Sam Mellinger

Fran Fraschilla grew up wanting to do nothing but coach. Now, he thinks he found something even better

Before KU’s game against Baylor on Saturday, basektball commentator Fran Fraschilla (middle) shared a laugh with former KU broadcaster Bob Davis (right).
Before KU’s game against Baylor on Saturday, basektball commentator Fran Fraschilla (middle) shared a laugh with former KU broadcaster Bob Davis (right).

Fran Fraschilla was born and raised in Brooklyn and by the time this day is over he or someone who knows him well will refer to him as An East Coast Guy at least nine times and, superficially, you can see what they mean.

The confidence. The quick pace. The clothes. The references to New York. If you didn’t know where the 5-foot-9 Italian Catholic with meticulously coiffed salt and pepper was from, it would take you no more than three seconds to have him pegged.

You might guess Queens instead of Flatbush, but you’d be close enough, and the references are almost always meant as a point of juxtaposition about the de facto voice of Big 12 basketball for ESPN.

Hey, Fran’s an East Coast Guy, so you know he means it when he says there’s good basketball here.

It’s a form of shorthand, in other words, and it works well enough as a storytelling device or a way to emphasize a point. But if you get past the voice and the mannerisms you see a man who is very much of the Heartland.

His wife has four sisters, all of whom live within a mile of their mother in Dallas. Fran and Meg wanted their kids to be around her side of the family more, and at first it was going to be just for a year or two before he took another coaching job. But a year or two turned into 16 (so far) with Fraschilla turning down a number of coaching offers along the way, including the assistant’s job at Marquette that went to Buzz Williams.

“I want to figure out how to say this without sounding arrogant,” Fraschilla said. “But I was a really good coach, man. On occasion, I think to myself, ‘You could’ve won a national championship.’ I could’ve. I know that. I also know I could’ve had a heart attack at 39.”

Fraschilla is the first of seven kids born to a second generation immigrant who got by as a painter. Most of his brothers work with their hands. A few are construction contractors, building houses from scratch. Fraschilla works with his brain and his mouth and his ability to build relationships. That was true as a coach, and it’s true as a broadcaster.

Fraschilla does about 60 college games per year, plus NBA summer league and draft coverage as perhaps the country’s leading voice on international prospects. Broadcasting gives him more time at home, too. He watched his two sons grow up, each playing college basketball, and each now beginning careers as coaches.

He’s 59 now and sees this as a better life than coaching, in some ways. That’s not the only change in Fraschilla. If you think he’s still An East Coast Guy you haven’t sat with him in his rented GMC Acadia at the corner of Naismith and Sunnyside on the way to Kansas’ game against Baylor here on Saturday.

Complete stop.

Watches the SUV across the way come to a complete stop.

Flips his turn signal.

Waits for the SUV across the way to flash headlights.

Turns right.

He might as well make a bowl of puppy chow, and go out on the porch to watch a tornado.

Fraschilla has done Big 12 games longer than every coach in the league except Bill Self and Scott Drew. He’s worked with at least 25 play-by-play guys, dating back to when the league actually had 12 teams.

He is part of the league’s DNA now, at least when it comes to basketball. When Self was at Tulsa and Fran was between coaching jobs, Fran watched practice and stayed at Self’s house. He is close enough with Drew that the Baylor coach put his arm around the broadcaster, pulling him away from a group with the words, “I got something for you.”

He’s a bit of a one-man receiving line for these teams, not just the head coaches, but assistants, video coordinators, grad assistants, and players.

“Here’s what I want you to tell me,” one assistant said to Fran. “Why don’t we have more kids who come in as freshmen who can shoot fundamentally like Trae Young?”

Those relationships went front stage a week ago, when K-State coach Bruce Weber complained about bad calls at Allen Fieldhouse. Weber stopped short of specifics, but as he left the postgame press conference he yelled to a room full of reporters: “Ask Fran Fraschilla about it! He can speak for us!”

Weber did that because he trusts Fraschilla. Because he respects him. Eleven days earlier, Fraschilla criticized a phantom call that went against Texas Tech at Allen Fieldhouse and Fraschilla’s cell phone lit up with text messages from coaches around the league.

Weber was one of them, which is why he said that at the press conference, but he had no way of knowing Fraschilla had actually complimented the officials during the broadcast and would do the same — while explaining why he believes KU gets a favorable whistle at home — when called about it after.

But the example of Fraschilla’s embed in the league goes even further:

Weber texted him an apology that night, Fraschilla texted congratulations three days later when K-State beat Oklahoma, and several officials texted respect after both the criticism during the Tech game and support during the K-State game. They know Fraschilla once went through the conference’s officiating camp, and meets with them as a group before every season.

