PITTSBURGH — In the formative days of his coaching career, Jimmy Patsos‘ days were a blur. Mornings and afternoons were spent in Maryland’s basketball office, his nights working at the Third Edition in Georgetown.
It was a world filled with interesting people, perhaps none more outsized than Patsos himself. It was apropos, then, that he once provided a ride from the airport to one of the zany coaching characters from a generation earlier.
“He says, ‘You’re going to be fine. My mother owned a bar. You drive a cab, you own a bar, you’ll learn how to deal with people. This is a great situation,’ ” Patsos recalled this week.
A couple decades later, Patsos‘ situation remains great. After eight years, he has hauled Loyola from a one-win outfit to the NCAA tournament. The 15th-seeded Greyhounds (24-8) will play their first NCAA tournament game since 1994 on Thursday when they meet second-seeded Ohio State (27-7) at Consol Energy Center.
Loyola possesses a strong mix of talent. It is deep. It often looks like a midmajor mimic of Gary Williams’ Maryland teams, running the flex offense and the same pressing schemes the Terrapins used in their halcyon days.
Yet the greatest element Patsos poured into rebuilding Loyola arguably was his own personality, an unvarnished approach that rings true. It can be many things: provocative and profane, worldly and wacky. But it is always authentic.
“He’s a great people person,” said Rodney Elliott, who played forward at Maryland in the mid-1990s, when Patsos was an assistant. “He knows how to talk to you and not [mess with] you — talk to you straight, man to man, face to face, give you what it is and allow you to see what it is you need to do to get to this next level, on the basketball court, in the classroom and in life, period.”
Passion and energy
Joe Boylan, then Loyola’s athletic director, needed a new basketball coach in 2004. He had interviewed Patsos as a favor to Williams a few years earlier and had come away impressed. With the job open again, he sought the counsel of the only man to take the Greyhounds to the NCAA tournament before this month.
The late Skip Prosser stitched together that postseason run in 1994, staying at the Baltimore school for one year before leaving for Xavier. He thrived later at Wake Forest, and it was in Winston-Salem, N.C., where he and Boylan discussed the right fit for his old job.
“He said, ‘If you could get Jimmy, he would be the perfect guy,’ ” Boylan recalled. “That’s kind of where we were. We needed something that would really change things.”
Patsos was certain to provide it for a program coming off a 1-27 season. Working at Maryland for 13 years had prepared him for the basketball aspect. His time at the Third Edition had ensured he was ready for just about everything else.
His fellow bartenders were law school and medical school students and also stockbrokers eager to find new clients in creative ways. It was an eclectic mix of people juggling jobs while trying to rise in their respective professions.
“I learned a lot about life in that bar,” Patsos said. “I met a lot of cool people. I wasn’t in some dive gin joint. This is a nice place. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria [Shriver] used to eat in there. The guy from the Foo Fighters [Dave Grohl] came in all the time. That was the good part.”
Patsos‘ close friend Mike Lonergan readily admits Patsos was usually “the life of the party” in his bartending days. But Longergan, now George Washington’s coach, saw his former Catholic University teammate’s success through a different prism.
Lonergan visited Patsos‘ hometown of Boston during summer breaks while both were in college. Patsos‘ father owned real estate, and Patsos would make extra money driving around to the homes of renters who would leave town for a few months and make sure their homes were vacuumed and their windows were clean.
“He’s one of the few people everyone likes in coaching,” Lonergan said. “That’s really hard, especially when you start winning games.”
And win he has after fostering Loyola’s program from the laughable condition he inherited. He finally evened his career record for the first time since he was 0-0, collecting his 122nd career victory in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference final last week.
He did it in his inimitable style, with a maniacal sideline presence during the game and a wide-ranging news conference afterward that illustrated his zest for, well, everything.
“I don’t think that will ever change,” said Dan Ficke, who played at Loyola between 2005 and 2009 and is the assistant coordinator of basketball operations at Wake Forest. “That’s just who Jimmy is. He’s going a mile a minute. His life is just passionate energy. That’s why I loved playing for him. It’s something to be really proud of.
Selling Loyola, selling himself
Reitz Arena, the 2,100-seat gym nestled inside Loyola’s student center, looks different from a decade ago.
The lighting is vastly improved. There are green chairback seats. The team running the floor is covered entirely in the apparel of one company as opposed to piecemeal deals.
Patsos and the Greyhounds earned it all, the coach’s dreams big even in the week after he took over a program at rock-bottom.
“He says, ‘We need to do courtside seats,’ ” Boylan said. “I’m thinking, ‘We won one game and we’re going to do courtside seats?’ And we sold them all.”
He also sold himself to Baltimore. Loyola was long an afterthought in a town usually splintered between college basketball options, and making the private school more accessible was crucial to the Greyhounds’ growth.
Starting point guard R.J. Williams is a Baltimore product. So is Dylon Cormier, Loyola’s leading scorer. Jordan Latham, a crucial frontcourt reserve, grew up in Baltimore and transferred from Xavier.
“Guys now don’t just drive past Cold Spring [Lane] and think ‘Oh, this is the big school that plays hockey, lacrosse and women’s soccer,’ ” said Elliott, a Baltimore native. “We want to come hoop here. We want to come play here now. It’s close to home, and he’s done a great job in that with some of the recruits.”
Patsos‘ bartending days nurtured the sort of creativity that would prompt him to want to watch “The Godfather” rather than a basketball game when he and Lonergan bickered over control of a television in their younger days, and it is a side of him that is not neglected as a head coach.
He planned to take the Greyhounds to the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh this week, the latest in a series of field trips he is fond of.
“A lot of us, to be candid with you, we’re very boring,” Loyola athletic director Jim Paquette said. “Jimmy’s very much into college basketball, but he’s very worldly. This is a guy who goes to Paris every summer and visits museums.”
“It’s all recruiting, coaching and promoting, on the court and off,” Patsos said. “Recruit good players. Make them better on the court. Make sure they graduate. Promote the program. It’s not that hard.”
It’s not for a true people person. It’s definitely not for Jimmy Patsos.