after championship. Did Pumaren always get along with his players? No, but they were always ready for battle and never displayed intimidation when the game got really tough. His preparation was key to that.

After all, 10 finals appearances and 5 championships are undisputable. That’s not yet taking into account the number of blue-chip recruits who became household names in the PBA after learning under Pumaren’s tutelage, most of whom have been ferociously loyal to their former mentor while working with him again in other capacities. Just ask Ren-Ren Ritualo, whose jersey hangs in the ninth floor of the Enrique Razon Sports Complex.

In 2009, Pumaren ended his tenure with De La Salle and left the team in the hands of his brother, Dindo, who had coached the UE team that went undefeated in the UAAP elimination round of 2007 but ultimately got swept by his big brother’s Green Archers in the finals. His resumé, although lacking a UAAP championship, was somewhat solid.

As Franz sought a career in politics, Dindo was supposed to continue the winning tradition established by his brother. He was successful for a little bit by leading La Salle to the Final Four, but eventually, the partnership wasn’t meant to last as issues arose both on the court and within campus.

Just like that, the Pumaren era was done.

Jeron Teng & Ben Mbala

Thus entered Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco Jr. Or, in more popular terms, Boss ECJ.

One of the most accomplished and relentless businessmen this continent has ever seen, “Danding” provided La Salle with the resources to regain what those of generations ago now call the “glory years.” In came Jeron Teng and Ben Mbala, the superheroes La Salle needed for a ride back to the mountain top, while other blue-chippers were inserted to make DLSU the model of college basketball once again.

Was it a success? Yes. La Salle won UAAP titles in 2013 and 2016. Though truth be told, those championships had more to do with the once-in-an-era type of talent that JT and Big Ben possessed more than what we’re seeing up north in Katipunan now: an evergreen system primed for triumph, regardless of circumstance.

Since Franz, La Salle has had 5 head coaches in 9 years: Dindo (2 years), Gee Abanilla (1 year), Juno Sauler (3 years), Aldin Ayo (2 years), and Louie Gonzales (1 year). During that span, a La Salle team that once upon a time made the UAAP Finals 9 straight seasons has missed the Final Four 3 times, made the finals thrice, and won only two championships.

Let’s be honest: that’s below expectations.

Meanwhile, their bluer but happier rivals in Loyola Heights have won 7 championships in the last 10 years. How do you think Cojuangco feels about having to hand a 14-karat, PHP 2,700,000-worth ECJ Trophy to the team supported by Manny V. Pangilinan for the second straight year?

Times have changed.

New coach next year

In 2019, a decade after “the glory years” came to an end, the Green Archers are going to have a sixth head coach in former NBA D-League mentor Jermaine Byrd, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the situation and as reported by Tiebreaker Times. An official announcement from the university is still pending.

Like Tab Baldwin in his first year with Ateneo, you’ll be seeing the tag “consultant” for Byrd while PBA legend and current Alab-Pilipinas assistant coach Danny Seigle is the favorite to have the “head coach” label for formality. Only Paulo Sauler will return from the previous assistant staff, while Siot Tanquingcen, Anton Altamirano, and Glenn Capacio will be replaced by Chappy Callanta, Mc Abolucion and Lamont Waters.

Gonzales, who was an assistant coach under Ayo before being offered the head coaching gig after the latter’s departure, was asked to remain as an assistant in the new regime while getting rewarded the same salary as when he was a head coach. He refused.

Ayo’s role in La Salle’s current situation is even more significant than what’s already been reported. When Cojuangco paid a hefty price to acquire him from Letran in 2015, management did so with the expectation that he would turn into this generation’s Franz Pumaren: the young, fearless, and talented head coach whose system of “Mayhem” would become the ideology of a victorious DLSU program.

In the beginning, the Ayo-La Salle partnership clicked on almost all fronts. With Mbala and Teng leading the way, the Green Archers went 16-1 en route to a UAAP title two years ago. Away from the practice court, “Coach Aldin” was the guy who casually hung out around campus with his players and made them feel like he was just one of the guys. His brashness, unapologetic but within the rules, became his team’s personality and reminded La Salle loyalists of a time when the Archers did the intimidating.

But Ayo wanted more. According to sources, the main reason for his departure was his desire to have control of the DLSU basketball program beyond Taft Avenue. He wanted to start grooming future Green Archers by having a say in La Salle’s Team B, the high school clubs associated with the green and white, and beyond. DLSU brass was not comfortable with that idea. The status quo was working, so why change it, they wondered?

When Anton Altamirano, the son of former UAAP champion coach Eric Altamirano who wasn’t part of Ayo’s staff, was given command of DLSU’s Team B, sources say the rift between Ayo and management deepened. Aldin was eventually offered what he wanted at UST, where he ultimately signed a 6-year deal to show that he was in it for the long haul with the Growling Tigers. Switching schools is not uncommon for a head coach, but the way Ayo did it will irk many at DLSU for a very long time.

