As confetti rained on the hardwood, marking the latest title conquest of the San Miguel Beermen in the Philippine Cup, players, fans, and hangers-on all soaked in the adulation of the moment. But for the one patrolling the sidelines for the winningest franchise in PBA history, this latest victory is but another product of the craft he painstakingly perfected throughout the years, one that saw him go thru the ups and downs of being a head coach.
Almost four years ago, Leo Austria was at the crossroads of his coaching career. For the second time, he was out of the Adamson Soaring Falcons camp.
The first parting had been amicable, back in 2006. But after only a few conferences at the helm of the then-Welcoat Dragons, Austria returned to the collegiate basketball scene the following year, and a reunion with the Soaring Falcons was just fitting.
On his second tour of duty in the UAAP, Austria molded budding cagers such as Alex Nuyles, Jericho Cruz, Lester Alvarez, Jerick Cañada, Eric Camson and Jan Colina, among others, into one cohesive fighting unit capable of going toe-to-toe with the big-time college programs.
Perhaps Coach Leo’s greatest achievement with Adamson was when the Soaring Falcons finished the elimination round of the 2011 UAAP tournament as the second seed, armed with a twice-to-beat advantage, the first in the school’s UAAP hoops history. This was punctuated by a 62-46 triumph over defending champions Ateneo Blue Eagles in the team’s final assignment in the second round.
However, the following two UAAP seasons were not kind to him. With the graduation of key players, plus injuries, Austria struggled to assemble a winning squad. The last straw came in 2013, where the Falcons finished with a 4-10 slate, ahead of only the winless UP Fighting Maroons. Adamson management opted not to renew his contract. And just like that, he was in limbo, unsure of where he would go next.
But as the proverbial saying goes, there’s always a silver lining behind every cloud. Before his would-be exit from the realm of amateur hoops, Austria had called the shots for the San Miguel franchise in the Asean Basketball League (ABL), a stint that a few months earlier had concluded with the Filipino side getting their revenge against the Indonesia Warriors for the ABL crown. Aside from winning the franchise’s first-ever diadem in the regional professional tournament, Coach Leo was also instrumental in reviving the pro careers of Asi Taulava and Eric Menk as both made their return to the PBA hardwood after an impressive stint with the Beermen.
Again, Austria would return to the sidelines with San Miguel, but not in the ABL anymore, as this time he came back to the PBA as head coach of the powerhouse franchise. The third time turned out to be the charm with Coach Leo nabbing his first crown in his very first conference as head coach of the Beermen. However, even with a loaded lineup that could very well pass for the National Team, there were rough stretches that even reached the level of talks suggesting a coaching change. But just like the challenges that he had before, Coach Leo never flinched. Instead, he played his cards right. Of course, having players with a caliber of a June Mar Fajardo, Arwind Santos or Chris Ross helps. But just like in fine cuisine, you need a chef that will mix the right ingredients for that perfect dish. And that is where Coach Leo came in.
Now, three seasons and four PBA championships later, it can be said that Leo Austria has redeemed himself from the debacle he experienced some four years ago. Of course, given the dynamics of coaching, there is a constant rigodon in the profession. Will we ever see Leo Austria back in college basketball? Personally, I’d like to see the man return and stamp his class, since he has the pedigree to do so. He doesn’t even need to take over a powerhouse, as none of his Adamson standouts were on the radar of the top collegiate programs when they were in high school.
Be it back in San Marcelino (third time anew?) or a return to his alma mater of Lyceum, should Coach Leo return and tow his varsity side to the pinnacle of success, then it would definitely seal his legacy as one of the country’s best bench tacticians.
But that’s all speculation. For now, there are still crowns to be won, and dynasties to be established at the professional level. After that though, who knows?