Third in an occasional series on trying to turn around one of college basketball's worst programs.
BLACKSBURG, Va. - It takes only a few minutes for Jimmy Patsos to morph into Gary Williams.
The long-time Maryland assistant is making his coaching debut for Loyola against Virginia Tech. Patsos gives a relatively restrained pep talk before the Nov. 19 game, discussing strategy and stressing staying tough in a game where his team is given little chance. The coach takes a seat on the bench, hoping a relaxed look will settle his team's unavoidable jitters.
The John Wooden approach does not last long. The Greyhounds are hesitant and clearly intimidated despite a dispassionate crowd in the half-filled arena. The Hokies pounce on Loyola's mistakes and break out to a 15-1 lead. That is when Patsos' coaching career really begins.
"I did the math real quick," he says. "I'm like 'OK, it's going to be 80-10.' We have to do something different. I was raised by [Maryland coach] Gary Williams for 13 years. I don't know how else to do it. I tried to be calm. It just doesn't work."
The once peaceful Patsos explodes into a nonstop rage that would wear out Richard Simmons. The theatrics include flailing arms, stalking the sideline, leaping from his coaching crouch and issuing in-your-face challenges to his players. His new designer suit soon becomes a sweat-soaked casualty, as does his styled hair, which turns into a raggedy mop. He looks like he is debuting in a blender, not Cassell Coliseum.
"I look over and want to laugh" freshman Freddy Stanback says. "But I can't. That's what we need right now."
A few soiled garments would be well worth the trade-off for some on-court success as Patsos is trying to turn around one of the nation's worst programs.
"They should put something in his contract for new clothing," senior forward Jim Chivers says. "He sweats a lot. The intensity feeds onto us."
The 38-year-old, three seasons removed from a national championship with the Terrapins, is attempting to revive the moribund Baltimore program. Loyola sunk to 1-27 last season to post its 10th consecutive losing campaign. The Greyhounds brought a 24-game road losing streak to Blacksburg.
"We are still fighting for confidence," says junior Charlie Bell, the team's leading scorer last season. "We are still picked 10th [out of 10 teams in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Association]. We are fighting hard to show people we are not a slouch this year."
Virginia Tech is an unlikely venue for a program-changing victory. It is expected to be a demoralizing loss for Loyola, something Patsos knew when he agreed to start his head coaching career here. The Hokies are ACC newbies and come in as 17[1/2]-point favorites.
Why would he subject himself to a seemingly no-win situation in his first game? The answer is like so many other things in life: the money.
Loyola took a six-hour bus ride to get a taste of big-time atmosphere, gain some experience and bring home a hefty paycheck. Virginia Tech paid $45,000 for the money game. The income will be a major boost to the Greyhounds' modest athletic department budget.
Patsos is familiar with these cash-and-cry contests. At Maryland, he would line up fodder like Jackson State, American and Mercer. The Terrapins make money in ticket sales, concessions and television revenues. Maryland plays about five "money games" a season, and did not lose once during Patsos' tenure.
"I knew when I got in what the other side was all about," says Patsos, who has another "money game" tomorrow at 16th-ranked Pittsburgh. "It's good exposure for our program. You can't put a price on this atmosphere. It is a great opportunity for the kids. We have nothing to lose."
The Hokies paid Loyola to be a holiday snack, knowing they must buy some wins in November to have enough for a postseason bid in March.
From the start, both teams play their expected roles. The first possession in the Patsos era results in a shot-clock violation. The Greyhounds appear overmatched as Virginia Tech converts careless turnovers into easy buckets.
Patsos quickly pulls a starter, sits him down and challenges, "You have to decide if you want to play at this level."
It is 10-1 less than three minutes in when the coach calls his first timeout.
"I was afraid they weren't going to fight back [-] that they were just going to let it happen," Patsos says. "I have seen enough of that in the past, and knowing what has happened to this program "
The Hokies lead 15-1 before Josko Alujevic's layup with 15:48 left provides Loyola's first field goal of the half. And Patsos' increasingly intense demeanor spreads throughout his team, which suddenly seems more fearful of its coach than the environment.
After trailing by 18, the Greyhounds use their well-practiced up-tempo offense to close the half on a 17-7 run. During the stretch, a Virginia Tech fan behind Loyola's bench remarks, "This is embarrassing."
Chivers' 3-pointer at the buzzer rims out, and Virginia Tech is fortunate to take a 34-26 lead into intermission.
"That's my shot," Chivers says while shaking his head as he comes off the floor. Stanback has 10 points, and Loyola is close despite 14 turnovers and Bell having not scored.
Patsos storms into the cramped locker room with a rush of adrenaline along with the sweat stains seeping through the back of his jacket. He tells his players how proud he is for their toughness in coming back. The wired coach issues another challenge for the second half - "Who's ready to fight?"
The comeback quickly fades as the Greyhounds go on another turnover binge and the Hokies begin making their outside shots. Virginia Tech goes up 55-36 before the Greyhounds battle back with six straight, cutting the lead to 13 on Bernard Allen's twisting layup. However, a 3-pointer by Carlos Dixon re-establishes the Hokies' control.
As the game goes on, Patsos is mixing it up with some spirited students. A handful in the front row behind the basket start a mocking chant of "Pat-sos, Pat-sos." The coach walks down the bench, looks at them, and flips his jacket collar as if to say, "Bring it on."
The coach loses his grip after a tip-in, which looks like it should be called offensive goaltending, gives the home team a commanding 66-47 lead with 6:23 left. Patsos rips off his jacket, pirouettes and throws it into the bench. He quickly composes himself, however, and puts the drenched garment over his likewise soaked shirt.
The final score is 81-58. Patsos makes a point of looking at the students and giving them a thumbs-up before leaving the court.
"They came out tonight," Patsos said of the few Tech students in attendance despite the Thanksgiving break. "I wanted them to know I appreciate that."
The coach gives the team a blistering review with a few choice words in the locker room, and spots one freshman sulking. "You played well tonight. There's nothing to hang your head about."
The freshman class gives the program a chance this season and promise for the future. Stanback (O'Connell High) has a team-high 16 points along with a game-high nine rebounds. Brad Farrell (Herndon) starts at point guard and plays like a seasoned veteran. Walk-ons Rashaud Nixon (Oxon Hill) and Greg Manning, son of the former star guard at Maryland of the same name, play well in extended minutes.
"It's all about teaching lessons," says Patsos, who began his basketball education playing Division III basketball at Catholic for coach Jack Bruen. "It was a good experience. We did some stuff well. We just have to build. I just want to be a good basketball team on March 1 [for the MAAC tournament]."