Bo Perasol's rebirth as UP Fighting Maroons program director

Bo Perasol is UP's basketball program director starting Season 84. UAAP Media Bureau

He still prowls the sidelines. He still has that game face on. He still yells words of encouragement.

Rather than being in front of players, however, he stands behind their backs. Instead of sitting down on the coach's chair after timeouts, he takes a longer trek back to the baseline.

Bo Perasol remains an active figure for the University of the Philippines. He may not be on the bench per se, but he's still near it. Make no mistake, he's still near and dear to the Fighting Maroons -- as their first-ever program director.

There never was an official position for sports program director in UP. As a state university, though, everything needs to be above board, even when it comes to its men's basketball team which has been financially backed by a private group of alumni for five years and running now. Fortunately, the chancellor found a way to make it happen, and so, out went men's basketball head coach Bo Perasol, in went basketball program director Bo Perasol.

The delineation of roles is a much-needed development in the eyes of Perasol, who himself was a Fighting Maroon before graduating from Diliman and going on to call the shots for the likes of Air21/Coca-Cola/Powerade in the PBA and Ateneo in the UAAP. In 2016, he returned to his alma mater and, brick by brick, built UP into a legitimate contender.

Before Perasol, the Fighting Maroons only had 13 wins to show out of 126 games from 2007 to 2015. His entry ushered in a breath of fresh air for the once-down-in-the-dumps program, as from 2016 to 2019, State U tallied a 28-28 record, culminating in a long-awaited finals appearance and then a historic second-seed in the latter two years.

Through all that, though, Perasol needed to mind administrative matters at the very same time as devising game plans. While he was thinking about ways to catch up to the Ateneos and La Salles, he was also mulling over just how many more sponsors the team needed to stay successful. The Blue Eagles' championship core of Thirdy Ravena, Isaac Go, Nieto brothers Mike and Matt, William Navarro, and Ange Kouame were a headache. Handling Nigerian powerhouse Bright Akhuetie's transfer from Perpetual in the NCAA to Diliman? Another one altogether.

Of course, this setup has long been the norm for Philippine collegiate sports -- the coach also has to serve as recruiter, motivational speaker, accountant, and whatever else it takes to keep the program running. As UP got bigger and bigger, however -- and my, how big the Fighting Maroons program has become -- it all became too much for just one person to be doing it all. That's why they looked to their neighbors in Katipunan and tried to emulate a program wherein much of Tab Baldwin's focus is just on developing his players and determining game-by-game schemes, all in the goal of getting Ateneo yet another championship.

Now, much of Goldwin Monteverde's focus can just be on pushing the right buttons to foil the Blue Eagles' best-laid plans.

With Monteverde - himself a mentor who impressively juggled coaching, recruiting, and managing when he was dominating the high school scene -- now entrusted with the whiteboard, Perasol can exert all his effort into doing what he does best: making people believe, or for this matter, continuing to "BO-LIEVE."

"I don't meddle with the daily grind of practices. What I do is talk, and keep talking, with our management team," he shared over the phone as UP was making full use of an extended break during the Holy Week to try and reach peak performance. "We keep thinking of ways of continuing the program. We really need to figure out how to establish a pipeline because that's the lesson we learned: we can't not have a pipeline because that's the lifeblood of any (collegiate) team. That's how to win, and keep winning: the succession of players every year, every two years, every three years."

Perasol is speaking from experience as he went from contending cores of Jett Manuel-Paul Desiderio to Desiderio-Gomez de Liano brothers Juan and Javi-Jun Manzo to Bright Akhuetie-Desiderio-Gomez de Lianos-Manzo to Kobe Paras-Akhuetie-Gomez de Lianos-Ricci Rivero-Manzo, all in a year-by-year approach.

Now, the hope is recruitment is plotted out long-term, giving players much more leeway to learn and the coaches much more time to develop them. All of Perasol's learnings from his four seasons as the maroon and green's shot-caller can only work wonders now he has assembled a juggernaut for Season 84 as well as a still-bright future beyond.

"Modesty aside, they (current coaches and staff) are much luckier than us. My experience was very different from what they have now. I don't think there's been a coach who experienced what I did as UP coach," he shared. "Personally, I would have wanted somebody like me who's doing the things I'm doing now. Of course, (assistant) coach Ricky [Dandan] and (College of Human Kinetics) Dean Kiko [Diaz] were there, but the person who experienced the ups and downs and ups again firsthand in UP, I was the first to do that. So again, putting modesty aside, what's different for our coaches now is they have me, and I've already seen it all before."

From a feel-good story of a squad just trying its darndest to climb out of the cellar, the Fighting Maroons became underdogs who fought their way to a pleasant surprise of a finals run. Being feel-good and being an underdog didn't last long, however, as once several of its thousands upon thousands of distinguished alumni had a taste of winning, they obviously craved more and more. And so, the championship core of provincial recruits like Desiderio and Manzo as well as homegrown talents in the Gomez de Lianos made space for prized transferees such as Paras and Rivero. The joke - half-meant, as always -- was that being Fighting Maroons was no longer enough, they had to be "Winning Maroons." UP was no longer Cinderella, this was no longer a fairy tale, this was reality.

In a way, what a harsh reality it was. Of course, it was fair for fans and supporters to expect more - exactly because UP got more and had more. And when the Fighting Maroons underachieved -- in the believers' view, at least - the attention turned to and questions emerged around Perasol.

