RUMOR: San Miguel Corp. big boss and top De La Salle patron Eduardo 'Danding' Cojuangco, Jr. was left so exasperated after the Green Archers finished the Filoil Flying V Hanes Premier Cup with three ugly losses that he immediately dropped the ax on head coach Gee Abanilla.
FACTS: Until a few weeks ago, De La Salle's buildup for the coming UAAP season was going so smoothly that pundits were quick to install the Green Archers as one of the pre-tournament favorites. Then all so suddenly, it all fell apart for the team and its coach.
First came a 53-60 loss in the Filoil Flying V Hanes Premier Cup to the long-suffering University of the East Red Warriors. Next was another 70-78 setback to injury-hit archrival Ateneo, which showed up with only 10 players but had King Eagle Kiefer Ravena at his very best.
Compounding the Green Archers' woes was an ugly loss in the knockout rounds of the preseason tournament to NCAA champion San Beda, which stared at a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter only to see crack guard Baser Amer lead the Red Lions to a rousing 66-63 victory.
Days later, head coach Gee Abanilla was gone.
Abanilla's departure came as a complete shock not only to the players and the La Salle community but to the man tasked to take over the position, Juno Sauler, a longtime assistant coach with the team who admitted he didn't expect the job to land on his lap. Or at least not this early.
In a statement, De La Salle president and chancellor Br. Ricky Laguda FSC, said the coaching change was made after Petron, where Abanilla holds a concurrent role as an assistant coach, requested Abanilla to go full-time with the PBA ballclub as the ""Boosters undergo a re-organization within the team.""
Henry Atayde, La Salle’s representative to the UAAP board, said Petron has long been in talks with La Salle on Abanilla being recalled to work full-time for Petron. Eventually it was decided that Abanilla will be allowed to finish the Filoil tournament before handing over the reigns to Sauler, he added.
“As Br. Ricky mentioned to me, there were discussions with Petron since the first week of May. Br. Ricky prevailed upon Petron management to have coach Gee finish the Filoil tournament first,” said Atayde.
Another source from DLSU who declined to be named said San Miguel Corp. big boss Eduardo 'Danding' Cojuangco Jr. wanted someone to coach the Archers full-time, the reason he let Abanilla go.
However, La Salle's statement was followed by a swift Petron denial that Abanilla is in line to replace Olsen Racela as the Boosters' head coach. That only meant that a Petron ""re-organization"" may be afoot, but Abanilla won't play so big a role in the team as to require his full, undivided attention.
Even more curiously, Abanilla's replacement, Sauler, has told Spin.ph shortly after assuming the position that he has no plan to quit his job as an assistant coach at Barangay Ginebra, meaning he will be playing a dual role just like Abanilla now that he is at the helm of the Archers.
So what prompted the change?
Insiders reveal a disappointed Cojuangco made the decision after the Archers' three losses in the Filoil tournament. 'The Boss,' afterall, had been very hands-on with the affairs of the Green Archers since returning to the role as the team's top backer last season.
Cojuangco had overseen the Archers' major buildup since last season, going as far as joining the Archers in a trip to Bacolod to land point guard sensation Kib Montalbo. He was also instrumental in bringing in Jeron Teng last season as well as Southwestern University's Ben Mbala during the offseason.
To see the Green Archers' buildup fall apart barely three weeks to the season left Cojuangco no choice but to drop the ax on Abanilla, sources said.
But why Sauler?
Sauler, who played for the Green Archers in the nineties, has long been part of the school's basketball program. He had handled La Salle's women's team and had been an assistant to Franz Pumaren and was in fact on the short list when the Archers appointed Abanilla to replace Dindo Pumaren last season.
And since he was a part of Abanilla's staff since last year, Sauler is in the best position to give the Archers a seamless transition so close to the season under the circumstances.
Still, this early there are talks that the La Salle shake-up may go beyond Sauler, with the job eventually going to one familiar face at La Salle who also happens to be one of Danding's most trusted men in basketball. His name? Jong Uichico.
The multi-titled Uichico quit San Miguel last year after falling out of favor with the basketball organization, which is now being run by people handpicked by Ramon S. Ang. He has since found a new home with the rival MVP group, where he is now an assistant to Ryan Gregorio at Meralco and to Chot Reyes in the Gilas Pilipinas national team.
Shortly after Abanilla's exit, talk grew louder that Uichico, who was spotted recently watching one Filoil game while seated next to Cojuangco, may end up making a college basketball comeback at La Salle once he finishes his commitments with Gilas.
But at least for now, the job belongs to Sauler, who has not handled a major basketball program but gained both respect and recognition at Ginebra for quietly doing his work as part of the backroom staff.
According to Ginebra insiders, he excels in studying video and breaking down plays of opposing teams - the same roles, incidentally, which Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra and Alaska champion coach Luigi Trillo played before assuming head-coaching jobs.
Now it's up to him on whether he becomes a stop-gap measure or a big part of La Salle for the long term.