La Salle head coach Dr. John Giannini has experienced the brightest lights of March Madness, leading his Explorers to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament in 2013. But Giannini still vividly remembers his time in the America East, where he cut his teeth as a Division I head coach leading the University of Maine from 1996 to 2004.
And what Giannini has to say about the America East might surprise fans of both high-major and mid-major basketball alike.
“The America East, when I was there, was a really, really strong league. And it was a recruiting league, where you really kind of had to land a couple of extremely good players to win it,” he said, contrasting it against his current Atlantic-10 where, “We were at the point where if you got an Andy Bedard and a Nate Fox, or a Huggy Dye and a Julian Dunkley, you were pretty talented. Frankly the most talented teams in that league won and didn’t get knocked off that much,” said Giannini, referencing Maine’s stars from the late 90s and early 2000s.
When Giannini was first hired as the head coach of Maine, the America East was in the end of a Golden Era of sorts, with Malik Rose having just led Drexel to three straight NCAA Tournaments, culminating in an upset over fifth-seeded Memphis, and heading off to a long career in the NBA. In Rose’s absence, several other young stars were stepping onto center stage, with Boston University, led by forward’s Tunji Awojobi and Joey Beard, grabbing the next league championship, followed by a pair of Delaware titles in 1998 and 1999.
“I often tell the old America East guys that Tunji Awojobi and Joey Beard would be one of the top 5-10 inside combinations in Division I right now, they were that talented,” said Giannini.
Awojobi finished his career as one of five Division I players to register career totals of 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds, and 300 blocked shots. He joined a select group composed of Alonzo Mourning (Georgetown), Pervis Ellison (Louisville), Derrick Coleman (Syracuse), and David Robinson (Navy). Beard, a 6’10” top-100 high school recruit who signed with Duke out of high school, transferred to Boston University where he starred for two seasons. Both Beard and Awojobi would go on to play more than a decade apiece in professiona ball.
The torch was then passed from Boston University on to a young coach named Jay Wright, who was leading a resurgent Hofstra squad led by guards Speedy Claxton and Norman Richards. Wright of course would go on to coach Villanova to repeated NCAA Tournaments, including a 2010 run to the Final Four, and Claxton and Richards would go on to play in the NBA, but all three got their starts by leading Hofstra to the NCAA Tournament’s in 2000 and 2001.
Giannini’s Maine teams finished in the top four most years, including a program record 24 wins in 1999-2000 when they were perhaps a broken wrist to star point guard Andy Bedard away from going to the NCAAs,
“Jay Wright and I often debate how our Hofstra and Maine teams would have done against his Final Four and our (La Salle’s) Sweet 16 teams,” said Giannini. “Jay had two NBA players in Norm Richardson and Speedy Claxton. Then you throw in Mike Brey’s great teams at Delaware, Bill Herrion had great teams at Drexel, Dennis Wolff had great teams at Boston University. So you had five borderline high-major teams in the America East at that time.”
In sharp contrast to today’s America East, where on any night seemingly any team can beat any other, according to Giannini, parity was a word that did not exist in the league back in the day.
“At that time, the league was remarkably strong,” Giannini said. “I remember one year that Maine, Hofstra, Boston University, Delaware and Drexel were like a combined 48-2 against the rest of the league.”
Now looking to guide La Salle back to the NCAA Tournament, Giannini’s focus remains on the here and now, but every once in a while he still enjoys looking back on the league where he got his start.
“I really wish I could arrange that matchup between my guys at Maine and my guys at La Salle,” he says. “It would be a hell of a game.”
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.
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.”
The picture is less than three weeks old, but it is already well-worn, its ink faded and its edges fraying from the number of times Dr. John Giannini has taken it out of his wallet, held it in his hand, every time finding himself at a loss for words as he runs his fingers over it.
“I carry a little newspaper cut out picture of him to my games this year,” says Giannini. “We shockingly lost a great one and someone that I was so lucky to coach, and even luckier to get to know.”
Giannini was speaking of former University of Maine star Nate Fox, whom Giannini had coached for three years in Orono and who was shot to death in his driveway in Bloomingdale, Illinois, on the night of Dec. 22, just two days before Christmas Eve.
In his 27 years of coaching, dating back to the two seasons he spent as a graduate assistant at the University of Illinois, and head coaching gigs at Division III Rowan, Maine and now La Salle, Giannini has been around a lot of players, many more heavily hyped and highly recruited than Fox. But according to Giannini, none were better players or left a bigger impression on him.
