The “Maestro”‘s Final Performance: Jon Teitel’s Interview with Troy legend Don Maestri

Longtime Troy basketball coach Don Maestri announced his retirement on Saturday following his team’s five-point overtime loss to Arkansas State in the quarterfinals of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament.  Maestri spent over 30 years on the Troy sideline, where he was inducted in the school’s Hall of Fame and came to work on the court that is named in his honor.  He won more than 500 games as coach of the Trojans, including the highest-scoring game in NCAA history, and we wish him well in all of his future endeavors.

You played basketball at Southern Mississippi.  How good a player were you back in the day?
I was what they called a “practice player”, but Coach Lee Floyd (Tim Floyd’s father) is probably the reason that I went into coaching.

You began your coaching career at Holy Cross High School, where your 1974 team included Felton Young (the father of current NBA player Thaddeus Young).  How good a player was Felton back then, and does Thaddeus remind you at all of his dad?
Felton was a very good high school player. We had some great rivalry games against Rick Robey’s Brother Martin team, we played them once at Tulane and had the biggest crowd of the year. Thaddeus is more of a perimeter player whereas Felton was a post player.

What are your memories of the 1982 NCAA tourney as an assistant coach at Alabama under Wimp Sanderson (James Worthy scored 16 points in a five-point win by eventual national champion North Carolina)?
I told Wimp in my scouting report that we would not have to worry about one of their players, a freshman named Michael Jordan!

After the tourney you became head coach at Troy, where you remained for over three decades.  Why did you take the job, and how were you able to stick around for so long?
I took the job because I wanted to be a head coach. Normally you can get a job after you get some national recognition, which we did. I lasted this long for two reasons: my assistant coach David Felix and the fact that we have been lucky. We had some years where we were on the verge of not returning, and we would end up signing a guy who would become conference player of the year.

Your emphasis on defensive pressure helped lead the Trojans to two Division II Final Fours in a six-year span. What is the key to playing good defense, and how close did you come to winning it all?
We played for the title in 1993 before moving up to Division I the following season. We were ranked in the top-20 during each of those six years. We started out playing man-to-man defense but later switched to a press after seeing Coach Paul Westhead’s team at Loyola Marymount. When you are at a school like Troy you just try to recruit the best players you can, rather than recruit players to fit your system, if you have the right athletes then you can be successful.

On offense you are known for your run-and-gun style of basketball, which has resulted in your team leading the NCAA in three point shooting in several different seasons.   How important is the three point shot to your offensive game plan, and how did you balance that with your defensive pressure?
We have become really fond of the three point shot, but you live by the sword and die by the sword. The press speeds up the game and helps you get more shots.

On January 12, 1992 you led Troy to a 258-141 win over the DeVry Institute of Atlanta, the highest-scoring game in NCAA history.  how were you able to score so many points, and do you think that anyone will ever break that record?
It was like a summertime playground game with no defense and everyone jacking up shots. We made 50 three-point shots (which gave the game some legitimacy), but it was not a “significant” game like winning a conference title or going to the postseason.

What are your memories of the 1993 Division II tourney (you made it to the national title game before losing to undefeated California State-Bakersfield)?
We played the late game the night before and had to play on national TV the next afternoon, and we played a very sloppy game. Now they give the final two teams a day off in between to prepare/rest.

In 1993 Troy made the leap from Division II to Division I,  why did the school decide to make the move, and what was the biggest difference for you as a coach?
We have a very good football program so our board of trustees thought we could make the move and get more visibility/notoriety down the road. It turned out to be a great move, as we have traveled all over the country and our football team has won some bowl games.

What are your memories of the 2003 NCAA tourney (Lionel Chalmers scored 20 PTS in a win by Xavier)?
It was a great moment for our school just to make it to the big dance. Xavier had a great team that included national Player of the Year David West.

What are your memories of the 2004 NIT (Juan Mendez had 20 points, 16 rebounds, five blocks in a four-point win by Niagara)?
We were up by double-digits to start the game, but Niagara was really good and pressed us in the end to beat us. It was an entertaining game to watch because both teams played fast-break basketball. When you play a team you end up following them the rest of your life.

What are your memories of the 2009 CBI tourney (Andrew Goudelock scored 29 points in a two-point win by College of Charleston after you were down by 19 points at halftime)? It was the best three point shooting exhibition in the first half that I have ever seen (Charleston made 13-19 from behind the arc). We played better defense in the second half and lost a nail-biter.

What are your memories of the 2010 NIT (Terrico White scored 27 points in a win by Mississippi)? It is always tough to play SEC schools that have size/toughness. We played well for 10 minutes before their physicality took over. The NIT has a special meaning to me because I remember watching guys like Bobby Knight coach in it several decades ago.

When people look back on your career, how do you want to be remembered the most? I hope they realize that I did not take coaching too seriously. It is important to enjoy the heck out of the big wins because it does not always happen, but you always enjoy the time spent with your players.