MANILA, Philippines – Bo Perasol is entering his first year in University of the Philippines. Jett Manuel, the coach’s team captain, is about to play his final season with the Fighting Maroons. But the goal of both men, despite taking place at opposite spectrums of their respective tenures, is similar: to establish a winning tradition for the maligned basketball program.
There’s a new feeling surrounding UP, or as Manuel likes to put it, “a breath of fresh air.” The arrival of the Maroons’ new coaching staff, led by Perasol, is no coincidence.
While Perasol has received his share of criticism - most of it coming from Ateneo fans while he spent the last 3 years as the Blue Eagles’ head coach - he is arguably the most headline-grabbing coach hired by the Maroons in recent memory.
Perasol is no savior who can easily snap UP’s 19-year streak of missing the Final Four. In fact, among the 5 new coaches hired by UAAP teams during the offseason - Aldin Ayo (La Salle), Tab Baldwin (Ateneo, consultant), Franz Pumaren (Adamson), Boy Sablan (UST) - not many will put him in the top 3.
But what the former UP varsity player can bring, along with more-devoted contributions from team management and sponsors, is consistency. And right now, that’s exactly what the Fighting Maroons need to begin with.
“When my contract ended with Ateneo, the [UP] management team, they already approached me on the possibility of me coaching again. But I had to think about that. I took another 4 months. I really didn’t think at first I was going to push through, but when it started to dawn on me there’s really a need for a change, I wanted to be a part of that,” he told Rappler, as he watched his Maroons practice a few meters away.
“For me there’s so much to do here. I’m happy that I’m here but at the same time, the challenge is very big to turn the program around, to make a difference. To start something that can be used in the years to come. Probably start good recruitment, a good system, and probably change our mentality that we can at least win again.”
In the last 5 years (2011-2015), UP had win-loss records of 2-12, 1-13, 0-14, 1-13, and 3-11. When the Fighting Maroons defeated the Adamson Falcons in August 2014 - another team that went 1-13 that season - to end a 27-game and two-year losing streak, there was a bonfire to celebrate the victory. The event was special in its own right - a chance for UP students and fans to celebrate the end of a long misery - but there were also those who ridiculed the notion.
The first step to change is usually the toughest. UP has tried it for years, even utilizing the “Nowhere to go but UP” campaign recently to gather more support. For a while, it felt that ascension would happen last season when the Maroons hired Rensy Bajar and began with a 2-0 record, but they finished winning only 1 of their remaining 12 games.
In 2016, it’s a similar case with the program doing a reboot, but Manuel is more confident. “I’d gone through 4 or 5 coaches since I’ve been in UP, and it’s different with Coach Bo because, the things he brings to the table, it’s completely different from the other coaches, not to take away anything from them," he said.
“He came from a winning program. He just came from Ateneo, which is why it’s different, and he’s teaching us more of how to change our culture. I think that’s what’s new about this year.”
There’s also the support from those who handle the varsity program. But what’s better about it this time around?
“It’s more visible now. It’s more concrete,” Manuel said. “We feel the support that they’re telling us, unlike the past years where we know that there’s support, but we don’t really see it. Right now we’re aware of it - the management’s visible, Dan Palami’s visible, Chooks to Go, Robinson’s, they’re all visible. We see what they’re all giving us, and it gives the team motivation to keep working.”
Many consider La Salle as the favorite to land the number one seed and win the title this season because of their undefeated run in the FilOil preseason tournament and arrival of Cameroonian student-athlete Ben Mbala. But after the Green Archers, it’s tough to get a gauge of the rest of the league.
Ateneo lost 7 major contributors to academic issues. NU needs to replace the departure of starting point guard Gelo Alolino. FEU lost Mike Tolomia, Roger Pogoy, Russel Escoto, and Mac Belo. UE is a question mark. So is UST, which no longer has MVP candidates Kevin Ferrer and Ed Daquioag. Adamson hired a head coach with a good track record, but there are some concerns over the roster.
Like many of these teams, UP also has to discover what its identity will be on the court. But with so much uncertainty could arise an opening. While others struggle, the Maroons, with a few lucky bounces, could win more games than expected and maybe sneak in a Final Four spot.
“What’s important is that we’re going to take a shot at it,” said Perasol, who also added that the team has only two specific goals: to start a winning culture, and win more than 3 games. Outside of Javi Gomez De Liano, the Maroons didn’t have a big-name recruit and will instead bank on internal development. They did beat the Blue Eagles in a tune-up game last week, which is promising.
As far as making the finals or even winning a championship, it will take a whole lot of things to go right for UP in order to achieve those goals. Manuel is aware of that, so his immediate goal in his final year of eligibility is to be one of those who, hopefully for him one day in the future, is considered a patriarch in the program’s rise to becoming a championship contender.
“When people ask me what I want to leave behind, or what legacy I want to leave in UP, that’s precisely it - I want to leave UP knowing I jumpstarted somehow the winning culture of the team. It doesn’t end with the games and stuff, but more of how we are in practice, how we are as a team, how we talk to each other, the way we practice, the way we think when we practice. I think those are the things that I’m trying to focus on right now,” he said.
“No championship program can be made over night or over a year, over a two-year period. So I just hope that this program we have right now - that breath of fresh air - stays the entire time.”
Perasol, who signed a contract which requires a minimum of him to be UP’s coach for two years, sees Manuel, Paul Desiderio, and Dave Moralde as players who can blossom into college basketball stars this season. Manuel, a Civil Engineering graduate, has a potentially successful corporate career waiting for him after this season, but he also wants to try his luck out with the PBA or the national team program.
Both men will eventually walk their own paths to their respective futures. Although for now, their task at hand is the same: Nowhere to go but UP. – Rappler.com