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Italian experience will focus on growing intellectually more so than athletically for Purdue Fort Wayne basketball program

Purdue Fort Wayne men's basketball coach Jon Coffman instructs his team during a practice last season. (By Tom Davis of News-Sentinel.com)
The moon is seen through spires of the Duomo Gothic Cathedral during a complete lunar eclipse, in Milan, Italy, recently. The landmark will be the first of many historic venues visited by the Purdue Fort Wayne men's basketball team on its upcoming 10-day trip to Italy. (By The Associated Press)
A full moon rises next to the Colosseum during a complete lunar eclipse, in Rome on recently. The site is one of many historic and beautiful landmarks that the Purdue Fort Wayne men's basketball team will be visiting on its upcoming 10-day trip to Italy. (By The Associated Press)
Purdue Fort Wayne guard Matt Weir handles the ball during a game last season against South Dakota at the Coliseum. Weir said that he is "looking forward" to experiencing his team's upcoming trip to Italy. (By Tom Davis of News-Sentinel.com)
A child admires the 1575 Fontana del Moro (Moor Fountain) by Italian architect and sculptor Giacomo della Porta, in Rome's Piazza Navona recently. The fountain is one of many historic and beautiful landmarks that the Purdue Fort Wayne men's basketball team will be visiting on its upcoming 10-day trip to Italy. (By The Associated Press)
Pope Francis salutes as he leaves after an audience to altar aids, in St. Peter's square at the Vatican, recently. The site is one of many historic and beautiful landmarks that the Purdue Fort Wayne men's basketball team will be visiting on its upcoming 10-day trip to Italy. (By The Associated Press)
Purdue Fort Wayne Athletic Director Kelly Hartley-Hutton
Tourists walk up the steps leading to St. Peter in Chains Basilica, in downtown Rome recently. The site is one of many historic and beautiful landmarks that the Purdue Fort Wayne men's basketball team will be visiting on its upcoming 10-day trip to Italy. (By The Associated Press)
Tourists cool off recently at the 16th century Giacomo Della Porta's fountain, in front of the Pantheon, in Rome. The fountain is one of many historic and beautiful landmarks that the Purdue Fort Wayne men's basketball team will be visiting on its upcoming 10-day trip to Italy. (By The Associated Press)

The Purdue Fort Wayne men’s basketball program is unique and it starts from the top and works its way on down.

Fifth-year Mastodon coach Jon Coffman was a double major in economics and geology at one of the more prestigious institutions (Washington and Lee) in the southeast and he began his professional career working in finance in San Francisco.

It was not exactly an obvious pathway to teaching ball screens and block outs.

His unorthodox philosophy towards life was exhibited early as he spent 68 days skiing in Tahoe in his first year out of college and spent a summer driving to Alaska where he and a friend kayaked, camped, and fished for two months, all the while being “stalked” by Kodiak bears.

The dude is out of the ordinary, to say the least.

So it should be no surprise that the upcoming European trip that the Mastodon basketball program is taking beginning next week is not going to be a typical “see some sights and play some hoops” trip that most college programs undertake.

“I want this to be a learning experience for our guys,” Coffman explained to News-Sentinel.com Tuesday. “I love creating experiences and giving our guys life skills. Knowledge is power and I want our guys to attack life now and even more once they are done with basketball.”

The Mastodon student-athletes will travel throughout Italy from Aug. 6 through 16 and they will indeed play in a handful of games, however, basketball isn’t the purpose or the priority of this venture, growing intellectually is.

The trip begins with a flight into Milan and jet lag isn’t an option, as the Purdue Fort Wayne players will be instructing a lesson on the famed Duomo Cathedral, which is the largest Gothic Cathedral in the world, within hours of touch down.

Yes, you read that last sentence correctly; the student-athletes will be disseminating information on the iconic landmark, which they can do well because Coffman has had his players preparing for this trip – from an academic perspective – over the past year.

“I wanted our group to connect through a unique experience and also educate them on another part of the world,” Coffman said in a release. “Our student-athletes will be well versed about Italy before we ever step foot overseas and I believe that this will provide them with the tools to truly enjoy and learn from their trip.”

This trip is not an athletic endeavor, but an academic one and the Mastodon student-athletes will be earning credits for what in reality is a study-abroad experience.

The players will be required to do a research project on the topic of Italian law and leadership, as well as maintain a daily journal throughout the trip.

Each student-athlete will deliver a presentation about a specific assigned Italian landmark (beginning with the Duomo Cathedral), and the experience will also include a trio of exams.

“We have also been educating them in the classroom,” Purdue Fort Wayne associate professor of organizational leadership Kimberly O’Connor said. “Throughout the summer, the team has been learning about Italian culture, etiquette, history, language, architecture, art, religion, business, and more.

“Several guest lecturers have also shared their expertise with the students on a variety of topics related to this study abroad.”

On Monday, the players spent their evening learning how to practice international etiquette in varying situations.

“I want our players to learn how to be comfortable being uncomfortable,” Coffman said. “They have fantastic personalities and I want that to show when they are in public settings. These types of lessons will help them throughout life and long after their basketball careers are over.”

One of the names that the Mastodon players will hear with some degree of frequency on the trip is that of Dante Alighieri.

Coffman read the Italian poem “Divine Comedy” as an eighth grader and the foundation of that literary work is “Dante’s Inferno.”

The students spent Tuesday watching the movie based on the poem so that they will be cognizant of what is being spoken of when they hear the story on the trip.

“We have a lot of basketball alumni playing overseas and you hear the different stories about Europe from them when they come back to campus,” Mastodons sophomore guard Matt Weir said. “I’m excited to experience it myself and I’m looking forward to the great team building experience as well.”

The Mastodons will venture to the Lombardy region of Northern Italy on the second day of their excursion and compete in a game after experiencing Lake Como.

Other activities will include a trip to Vicenza to see the famed balcony of which Juliet and Romeo pledged their devotion, as well as trips to the historic cities of Venice, Florence, and Rome.

Some of the landmarks to be visited are the St. Mark’s Cathedral; Michelangelo’s Renaissance sculpture, David; the Uffizi art gallery in Florence; the leaning tower of Pisa; Trevi Fountain in Rome; the Vatican City and Sistine Chapel; as well as a tour of the Colosseum and Pantheon.

“Some of our students have never, and might never again, travel overseas to experience another culture,” Purdue Fort Wayne athletic director Kelly Hartley-Hutton said. “We are grateful for the collaboration with our outstanding faculty and international services staff – people who believe in these rare educational experiences.”

The Purdue Fort Wayne men’s basketball program has been planning and organizing this experience for four years and it is completely funded by donors.

“We are extremely grateful to everyone who has given time and donations to make this trip and class possible,” Coffman said.

For more on the sport of basketball, follow Tom Davis on Twitter at Tom101010 and Facebook at Thomas Davis.

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