NOT a few eyebrows were raised when Ronnie Magsanoc was named San Beda head coach prior to the start of the season. Not only was his coaching experience limited to an assistant coach job in the PBA and as director of his own basketball camps, but he also had big shoes to fill.
Frankie Lim, who had led San Beda to four titles over five years including the last two, was forced to step down after he was banned for a brawl with coaches and members of San Sebastian's volleyball team, thrusting Magsanoc into one of the most high-profile coaching jobs in Philippine basketball.
“There was never a plan to be mentor of the team,” said Magsanoc, whose being a star of the Red Cubs team that lifted the NCAA title in 1983 became his top qualification for the job. "Things happened and they found me at the helm."
But somehow, Butch Maniego, the late TV analyst/ journalist and former Spin.ph columnist, saw something in Magsanoc that other people didn't.
“Ronnie is a capable coach. May good vibes siya," Maniego told us prior to the season. "I think he has the kind of cool head that you need to function well in the NCAA. And with the type of fiery players we have now, I think he will mesh well with everyone. I think he has gotten everybody on the same page.”
Maniego didn't live long enough to see Magsanoc lift the championship, but it didn't take Magsanoc long to prove Maniego right.
From the moment he led a lineup that was down to six players owing to suspensions from the San Sebastian brawl to a win over Arellano on their first game of the season on June 24, the Red Lions showed they would be a force to be reckoned with - and Magsanoc a coach that would be up for the job.
“Special talaga yung game na yun,” Magsanoc said. “Yung panalong yun set the tone for our season.”
The rest of the season saw Magsanoc earn his coaching spurs, not by atttracting attention to himself but by almost disappearing on the bench each and every game. He made it all about the players, from the first game of the season down to Game Three of the NCAA Finals against Letran.
Magsanoc's decision to shift the focus from offense to defense also worked wonders for a team which, unlike rivals Letran (Kevin Alas) and San Sebastian (Calvin Abueva), had no lights-out scorer in its lineup.
The gambit is surprising, considering Magsanoc was one of thee finest scorers in college and in the PBA during his playing days. But with the Red Lions' top scorer, Baser Amer, barely reaching double digits in scoring average during the season, the coach knew it was a change he had to make.
Suddenly, a team that used to overwhelm opponents with their high-powered offense under Lim transformed into a mean defensive machine that held rivals to a league-low 59 points per game during the season and once held Jose Rizal University to a measly 37 points in one game.
“It was all about making defensive stops because if you look at our lineup, wala naman kaming big-time scorers like (the other teams) have. We had to rely on our defensive intensity to create offense for everyone,” said Magsanoc.
But more than anything else, it was Magsanoc's cool head - the same trait Maniego liked about Magsanoc the man, the player, and the coach - which proved crucial in the run-up to the championship. In the wild, helter-skelter game of college basketball, San Beda's low-key coach proved a calming presence on the bench.
None was that more evident than after Game Two of the Finals against Letran when it was Knights coach Louie Alas who got embroiled in a controversy over officiating, even if it was the Red Lions who lost the match.
Magsanoc refused to wade into the dispute - basically saying that it was none of his business - but he and the Red Lions did most of the noise on the floor with one unaswered basket after another while holding the hyper Knights to 39 points in the deciding Game Three on the way to a blowout victory.
But down to the very end, Magsanoc refused to make it about him.
“We were able to limit them to thirty-nine points. In any league, that is a testament to the kind of effort na binigay ng mga bata,” the 'Point Laurete' said. “Yun naman talaga ang pakay na layunin. We were just mere instruments to help these players realize their potential.
“Swerte lang namin na nabigyan kami ng pagkakataon to coach these players who have a very bright future ahead of them,” he added.
Somewhere out there, Maniego must be nodding in approval.