Beyond losses, Patsos sees a coaching dream at Loyola


AT 7 this morning, Jimmy Patsos was going to be in the gym at Reitz Arena. He was going to watch the Loyola men's basketball team run. He was going to cross his arms across his chest and smile.

For the first day of his life after 13 seasons assisting Maryland head coach Gary Williams, in a week when all of NCAA Division I basketball celebrates itself with a grand spectacle called the Final Four, Patsos will have a team of his own.

That the Greyhounds had a computer rating of 322 among the 326 Division I programs this season, and that they're coming off a 1-27 campaign having barely avoided notching the longest losing streak in Division I history should make a difference? Pity the soul who wonders why Patsos would take such a job.

"People might say, 'Gee, Loyola must be lucky to have you,' " Patsos said yesterday when Loyola president Rev. Harold Ridley and athletic director Joe Boylan introduced him as the Greyhounds' 20th head coach, calling it a good day on the handsome, rain-soaked campus.

"I'm the one who's lucky. I'm the one who gets to raise up this program to be on par with the other programs in the school," Patsos said, voice quavering for one brief moment.

Forget that Maryland was rated 18th in those vaunted power rankings. Forget that the young Terps raced through the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, beating the odds and Wake Forest, N.C. State and Duke. Forget that Maryland is exactly two years removed from winning the national championship. Forget that Patsos was there alongside Williams to help raise Maryland from probation ashes to NCAA royalty, reaping the benefits of such conquests and acclaim. That ride is over.

Mission accomplished in College Park. Patsos learned how to build a program, because Williams let Patsos do everything - secretary, video exchange, academic adviser, recruiter.

"He said I had to do it because he was paranoid that anyone else might be a spy for North Carolina," Patsos said.

But for all the requisite jokes about Williams' gruff demeanor, the coach understood what direction to point Patsos. Williams let Patsos leave for Loyola with his typical Williams-esque blessing: "He said I better win, otherwise they'll fire me in five years."

It was the four-year record of a torturous 16-97 that cost Scott Hicks the job.

At Loyola yesterday, former star players like Jim Lacy, Loyola's all-time leading scorer from the class of '49, and John Heagney, team captain from class of '61, were beaming. They could feel the energy and magnetism from Patsos. You know he's a basketball coach the minute he steps into a room, they said.

They believe Patsos can be Loyola's next Skip Prosser, the only man to lead the Greyhounds to the NCAA tournament, in 1994. But this time, instead of using Loyola as a one-year career stepladder, Patsos is making a commitment. He turned down an assistant's job at UCLA last year. He is a Baltimore/D.C. guy. His recruiting pipeline, his ties are here.

This is the moment you live for if you're a basketball coach: a chance to build something, a chance to make players better, to raise a program, to dream about making Loyola basketball in Baltimore what Saint Joseph's is in Philadelphia; what Gonzaga is in Spokane, Wash.; what Xavier or Holy Cross or Santa Clara are in their towns.

A small, private, academically demanding Jesuit school in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference can't compete in a world dominated by the ACC, Big East, Southeastern Conference and Big 12? Tell that to Patsos.

This is the era of 13 scholarships, when mid-majors can find top-notch recruits sliding over to them. Look at Saint Joseph's this season, riding Jameer Nelson with a fine supporting cast. Coach Phil Martelli got Nelson to come to his Atlantic 10 school when scholarships at Temple and Providence were gone. If you can't land the No. 1 recruit at a basketball powerhouse, the No. 2 or 3 player can fall to you.

This is also the era of college seniors making a difference. And as the Marylands, Dukes and North Carolinas lose NBA lottery picks, schools that build on players who stay four years and earn their degrees have a chance.

Look at what Manhattan did to Florida in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Why can't Loyola be Manhattan, or more? There's as much reason for optimism as there is for doubt.

How far can Loyola go? The school already proved something to itself. It cares about its basketball, like the 40 concerned alums and friends of Loyola basketball who paid $20 for dinner at Hunt Valley Country Club to discuss ways to help the program.

Or that cold night in January at Reitz Arena, where the will of the greater Loyola community seemed to spur the foundering Greyhounds basketball team to victory.

Loyola had lost 31 consecutive times, two short of the NCAA Division I record set by Grambling State, when Marist came to play. During warm-ups that night, it was eye-averting painful to witness the Greyhounds, especially when sophomore standout Charlie Bell and lone Greyhounds senior Lindbergh Chatman looked so tortured.

Loyola wasn't bad. It was a punch line. Could this really be happening? That January night, Loyola won. Two thousand-plus spectators screamed and the Loyola community rallied to lift all those sinking boats. The losing that came before and after are not the point, Patsos said. Loyola is the kind of place a first-time head coach can feel proud of calling home, especially one who thinks winter nights in Baltimore are up for grabs.

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