One fine day in 2021, Harry Perretta, who had retired a year earlier after 42 seasons as Villanova’s head women’s basketball coach, called Diane Decker, his former player and the newly hired women’s coach at Lebanon Valley College. 

The purpose of the call? To inform her that he was coming aboard as a volunteer assistant coach.

“He told me,” she recalled recently with a laugh. “I didn’t ask.”

Fine with her. Perretta had gone 783-439 during his time with the Wildcats and reached the postseason 23 times. That includes four NCAA Tournament appearances when Decker played for him, from 1985 to 1989, and an Elite Eight trip in ’02-03. The latter came in the same season the ’Cats ended Connecticut’s 70-game winning streak.

What coach wouldn’t want a resource like that on the bench?

“His basketball mind,” Decker said, “is incredible.”

As is his heart. When Decker’s mom was dying of cancer in 2011, Perretta made sure to visit her in the hospital. When Shelly Pennefather, perhaps his greatest player (and Decker’s former teammate), chose to become a cloistered nun in 1991, he began making regular treks to the monastery in Alexandria, Virginia, that she has called home ever since. (And yes, he has had to work around an extremely restrictive visitation policy.)

“He shows up; he always does,” Decker said. “I think all of us understand that and appreciate that.”

Since his retirement Perretta has shown up for other friends and former players who have gone into coaching. So of course he has only been too happy to make repeated trips from his home in the Drexel Hill section of Philadelphia to Annville, a trip that takes him nearly an hour and a half each way.

He did it two or three times a week Decker’s first season, then a little less her second. He planned to cut back even more this season, having found that at age 68, his eyesight isn’t what it once was, making night driving difficult.

But Decker suffered a back injury while moving a portable hoop in mid-November, an injury that sidelined her for nearly two months and will likely require surgery. As a result Harry showed up a little more than he originally planned, in support of assistant coach Kiely Chaklos, who was in charge in Decker’s absence.

Despite that upheaval, the Dutchmen carry a 15-10 record into Wednesday’s Middle Atlantic Conference Freedom semifinal at Arcadia, part of a continued uptick on Decker’s watch. They were 11-15 her first season, 13-13 her second.

And Perretta, who once played at Lycoming himself, has been reminded anew of the uniqueness of Division III hoops.

“It’s like a different vibe,” he said, adding that the players are there “because they want to be there.” 

He allowed that Division I kids like those he coached at ’Nova want to be there, too. Still, it’s not quite the same.

“(D3 players) don’t get any scholarship money – none of that stuff,” he said. “So they’re playing more to play. … All of it’s fun. I love the kids. They’re great kids.”

Perretta’s decency can sometimes be hidden beneath a rugged Philly Guy exterior. Within the confines of a practice or game, there is a certain brusqueness, a certain bluntness. Decker admitted he was “not easy to play for,” and that the two of them had “more of a love-hate relationship” when she was an undergrad. But that was then, this is now. Now she calls him a friend, and a “big influence in (her) life.”

“When you get older, you appreciate him and what he was trying to get out of you as a player,” she said. “I said to him a couple times: ‘Now I realize how I drove you crazy.’ ”

She chuckles at the memory.

“When you’re young, you blame the coach,” she said. “But when you get older, you’re like, ‘I was a little bit of a jerk at times, too.’ ”

Now there are occasions when she finds herself yelling at him. Quite the turnabout, that.

“It’s fun,” she said, laughing again. “It’s payback. I feel redemption right now.”

Hey, he can take it. He enjoys the sparring, the give and take, the exchange of ideas.

“The other thing that’s really cool about the relationship now,” he said, “is I don’t ever want to be the head coach. I’m there solely to help out. I want no part of being the head coach, so she doesn’t have to feel threatened at all.”

The LVC players didn’t quite know what to make of him when he first showed up on campus, but at least one of them Googled him and came away impressed by his accomplishments. And every year newcomers to the program have had to adjust in real time to his sarcasm and one-liners.

Former Villanova head women’s basketball coach Harry Perretta at a recent Lebanon Valley College women’s basketball practice. Perretta is helping the team as a volunteer assistant for his former player, Lebanon Valley College women’s basketball coach Diane Decker. (Provided photo)

His quirkiness, meanwhile, is legendary. This is a guy who was once addicted to the soap opera “All My Children,” which went off the air in 2011, and now claims to maintain a 15-year backlog of the show “Law & Order.”

Harry has also been known to play the ponies, usually from afar these days, given the technology. Basketball-wise, he values the advice of his long-time mentor, a Philadelphia playground legend nicknamed Dippy. And never mind that Dippy, whose given name was Guido Carosi, died nearly 14 years ago.

“Sometimes you look over at him, and he’s talking to himself, but he’s talking to his mentor, Dippy,” Decker said. “He’ll say to me, ‘I just had to talk to Dippy.’”

According to a Philadelphia Inquirer obituary from 2010, Carosi earned his nickname when somebody called him “a dippy creep” in his younger years. No matter – he began mentoring Perretta when Harry was in eighth grade, and has yet to stop.

 One other thing about Harry: He hates to fly. Hates it so much that while he was at Villanova, he would often drive to a game site and meet the rest of the Wildcats’ traveling party there. Couldn’t do it all the time, mind you, but did it frequently during his tenure.

“Anything within, like, 10 hours, I could do in a day,” he said.

He would often make side trips along the way to do some recruiting, but the larger mission was to quell the claustrophobia he felt when confined to an aircraft, and to clear his head.

“When you coach, you like being by yourself sometimes,” he said. “You just have time to think.”

Understand that he had a plan for these long trips. He would rent audiobooks at a Cracker Barrel restaurant near his home, then return them at another Cracker Barrel near his destination, while reaping a sizable refund.

He would also bring along a large green towel – a “multidimensional towel,” he calls it – which he would use to dry off when he stopped along the way to go for a run, or as an apron when he hit the drive-through.

The trips to Annville are not nearly as arduous, but he has a plan for those, too. He stops for a hot chocolate at a turnpike rest stop on the way out, and sometimes visits the casino off the Morgantown exit as well; as always, the ponies beckon.

Once he nears the LVC campus, he buys a 32-ounce Diet Mountain Dew and stashes it in his car. When the game or practice is over, it will be there waiting for him, nice and cold.

“I have all these little idiosyncrasies, you know what I’m saying?” he said. “It’s kind of funny.”

It kind of is. But he knows he can’t do this forever, that indeed he might not be able to do it much longer. His body just won’t allow it. For now, though, he continues to show up. Because that’s what he’s always done.

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Gordie Jones is a Lititz-based freelance sportswriter.


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