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Tourney Talk: CHD sits down with La Salle coach Dr. John Giannini

Dr. John Giannini is starting to get some national recognition after leading La Salle into the Sweet 16 following a two-point win over Mississippi last Sunday. This is the furthest the Explorers have gone in the NCAA tourney since losing the 1955 title game to Bill Russell and the San Francisco Dons. Giannini is already one of the best basketball coaches in the history of La Salle, which comes after a good eight-year run as the head coach of Maine. Jon Teitel got to sit down with Coach Giannini back in the day before he became a household name to discuss the 1989 Final 4 and what makes the Big 5 so special.

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How did you 1st get into coaching? It was either faith or fate. I was accepted into graduate school at the University of North Texas as a 21-year old kid with no coaching experience. I decided to call the head coach and tell him that I would love to help, and he said he had a grad assistant position that just opened up. Even more amazing, he said that he was flying through my hometown of Chicago the next day and could meet with me in person. It is the equivalent today of opening up a college directory, pointing to a school at random, calling them up out of the blue to ask for a job, and having them tell you they can interview you the very next day!

Take me through the 1989 NCAA tourney, when you served as a graduate assistant for the Fighting Illini and beat #16-seed McNeese State by six points: how close did the Cowboys come to making history? I do not remember the game that clearly, but I do not remember it being that close. I think that six points was the closest they got at the very end of the game.

Nick Anderson scored 24 points in a win over Ball State: did you start to get a sense that your team was going to make a deep run in the tourney? We were ranked number one in the country with most of our losses coming when Kendall Gill was out with a broken foot. Once he came back healthy we knew that the Final 4 was a possibility.

You beat Louisville after Pervis Ellison bumped knees with Marcus Liberty early in the 1st half: do you recall it being an especially physical game? The Louisville and Syracuse games were both tremendously tough, and I consider each game to be a classic.

Nick Anderson had 24 points and16  rebounds in a three point win over Syracuse (led by 22 points from Billy Owens): how nervous did you get after your team missed four straight free throws in the final minute, and how did your team feel about facing Big 10 rival Michigan for a spot in the title game? Illinois had a history of missing free throws in the tourney: we lost to Villanova by three points in 1988 after being up by double digits with three minutes to play.  One of the unsung heroes for Villanova was Pat Enright, a former walk-on who made some big three-point shots during their comeback. Playing the Wolverines gave us mixed emotions. We had beaten them pretty handily during the regular season, but there is an old cliché which says that it is hard to beat a team 3 times in 1 season.

In a game featuring an astounding 33 lead changes, Sean Higgins made a basket with two seconds left to give eventual national champion Michigan the two-point win (tourney MOP Glen Rice had 28 points): was Rice as unstoppable as his stats indicated, and what was the feeling like in your locker room afterward? Rice was spectacular. That Illini team loved to play and hated to lose. A lot of teams get fatigued in March but we were tremendously tough. We were devastated afterwards because it was a very special group that expected to win the game.

Later that year you began your head coaching career at Rowan: why did you decide to take the job, and how were you able to have so much success at Rowan? Graduate assistants have a fixed length of time in their position so I had to make a choice between becoming a small-college head coach or a Division-One assistant coach. I was not an experienced recruiter or that close to any D-1 coaches, so that kind of made the decision for me. I was a D-3 player in college and thought that it would be a dream come true to become a head coach. I was the first full-time coach there and we had a lot of success because Rowan was a sleeping giant in a powerhouse conference.

In 1996 you went 28-4 and won the D-3 national title: what did it mean to you to win the title, and what was the reaction like when you got back to campus? The reaction was amazing. It was our third trip to the Final 4 in a four-year span. Terrence Stewart (who was my video coordinator until being hired as the head coach at Immaculata University last summer) was the MVP of the national tourney. The whole community had fallen in love with our program.  Winning the title was a four-year process, and was a great reward for all our players/fans.

After winning the title you left Rowan with the best win-loss percentage among active coaches to become coach at Maine, why did you decide to leave Rowan, and what was the biggest difference between D-3 and D-1? We had so much success at Rowan that it made getting a job at the D-1 level a realistic possibility. I had missed out on a couple of other D-1 jobs so I was fortunate that the Maine job went my way, and frankly I just wanted the challenge. The biggest difference is that it is harder to win because there are fewer impact players who can elevate your program. There is great coaching at every level but the challenge is recruiting the players you need.

In 2004 you left Maine to become coach at La Salle, which was dealing with the aftermath of some off-court allegations against a trio of players: was your focus primarily on winning games or cleaning up the program? Winning is always part of the equation because that is what players want to do. I inherited a group of seven players from a last-place team in the A-10, and the program was coming off 12 straight losing seasons. We ended up breaking several losing streaks and got everyone feeling better about La Salle basketball when we finished third in the A-10 in our second year.

The Big 5 holds a special place in the hearts of Philly basketball fans: what does it mean to you, and how do those games compare to the other games on your schedule? It means more than I could have ever imagined. The tradition of basketball in Philly is second to none, and the college winning tradition there is head and shoulders above that of most other cities. The rivalries are a big deal, and are often the best measuring stick of how good a team we have. The best team in Philly is usually a top-10 team nationally so we do not worry about UCLA or Florida or any other national program. We just worry about winning in Philly, and if you do that the national picture usually takes care of itself.

In 2008 you wrote a book called “Court Sense: Winning Basketball’s Mental Game”.  Why did you write the book, and do you think a bunch of mentally-strong guys can beat a bunch of physically-strong guys if everything else is equal? There is no question that the mental side of basketball makes the difference in winning close games where the talent is evenly matched. Players who are unselfish, coachable, and poised in tight situations end up having a competitive edge. I went to graduate school to study sports psychology, and I just think coaches are addicted to adrenaline and love the challenge. A good friend of mine has a PhD in sport psychology and is a VP at Human Kinetics Publishing. We often talked about the need for young players to have the right mental approach. He said there needed to be a book written about it and that I was a good choice to write the book, so I took his advice and wrote it.

A few years ago you coached in your bare feet to raise awareness for the Samaritan’s Feet project and Haiti earthquake relief: why did you decide to do this, and has the situation in Haiti improved at all since then? The reason I coached without shoes goes back to my time at Illinois with fellow graduate assistant Scott Nagy, who is my dear friend. Scott has an adopted daughter from Haiti, so after hearing about the earthquake he was 1 of the 1st people to coach without his shoes on. All the D-1 coaches were given the opportunity to do that, and I was inspired by Scott and felt that this would be an easy way to try and help people. One of our La Salle alums donated 100 pairs of shoes to the relief effort right after that game: it is amazing what a simple act can do.

When people look back on your career, how do you want to be remembered the most? No coach can keep everyone happy and I know that some of my players wish they would have played more or had more success. However, if a majority of my players enjoyed their time here and know that I cared for them and really tried to help them, that would make me feel great. You never understand all the sacrifices the players make unless you are there every day.

JonTeitel