It was about this time last year when the Green Archers, management, and coaching staff had their Christmas Party following La Salle’s finals loss to Ateneo. Amid rumors he was leaving for another school, Ayo announced to everyone that he was returning.

“He shook my hand and said he will take care of the team,” said a source who was present. A DLSU player, speaking under the condition of anonymity, said that Aldin told the boys he would return because he loved them. Quinito Henson, one of the Philippines’ veteran journalists and who works close with La Salle administration, announced on social media that Ayo was returning and working towards the future with the team.

Ayo gives La Salle a shock

Then, a few days later, Ayo shocked everyone by switching allegiances. Believing they had their guy for the future, a bewildered La Salle management was left in the cold seeking a replacement with so little time remaining. Taking that into account along with the fact that most of the team’s players were already trained under the previous system, ECJ offered the spot to Gonzales, who had spent years taking different types of coaching gigs before being offered the chance of a lifetime.

Speechless when he was given the job, Gonzales’ first instinct was to talk to his wife. When she gave the go-signal, he accepted. In any other timeline, this would be a tale of a hardworking man who was given the opportunity of a lifetime and succeeded. Unfortunately for Louie, the environment he was tasked to navigate through proved too big an ordeal.

First, Mbala announced he was going pro since he was unwilling to take another few months of dealing with the UAAP board’s uncertainty. Second, La Salle’s future superstar, Ricci Rivero, was let go by the team along with his brother Prince following off-court issues that remain unclear to this day.

La Salle bounced back and showed a lot of promise in the Filoil preseason tournament, but in the first game of Season 81, Taane Samuel, who was pegged as Mbala’s replacement, suffered a Jones Fracture and missed almost the remainder of the eliminations. Gonzales also lost his team captain Kib Montalbo for a few games, and though he returned by playing through the pain of a fractured thumb, he never truly recovered.

Despite all that, La Salle was still 8-4 with two games remaining in the eliminations with a chance at a twice-to-beat seed. Unfortunately for the Green Archers, they lost to the eventual champion Blue Eagles and then had to face a UP team on fire for their fourth game in 11 days. With some help from Pumaren and his Falcons, FEU  stayed alive in the playoff chase and beat La Salle thanks to an Arvin Tolentino-sized miracle.

Publicly, Gonzales took the blame to shield his boys from criticism. Privately, the head coach who was a players’ favorite – which was no longer the case with Ayo in his second year at DLSU – stepped down from his spot following the loss to the Maroons. Win or lose against the Tamaraws, Final Four or not, Gonzales knew he wasn’t coming back as head coach.

Alapag turns it down

And now, here we are. La Salle immediately knew they needed an elite head coach who can compete with the world-class strategic mind of Baldwin. According to sources, they reached out to Jimmy Alapag who turned the offer down to focus on Alab-Pilipinas. They sent feelers to LPU Pirates head coach Topex Robinson, who was quickly signed to a long-term extension by Lyceum in response. There was even some interest in former Jordan national player and head coach Sam Dahgles.

They nearly came to an agreement with former Qatar head coach Tim Lewis, with sources saying weeks ago it was “80%” close to completion as both sides met when he was in Manila with his team for a friendly against Gilas. Unfortunately, the British mentor could not get out of his contract abroad. The Alab assistants suggested Byrd, a long-time coach in the NBA D-League who has also worked in the Korean Basketball League.

According to sources, the plan is to have Byrd signed to a 3-year contract.

The immediate goal is key: player development, which he excels in. Just look at his website. DLSU is tired of recruiting blue-chip talents only to have their progress halted midway through their college careers. The fact that many former Green Archers – specifically Robert Bolick – turned from benchwarmer at La Salle to major contributors for other universities is also a point of emphasis.

With regards to the roster, the mandate is clear: everyone has to earn their spot on the team in Season 82 and beyond. With many players coming in – both transferees and high school graduates – no one is assured of being a shoo-in. DLSU still has an influx of talent, but it will be up to Byrd and a championship-level Alab coaching staff to develop them into a title-caliber club who can match strides with Ateneo, UP, and Adamson.

As for control of the team, sources say Danding is expected to take a little bit of a backseat while team manager Raffy Villacencio runs to show along with PBA board governor Alfrancis Chua, who has helped steer the San Miguel Beermen and Barangay Ginebra Gin Kings to multiple PBA titles in the past few years.

The new changes within the Green Archers send a message loud and clear: this is still a basketball program that expects to win a UAAP championship every season.

Taking into account the names of the new personnel in place, both in front and behind the curtains, it looks like nothing less would be acceptable. –

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