La Salle coach John Giannini has earned his shot

Head coach Dr. John Giannini watches as his team, the La Salle Explorers, practice at the University of Dayton Arena in Dayton, Ohio on March 19, 2013. The Explorers are preparing for their opening round game in the NCAA Basketball Championship against the Boise State Broncos. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)
Head coach Dr. John Giannini watches as his team, the La Salle Explorers, practice at the University of Dayton Arena in Dayton, Ohio on March 19, 2013. The Explorers are preparing for their opening round game in the NCAA Basketball Championship against the Boise State Broncos. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 21, 2013

Nothing is given, it must be earned. John Giannini learned that early. His father had made it to Chicago from Italy in his 20s and found the opportunity he sought in the plumbing trade. The colder the Chicago nights, the more likely Manfredo Giannini would be called out to fix water main breaks.

"He had real rough hands," Giannini said this week, standing inside Tom Gola Arena. "He had a huge swollen elbow just from overuse. Then he had a nice little side business. He always prayed for rain because when people's basements flooded, the word was out, if you needed a sump, call Fred Giannini."

A Chicago guy, La Salle's coach shares a trait with a lot of his Philly hoops coaching brethren. He is a first-generation college graduate, lifted by hoops.

A former Division III rebounder and D-III coach, now a head coach in March Madness for the first time Wednesday when La Salle faces Boise State, Giannini also fits another basketball archetype.

Hoops coaches are nuts.

Away from the game, Giannini, 50, has an everyman quality. He doesn't know how to big-time you. He's also got a Ph.D in kinesiology, specializing in sports psychology, earned while working as a graduate assistant at Illinois.

"They invented sports psychology at the University of Illinois - it wasn't bouncing balls," Giannini said of the program there. If coaching hadn't worked out, a career in academia appealed to him. He entered the Ph.D. program, then got on the coaching staff, not the other way around.

Games aren't academic exercises, however, and watching Giannini on the sideline, you see a man who looks as if he's the one who needs a psychologist. Giannini said he has been working on that, that going full-tilt at his players isn't necessarily helpful to his players, but explained recently that "to see your life being played out before you is emotional."

"What sends him nuts, the guy goes over everything with them," said La Salle assistant Pappy Owens. "Our guys know everything a team is going to do unless they haven't showed it. He's one of the few guys in our business who, if we didn't go over something, he'll say, 'That's on me. I didn't prepare you for that.' "

Giannini gives this year's team the highest grades for understanding the game. Still . . .

"His biggest thing is talking, like [it drives him crazy] if you don't talk," Owens said. "Because [most of La Salle's starting lineup] is about the same size, and we see a switch, everyone has to talk. Or if a guy steps off a charge. He's on that."

Rowan coach Joe Cassidy, Giannini's top assistant when the Profs won 81.4 percent of their games and a D-III national title, once explained Giannini to me like this: "John is the master of, I want to say, crisis motivation." His example was from the Rowan days, how Giannini would be agitated because his backup point guard wasn't going to be quick enough to guard Kean's top player. Cassidy listened to this for a while before pointing out that while that might be true, Rowan had the best player on the court - and the second best and the third best.

"In that case, the biggest problem in the world was that our backup point guard point, maybe our ninth man, wasn't as quick as their best player, but that's the way he motivates himself to work hard," Cassidy said.

Nothing has been given. Even his graduate assistant job at Illinois was supposed to be for one season. An assistant saw his work and persuaded coach Lou Henson to keep Giannini on for another year, which turned out to be a Final Four year. The combination of the Ph.D. and the Final Four made him intriguing to Glassboro State, as Rowan was called when Giannini was hired in 1989.

"Every job he's had, they've not been good jobs, they've been tough jobs," said former Illinois assistant Mark Coomes, who remains close to Giannini. "That epitomizes John."

Maine came after Rowan. His first D-I job. A tough job. Probably his best player up there was Andy Bedard, a local kid who had gone to Boston College but decided he didn't want to play 15 minutes, he wanted a program in his hands. The morning after Bedard announced he was leaving B.C., Giannini met him at the front door of the library. They hit it off.

"Our goals were the same," Bedard said. "I could see his intensity, how hard he was willing to work."

Neither was going to allow the other to get the upper hand in the work department. Giannini scheduled 6 a.m. strength and conditioning drills. Bedard said he wanted to come in at 5 to shoot. "You're nuts," Giannini told him.

"But he was there at 5 to rebound for me," Bedard said.

In discussions this week with Bedard and Giannini's first Rowan point guard, Rick Myers, both men used "we" when talking about La Salle's NCAA chances.

"It's just buying in," Myers said, "having lived through what he is about."

When Explorers point guard Tyreek Duren came on board, Myers said, he told him: "Coach is going to talk, you might not be able to relate to it - just listen to him. If you listen to him, you'll have a phenomenal career, and you'll win.''

Or you could look at it like this: They've all earned what they've achieved this season on Olney Avenue.


Contact Mike Jensen at mjensen@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @jensenoffcampus.

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