Never mind the fact that he was the one who built all of this brick-by-brick in the first place. Never mind the fact that it was he who brought them to the big dance and kept them in the big picture. Still, Perasol always wants the best for State U, and has long known that it would be best to hand over the reins to a new coach. Transitioning to a more managerial role was always the plan.

"When we talk about transition, personally, I've thought about this for a long, long time. I've always said I didn't want to coach forever," he shared. "In terms of the team, we've also prepared them. It wasn't done in the snap of a finger. It was well-planned."

The seeds of this plan were actually sown right after Season 82, when UP secured its first-ever second-seed and twice-to-beat advantage, but fell to UST in the Final Four. Then, Perasol sought the help of school legends and PBA greats Benjie Paras and Ronnie Magsanoc to help out with the program, and the duo who helped steer the Fighting Maroons to their first and only championship was only more than willing to lend a helping hand.

Only, the pandemic had other plans. Paras and Magsanoc never got their homecoming (for now, at least) and Perasol's supposed farewell season (as head coach) never even got its curtain raised.

Ultimately, though, things worked out for UP because now, their first-year head coach has just led them to their best start and longest winning streak since at least the 1980s.

"Do we think we've been proven correct? You can only say that with the benefit of hindsight. Even without hindsight, even before the season started, we stood by him. We truly believed in giving coach Gold a chance because he's a lifer," Perasol shared. "Basketball is his life and anybody would want someone like that as head coach. We're proud of him. At the same time, I always say we're not done yet. We have a long way to go, but we're really glad this is working out as of now."

While UP is well on its way to a third straight playoff appearance, Perasol remains fully aware that great expectations continue to loom over them. And season-by-season, those expectations only become greater and greater. As much as team management and coaching staff just want to focus on the games themselves, external pressure will never be a thing they can keep away for long.

"I always talk to coach Gold and our staff, I always tell them that before every game, I still ask myself, 'When will this stress be over?'" he shared. "I thought I'm now exempted from that stress, but was I wrong! Even so, I make it a point to remind our coaches to stay positive. I know what they're feeling, I know what they're thinking, so I'm the one who cushions the expectations on them, I'm the one who makes them understand the pressure that comes with being UP coach."

And there, serving as mentor to the Fighting Maroons' current coaches, is where Perasol intends to remain. Asked if he missed drawing up plays, calling the shots, and being right up there with players, he answered, with a laugh, "No! Not at all! The more I see what they do, what they have to do, the more I ask myself how I did all of that before. I've done that for almost 30 years. Now, I actually don't miss it anymore."

Nonetheless, program director Bo Perasol is still, at the very core, coach Bo Perasol. Nobody and nothing can ever take away that part of him. Whenever he can, he still gives players a pat on the back or positive reinforcement during timeouts. The only difference is, after doing so, he walks behind the bench, away from the actual action.

His head down, his hands together behind his back, he seemed to be deep in thought as UP was duking it out with National University last Tuesday.

"We want to deliver for the UP community. We always have because that's the goal, right? Especially now that UP's aspiration is, put simply, high," he shared. "It's not just about competing and fighting and battling anymore. We're past that. This is the time to achieve our ultimate goal. That's my job now: to give direction and make sure we stay on that direction."

He stopped in front of the Gatorade cooler. With his right hand, he picked up a paper cup and then held it right below the opening. He pressed down with his left hand and filled his paper cup just enough.

"Long-term, again, we want to have a pipeline, meaning, we want our (college) and (high school) program to be one and the same. What's quite tricky for us is UPIS (UP's high school) has very high standards academically so when we recruit young players, they'll most likely struggle balancing basketball and academics," he shared. "We work around it in the sense that hopefully, we get them while they're very young so they'd have more time to adjust either in UPIS or in another school we enroll them in. Those kids, those players in the future, will make sure our program continues."

He takes a drink, but does not finish it. With about a quarter of the liquid still in there, he sets the paper cup beside the jug before turning to the direction of the baseline. Sooner than later, he arrives at his seat -- the one and only chair on the baseline -- and takes his place. The game goes on and the Fighting Maroons are being challenged by the very game Bulldogs, but are acing the tough test.

"For us, the management, and everybody else, the here and now is just as important as the future. What we have now is already the product of our plans two to three years ago," he shared. "We should already be reaping the fruits of our plans two to three years ago. That's what we want coach Gold to focus on. My job as program director is to make sure coach Gold has no worries other than the day-to-day game plans for the here and now."

When the final buzzer sounded, it was yet another win for UP - their seventh straight following a season-opening loss. It was just the strong start team management was hoping for when they fortified veteran holdovers Rivero, James Spencer, and Noah Webb with talented transferees Zavier Lucero, Maimai Cagulangan, Malick Diouf, and CJ Cansino as well as blue-chip rookies Carl Tamayo and Terrence Fortea, all while transplanting to Diliman high school champion coach Monteverde. Loss to three-time defending champion Ateneo notwithstanding, all has been going according to plan so far for the Fighting Maroons.

This was always the plan for Bo Perasol. From his seat on the baseline, standing alone as basketball program director, he was applauding his brilliant first-year coach and his fully loaded roster for playing another good game. His mind, though? It was all about playing the long-game.