Bob Bessoir never used the term “underdog.” Hated the word. Instead, he would refer to his University of Scranton men’s basketball teams as the “overdog.”
“He didn’t want to be the underdog, which most coaches want to be, including myself,” said Mike Strong, who served as an assistant coach to Bessoir before becoming the women’s basketball coach at Scranton in 1979. “But we were expected to win and that’s the way he liked it. He wanted his players to rise to that occasion and he used that as a motivational tool repeatedly. He was unique in a lot of ways. I don’t know many other coaches who took that approach.”
Never afraid to express confidence in his team, Bessoir was a flamboyant coach who put Scranton on the NCAA Division III map. He died Wednesday morning at home, one day after his 88th birthday.
In 29 seasons, he compiled a record of 554-263. He led the Royals to two NCAA Division III titles in 1976 and 1983, runner-up in 1988 and a third-place finish in 1977. They captured 14 Middle Atlantic Conference / Freedom Conference championships and made 18 NCAA tournament appearances.
“He had a fabulous life, and he did make the world a better place,” Dr. Donna Eget, his wife, said. “He touched so many people, whether it was just somebody who got some excitement in their life because they got to watch the Royals, or if it was one of those young kids who came to Scranton as boys and left as men and learned to have dignity, and sportsmanship and behave, respectfully. And be winners. He touched so many people.”
Along the way, Bessoir was never shy about predicting victory for his team. At the press conference prior to the 1976 Division III Final Four, after the coaches from the other three schools spoke and gave the standard “happy-to-be-here” speech, Bessoir got up and said his team planned to be there and planned to win.
Which, of course, they did.
He also would do offbeat things, such as the time he brought in a psychologist to help his team think positive thoughts before a game against a powerful opponent. However, one player got a little too fired up and committed four fouls in the game’s opening five minutes.
“Bob was great at getting the most out of his players and his teams,” said J.P. Andrejko, who played for Bessoir from 1984-88 and served as an assistant coach under him from 1996-2001 before becoming head coach at King’s College in 2001. “He would be the one to put himself out there by predicting we were going to win. He would say, ‘The pressure’s on me. I’m the one who is saying it.’ We just had to go out and play.”
Ever the showman, Bessoir wore leisure suits, turtlenecks and medallions during the 1970s. When he was going for his milestone 500th career win Feb. 21, 1998, he wore a white tuxedo jacket, royal blue pants and purple bowtie, cummerbund and handkerchief. Wilkes University spoiled the party with an 85-79 overtime win, but Bessoir got No. 500 three days later against Elizabethtown College, 82-63, in the first round of the MAC playoffs.
All of that — the predictions and outrageous outfits — often overshadowed just how good an Xs and Os coach Bessoir was.
“I remember one (Lady Royals) game, we were down and he came to me at halftime and said, ‘You should put a triangle-and-two (defense) on that team, they only have two scorers,” Strong said. “Honest to God, I hadn’t realized it. So that’s what I did. Even though we had never practiced it, we went triangle-and-two and we shut the team down in the second half.
“He was like a pro coach. He was involved in matchups. I was more of a team situation. But he matched up our players with the opponents very, very well. He had great control of the game all the way through. He wanted to win. When it got down to the nitty gritty, there weren’t many negative thoughts in the huddles. It was all pretty positive.”
Bessoir’s final game as Scranton coach was Feb. 24, 2001 — an 86-81 loss to Wilkes University in the MAC Freedom final.
“Win or lose, he was always professional,” said Bob Walsh, a longtime assistant coach at Scranton under Bessoir. “The only time I saw him get wild was at King’s, all the time. We’d be up 15, 20 points and he’d still be yelling at the refs. It was like, ‘Bess, sit down, it’s over, we got this.’
“He had a great run with good players and did everything his way. And he did a lot for that school.”
Current Scranton coach Carl Danzig took over for Bessoir in 2001. He said he was too “young and dumb” to realize that you should never follow a legend.
“As we were transitioning and he was moving out and I was moving in, we had a chance to sit down and have a memorable conversation,” Danzig said. “As he was walking out, I told him, ‘Bob, I know I have really big shoes to fill here. I’m going to work really hard and do my best to make sure the program you built maintains its level of excellence.’ I’ve done that every day since he left the job because he definitely built a machine there. I’m certainly proud to be able to carry the baton since he gave it up.”
In 2012, Bessoir was an inaugural inductee to the Middle Atlantic Conference Hall of Fame. It is one of seven Halls of Fame that Bessoir is a member. The others are the University of Scranton Wall of Fame; Northeastern Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame; Luzerne County Chapter of the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame; Chic Feldman Foundation Hall of Fame; Pennsylvania State Hall of Fame; and his high school, William L. Dickinson High School in Jersey City, New Jersey.
Scranton bestowed the Peter A. Carlesimo Award on Bessoir in 2016 for contributions to athletics and Catholic education.
As part of the men’s basketball team’s 100th season celebration in 2017, fans voted Bessoir as one of 15 players on the Royals’ all-time team.
“I am saddened by the news of the passing of Bob Bessoir,” Scranton director of athletics Dave Martin said. “Coach Bess was an icon, a legend, a mentor and most importantly, a great friend to so many. My thoughts and prayers go out to his wife, his children, his grandchildren and his entire family.
“There is no doubt he was a polarizing figure; however, those who knew him best absolutely loved him. His name is synonymous with the University of Scranton and DIII college basketball.”
Raised in Jersey City, New Jersey, in a single-parent home — his father deserted the family when Bob was 3 — Bessoir came to Scranton in 1951 to play for coach Pete Carlesimo. During his playing career, he totaled 1,078 career points and 838 career rebounds. On March 5, 1955, against King’s College, he grabbed a school-record 43 rebounds. Bessoir often quipped that many of those rebounds came off his own missed shots. He was recipient of the first Les Dickman Award, given to the team’s most valuable senior.
After two years in the military, Bessoir returned to Scranton and was hired by Carlesimo as an assistant coach for three years. He then spent seven years as coach at South Scranton Catholic.
He went back to his alma mater in 1969 as an assistant coach and was hired in 1972 as head coach of the Royals.
Bessoir by the numbers
- 691: Basketball victories participated in as either as a player or coach at the University of Scranton
- 551: Wins as men’s basketball coach
- 23: Winning seasons in 29 seasons as head coach
- 18: Appearances in the NCAA Division III tournament
- 14: Middle Atlantic Conference championships
- 5: All-Americans he coached at the University of Scranton
- 2: National championships (1976, 1983)
During more than 30 years at The Times-Tribune, Scott has covered everything from high schools to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. His current beats include motor sports, local colleges, high school cross country and high school baseball. He also is a copy editor and page designer. His articles have won awards from the Associated Press Sports Editors, American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association, Eastern Motorsports Press Association, the Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Pro Chapter and the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association Keystone Press. He also has been honored by the Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League and the Minor League Football Alliance. In 2016, he was presented the Media Service Award by the Northeastern Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame. A Long Island, New York, native, Scott graduated from the University of Scranton in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree in communications. He lives in Peckville with his wife, Andrea, and daughters, Bridget and Emily. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org; 570-348-9100, x5109; or @swalshTT on Twitter