If there is a flyover insecurity in the Heartland — and there is — Fraschilla is something like an antidote. Most of his work is in the Big 12, but he’s also a prominent part of ESPN’s draft coverage, and does studio work.

“Fran is a huge asset for the Big 12,” Drew said. “National perception of the league is shaped by what he says, and he’s knowledgeable and respected. It’s important for us to have a Big 12 guy.”

Fraschilla, by his own description, has no life. He jokes that when he gets home from a game he plays with his cat, kisses his wife, then gets back to work watching tape. He knew he wanted to coach by the time he turned 12, and as a kid wrote letters to coaches across the country. Mike Krzyzewski, then at Army, once wrote him back.

Fraschilla was once one of the hottest coaches in the country, too — his first head job at 35, then the St. John’s coach at 39. C.M. Newton, then the AD at Kentucky, once publicly said a list of three finalists for a theoretical opening would include Fraschilla.

Part of what separates Fraschilla is he can break down the mechanics of officiating the same as an inbounds play (a focus of Saturday’s broadcast), or why Kansas may switch virtually all screens at West Virginia (helps save legs, among other reasons).

He can be a pseudo broadcast director in that way, alerting the guys in the truck about what play is coming, and which camera might capture it best. ESPN had an isolation look at Baylor’s Mark Vital guarding KU’s Svi Mykhailiuk and tracked KU’s success out of timeouts on Saturday, for instance, both ideas coming from Fraschilla.

Joe McCoy, ESPN’s producer for Saturday’s game, calls Fraschilla “not quite the mayor of the Big 12, but close. He’s like a selectman.”

That’s a good thing. It means Fraschilla has strong relationships, and good information for the broadcasts.

“It can be a detriment sometimes, too,” McCoy said. “It doesn’t prevent him from saying things, but sometimes — sometimes — it’s like he’ll say something but he won’t maybe go as far as some people would. He’s not afraid to call people out, as you’ve seen, but he’s aware of his relationships. That’s the best way to put it.”

Broadcasts are made of broken plans and constant adjustments and this one more than most.

Someone double-booked a cameraman, who was in Foxborough, Mass., for the AFC Championship game when he responded to a text from Lawrence. An associate producer came up sick on Saturday morning, unable to work.

“Ex-Marine,” McCoy said. “So you know he’s in bad shape.”

Fraschilla forgot a dress shirt, too. He hates packing, and said he was telling his wife how much he hates packing when he forgot to pack a dress shirt, so between shootarounds he drives to JoS. A. Bank on 7th Street. He’s two steps inside when he greets the salesman.

“Seventeen by 33,” he said. “And please tell me you have it in white.”

For a moment, he steps toward another rack of dress shirts but catches himself. He doesn’t have many vices. Clothing is the biggest. Once, his dry cleaning was mixed up with Herm Edwards’ — that’s a true story — so instead of wearing the clothes of a man 3 inches taller he bought a new suit that he then gave to an Iowa State assistant.

Live TV follows no script, which in some ways is another similarity to coaching — constant adjustments. Fraschilla and play-by-play man Rich Hollenberg planned the broadcast’s intro on Devonte Graham and Mykhailiuk, but it was scrapped over a misunderstanding about the tip time.

McCoy thought it was to be 5:05, but the time sheet said 5:02, which meant an awkward moment with both teams and the crowd waiting before the ball was thrown up at exactly 5:03 and 8 seconds.

Hollenberg and Fraschilla are mostly pleased with the next two hours. So much of it depends on the quality of the game, and this one was forgettable until a frantic final 10 minutes punctuated by another KU comeback. Fraschilla, for the record, thinks the officials missed one call in Kansas’ favor the last five minutes but overall did well.

Fraschilla’s favorite part of broadcasting is predicting what’s about to happen in the last minutes, and he was happy to be right about KU playing through the post and then attacking the basket late. It was a good night. Fraschilla felt bad for Drew, who still hasn’t won at Allen Fieldhouse. Fraschilla expected a call later in the night, just to exchange perspectives.

The time is 7:42 p.m. as Fraschilla puts his coat and bag into the back of his rental car, exactly 9 hours and 53 minutes after he walked into the building. He goes into the broadcast truck to thank the crew, and then back out to start the car.

A KU fan is standing in the parking lot. He locks eyes on Fraschilla, who has taken at least six pictures with fans since the game ended (two dads, two moms, and two boys), but this final exchange is going to be strictly verbal.

“Say Rock Chalk and I’ll love you forever,” the fan said.

Fraschilla smiles, looks down, then back at a reporter.

“You know I can’t,” he said. “I need to stay unbiased.”

Sam Mellinger: 816-234-4365, @mellinger