Dr. John Giannini — living the impossible dream

La Salle head coach John Giannini. Courtesy photo / La Salle Athletics
La Salle head coach John Giannini. Courtesy photo / La Salle Athletics
La Salle head coach John Giannini. Courtesy photo / La Salle Athletics

Dr. John Giannini stood at center court of the massive Sprint Center in Kansas City, Missouri, exhausted. Earlier in the evening the venue had been deafening, filled with nearly 19,000 screaming fans, and watched from afar by a television audience of millions, as the white hot spotlight of college basketball’s biggest stage burned down from above.

Now, the venue sat dark, with only the occasional creak of the floorboards interrupting the silence.

Hours earlier, Giannini had led his 13th seeded La Salle Explorers into the Sweet 16 for the first time since the 1950s with a 76-74 win over Mississippi — the team’s third win in the last five days — earning the redemption that the once storied program had sought for a long time.

Now, he stood at center court, joined by assistant coach Horace Owens, soaking in the silence.

“You really don’t get a chance to reflect, because if you’re not getting better, you’re really in trouble, because there is so much competitive balance now,” says Giannini of the moment. “I forced Horace and I to walk out into this empty 20,000 seat arena after this great win, just to remind ourselves that, hey, he came from AAU and I came from Division III and it was quite a jump we made and I just wanted us to enjoy it for a second.”

It would be easy to have called that moment a dream come true for the coach who began his career at Division III Rowan, before toiling for years in obscurity on the farthest outpost of Division I ball at the University of Maine.

But it would also have been a lie: It was a dream Giannini had never dared to entertain when he first got started in the business.

“I wanted to be a sports psychologist. I thought coaching was too hard to get into at the college level, and I really thought that I would go on and be a professor somewhere. My dream situation was really to go on and teach and coach at a Division III school and do what I liked and what I was interested in,” says Giannini on where his coaching career began.

“I’m living an unbelievably blessed life and opportunity, but that was not the original plan,” he laughs. “If I could have gone to a Rowan, or a Franklin and Marshall, or a Scranton, or a Wisconsin-Platteville and had a career there, that would have been a dream for me. “

Apparently fate had other plans.

“I really can’t explain my career other than I’ve worked very hard and been extremely, extremely fortunate and lucky, and without either one of those components I wouldn’t be here,” he says.

The son of Italian immigrants, Giannini grew up in Elmwood Park, a village with a large Italian population that sits in the shadows just outside of Chicago. Growing up, Giannini always loved basketball, but according to Giannini, “I was far from a star — I was a guy who got by by playing as hard as I could.”

Giannini played his college ball at North Central College, an NAIA program in Naperville Illinois, where he was a two-time All-Conference selection and remains sixth all-time in school history in rebounds. Giannini graduated with a bachelors degree in psychology in 1984 and headed off to North Texas, where he would earn his master’s degree in physical education with a specialization in sports psychology.

Giannini then landed a position as a graduate assistant on Lou Henson’s staff at Illinois, where he stayed for two years, helping the Fighting Illini reach the Final Four his last season. During that same time he began his coursework towards a doctorate in kinesiology with a specialization in sports psychology. Coaching and education went hand-in-hand in Giannini’s career plans at the time.

“At the time a lot of Division III coaches were part-time,” he says. “I didn’t play Division I college basketball, and I really thought it was such a hard job to get into, and without that kind of DI mark of approval as a player, my sights were set on DIII,” he says. “I really did think if I could coach and teach at a college, there couldn’t be a better life than that.”

Giannini got the opportunity to do just that when he was hired as the head coach of Division III Rowan in 1989.

“Rowan, when I was there, was a remarkably good job. At that time, college costs were much lower, especially at a state school, so it was a little easier to recruit at Division III than it is now. And, at the time, there were no Division II schools in New Jersey, so we were really able to recruit like a Division II school or a low major,” he says.

During his seven-year career, Giannini amassed a 168-38 record, reaching the Division III Final Four in 1994 and 1995, and winning the Division III championship in 1996.