“Nate was as good as any player that I’ve ever coached. He had an incredible combination of size, strength, skill, basketball IQ and toughness,” says Giannini of the 6-foot-9-inch, 250-pound power forward who scored 1,036 points and ripped down 454 rebounds while shooting 57.9 percent from the floor and 35.3 percent from behind the arc in two seasons at Maine after transferring from Boston College.
“Nate could have played anywhere in the country,” says Giannini. But as good as he was — and Fox was good, no doubt about it, playing for 13 seasons abroad at some of the highest levels of professional basketball — Fox the person left an even more indelible mark on his coach.
Now, Giannini is left with an absence in his life, and a hole in his heart far larger than his former player’s massive frame. It’s a void that will never be filled.
“Nate is just really on my mind right now, and thinking about him all the time,” Giannini says. “If you look at the pictures of him, he was massively strong. He looked like a bodybuilder in spite of his terrific basketball skills. He was this huge person, but his personality was even bigger than his body.
“Everyone knows about him because of the legacy that he left. And his legacy was far more than who he was as a player: he was this fun-loving, caring, wild and crazy guy. He just was a man’s man in the best sense: he was tough, he knew how to have a good time, but he was also a true friend and nice to everybody,” he says, his voice beginning to crack, the wound still raw and unhealed 17 days after Fox’s death.
That Fox wound up playing for Giannini was a stroke of luck, the coach readily admits. Fox, who was offered a host of Division I scholarships in both football and basketball coming out of Plainfield Central High, had spent his first two seasons at Boston College riding the pine under O’Brien. When O’Brien left to take the job at Ohio State, much of the Eagles roster scattered. Gianinni landed Boston College point guard Andy Bedard, Giannini’s most coveted recruit, as a transfer and Fox was, essentially, a throw-in.
“Nate was Andy’s best friend. I didn’t know much about him and he really hadn’t played at BC, but Andy really pushed hard for him. He had a huge frame and we thought in the America East he could at least be a body,” Giannini laughs. “About a week into practice me and my staff looked at each other and it was one of those, ‘wow, this kid could be the best player in the league,’ moments where we knew we’d fallen into someone really special.
“(Head coach) Jim O’Brien told me, ‘John, the way Nate developed, he would have been one of the best players on our Final Four team at Ohio State.’”
But once again, as special as Fox was on the court, according to Giannini, the mark the player left on his coach and his teammates was even more once in a lifetime.
“He was just,” Giannini says, trailing off, unable to find the words.
A week after Fox’ death, his former coaches and teammates converged outside of Chicago, coming together from the far corners of the globe to remember Fox. Giannini thought he’d heard everything about his former player at that point, but even after his death, Fox continued to amaze and touch his mentor.
“Just going through the grieving process with his former teammates, two new stories came out that I’d never heard about,” says the coach.
“We had a walk-on named Jon Wallingford [at Maine] who checked IDs at the weight room before he became a walk-on. Jon was about 5’10” and certainly didn’t look like a Division I basketball player, and he was a freshman working at the desk. And Jon told me when Nate came in every day they would talk and developed a friendship,” Giannini remembers.
“And here’s Nate, a big-man-on-campus, having this friendship with this guy that he just met checking IDs. And Jon’s point was, ‘Nate was great to me before I was a teammate, and he was great to me before he knew who I was, and he was great to me when I was the most regular student on campus.’ I think that’s really powerful.
“Fred Meeks, was a guy that we had from Alabama. And here you have a southern guy and a northern guy whose demographics couldn’t have been more different, but Nate invited Fred over to his house one summer, and Fred wound up staying at his house for a month and training with him.
“Fred was just heartbroken because he said, ‘Coach, I was literally a part of Nate’s family. I couldn’t have been treated better and I’ll always remember that time as very special.’ How many guys invite a teammate over to their house and then end up having them stay for a month and having this special relationship with someone they really have very little in common with other than basketball?”
Giannini grows quiet, his lasting memories of Fox filling the great silence. Finally, he begins to speak again, to tell one last Nate Fox story — the story of the player’s final, longest lasting gift to his coach.
“When I went to the viewing, all I could think about was how lucky I was to coach him,” he says, returning to the picture of Fox, forever frozen in time. “I keep it (the picture), just to remind myself of how lucky I was to coach him, but to remind myself of how lucky I am to coach Jerrell Wright and Steve Zach and D.J. Peterson. It makes me appreciate them more, and frankly it makes me a more patient, better coach.
“Every great coach rides on the backs of his players. None of us are anything without our players. And Nate had such a dramatic and huge effect on us both professionally and personally, that I couldn’t stop thinking about how lucky I was. I think this tragedy with Nate has helped me to understand that better.”