“I really was at the right place at the right time. It was a Top 5 job in Division III. We were able to get the best players, so we really had to just keep the pedal to the metal in terms of motivation,” he says. “We really had a very talented but very hard-nosed program, and that’s what allowed us to go 110-12 in our last four years.”

During his time in Rowan, Giannini put his doctorate, which he earned in 1992, to good work, both in the classroom where he taught several courses, as well as on the court.

“I definitely think it helped me a lot in learning how to motivate and understand my players,” he says.

La Salle head coach Dr. John Giannini. Courtesy photo / La Salle Athletics
La Salle head coach Dr. John Giannini. Courtesy photo / La Salle Athletics

After the national title, Giannini was offered the head coaching position at Division I Maine, something that shocked him despite his success.

“I really never imagined being a Division I coach,” he says. “Frankly Rowan just went too well. It was such a good job and we were able to have such national success that it led to Division I basketball.”

At the time, Maine was one of the most underfunded and outright unsuccessful programs in all of Division I basketball.

“At the time, the America East was an incredibly strong league,” says Giannini. “My experiences that time in the America East was it was very much a recruiting league. Of course you had to coach them, but you really had to get lucky on a few guys.

“I remember one year that Maine, Hofstra, Delaware and Drexel were like a combined 49-2 against the rest of the league.”

While Giannini never got Maine to the NCAA Tournament that continues to elude the program at the Division I level, his eight seasons in Orono remain as the best tenure in school history. Giannini guided the Black Bears to the America East semifinals five times, reaching the America East Championship in 2002 and 2004. Giannini’s .530 winning percentage is the best in Maine history and his 24 wins in 1999-2000 and 20 in 2003-2004 remain the only two 20-win seasons on record in program history.

While Giannini’s star was ascending at the farthest outpost of Division I hoops, La Salle’s was crashing in flames back to earth, as a scandal gutted the program. None of that mattered to Giannini when he was offered the job.

“I thought I was being punked,” he laughs. “The Atlantic-10? Are you kidding me? Like I said, my dream was to be a Division III coach.”

Giannini experienced almost immediate success, leading the team to a then-program record 10 Atlantic-10 wins in his second season. Then the going got tough, as the team would finish above .500 just one more time in his first seven years. Giannini remains thankful to this day that the administration gave him ample time and a great deal of rope to try and rebuild the program.

“I’m remarkably lucky. Not many people get to be a head coach at the Division I level, and many of those who get the chance don’t get the opportunity to see the process through,” he says. “A lot of guys are let go before they are really able to build a program the way they want it. I’ve not only been given support but I’ve been given time, so I feel remarkably lucky. “

The 2011-2012 season was a breakthrough for Giannini and the Explorers, who won 21 games, the program’s best mark in a decade, and earned an invitation to the NIT. It would prove to be a foreshadowing of even greater things to come.

“The NCAA Tournament run is one of the all-time great experiences of my life,” he says. “No matter what else I accomplish, that first run will always stay with me.”

Beginning the 2013 NCAA Tournament as a No. 13 seed playing in the first round, the Explorers knocked off fellow No. 13 Boise State, then stunned fourth-seeded Kansas State before gutting out a two-point win over Ole Miss. They finally fell to Wichita State in the Sweet 16. It was the deepest NCAA Tournament run for a La Salle squad since 1955.

Giannini cherished the moment during that run, but he hasn’t looked back on it since. He hasn’t had time to.

“Experience always helps you,” he says of the run. “But in this business we don’t have the luxury to sit back and rest on our laurels or reflect too much. If you aren’t spending every second of the day getting better, you’re getting worse compared to the competition.”

La Salle currently sits at 9-8 on the season and 1-3 in conference play. The conference slate — an 18-game war of attrition in the highly competitive Atlantic-10 — is early, but Giannini is looking for more from his team.

“We can definitely play at a higher level than we have. I’m not satisfied and they aren’t either,” he says.

But during a rare down moment, despite the losses, he has to admit, he’s living one hell of a dream, even if it wasn’t his to begin with.

“At the end of the day,” he says, “all I can say, once again, is that I’m incredibly lucky and incredibly blessed.”

RELATED: Dr. John Giannini and the lasting legacy and lessons learned from Nate Fox.