John Giannini spent eight years coaching at the University of Maine. During that time, he learned to appreciate all the job, and Greater Bangor, have to offer.
“I loved my life up there. I loved living on Pushaw [Lake],” Giannini said Monday as he talked about his La Salle University men’s basketball team and Sunday night’s 76-74 NCAA tournament victory over Mississippi.
The 13th-seeded Explorers (24-9) play ninth-seeded Wichita State in Thursday’s Sweet Sixteen game in Los Angeles.
With Maine fans curious about the former Black Bears coach, Giannini welcomed the chance to reminisce.
“For me, living on that lake and going bass fishing was like a golfer living on Pebble Beach or Augusta National. It was that good for me,” Giannini said.
He left UMaine in 2004 to take the job at La Salle, in Philadelphia. For the first time, he has guided a team to the NCAA Division I tournament.
The upstart Explorers, who earned a “first four” at-large bid to the 68-team field after finishing as the A10 runner-up, don’t appear awed by the experience.
“It’s very much an uphill battle,” Giannini said of the elite teams in the NCAA tourney. “It takes a long time to get here and once you’re there, you want to absolutely make the most of it.”
UMaine coach Ted Woodward has followed La Salle’s run with keen interest. He was an assistant under Giannini with the Black Bears for eight seasons (1996-2004).
“We talk all the time,” Woodward said. “The last week it’s been primarily a quick text here or there, [wishing him] good luck.”
Woodward said this La Salle team doesn’t have a typical lineup and can give opponents fits as a result.
“They’re playing well, with a lot of confidence, and they’re a matchup problem for everyone they’re going against,” he said.
“This is kind of the way he likes to play, a bunch of 6-[foot]-5, 6-6 guys that are interchangeable and can shoot the basketball.”
Giannini, whose La Salle teams are 143-137 overall (.511), said his UMaine years were critical in his development.
“It was an incredible coaching league for me to get my first Division I job and competing against those guys made me a lot better,” Giannini said of the league’s coaches.
He mentioned former Vermont coach Tom Brennan, Mike Brey of Delaware (now at Notre Dame), Towson’s Jay Wright (Villanova), Boston University’s Dennis Wolff (Virginia Tech women), Ron Everhart of Northeastern (West Virginia assistant) and Drexel’s Bill Herrion, who is now at New Hampshire.
“The A10 may be a slightly different level in terms of players, but it’s not a slightly different level in terms of coaches,” Giannini added.
UMaine’s location presented recruiting challenges. He tried to bring in the best Maine high school players, but also had to search the U.S. and beyond.
“Andy Bedard remains, to this day, one of the most special people I’ve ever coached and we won an awful lot of games with Joe Campbell, but you can’t get 12 of them [Mainers] on the same team,” Giannini said. “It really put me in a situation where I had to learn to recruit all over.”
Giannini credited Woodward with easing that transition because he had previous Division I recruiting experience. Giannini had come from Division III Rowan.
Giannini’s UMaine teams went 125-111, including a school-record 24-7 campaign during 1999-2000.
He admitted the caliber of play is considerably higher, and the postseason opportunities greater, in the Atlantic 10.
“This is a league where you can finish fourth and still get in the NCAA tournament and make the Sweet Sixteen,” he said, referring to his team, which had an 11-5 A10 mark.
Todd Steelman, associate head coach of the UMaine women’s team, played for Giannini. The two crossed paths at North Texas State during 1985-86, when Steelman was a freshman and Giannini was a graduate assistant coaching the JV squad.
“He was a really intelligent guy,” Steelman said. “He was pretty defensive-minded and no-nonsense.”
Steelman recalls being required to develop better defensive habits under Giannini, whom he called “a blue-collar guy.” He has followed Giannini’s career and said it has been dedicated to the student-athletes.
“He’s not out for personal glory,” Steelman said. “I think what he wants to do is help teach and educate his players, so it’s really fun to see him succeed like this.”
Woodward is likewise indebted to Giannini for helping him prepare to become a Division I head coach.
“John’s a big coaching influence in my life, as are other people I‘ve worked for,” Woodward said. “There definitely are some things that John and I share and we talk throughout the course of the year about those things.”
The fiery Giannini said he has tried to spend more time sitting in his chair rather than pacing the sidelines during games. He finds it helps him keep an even keel.
“Everyone in Maine knows that I can get emotional and I can get crazy, but I’m trying really hard,” he said with a chuckle.
Giannini believes his La Salle team can beat Wichita State and advance to the Elite Eight, but he knows the Explorers must to play up to their potential.
“We don’t lack for confidence, but we know Wichita State’s going to be a great challenge,” he said.
Looking back, Giannini relishes his time at UMaine, both professionally and personally. He hopes to return some day to do some fishing.
“The best thing about Maine, frankly, was living there,” Giannini said. “I just loved the people and I loved the university and the environment. We all have giant spots in our hearts for the state and the university.”
Giannini isn’t La Salle’s only connection to Maine. Assistant coach Will Bailey spent the 2002-03 season working with Giannini at UMaine.
Sophomore guard D.J. Peterson attended Lee Academy during 2010-11 and averaged 15 points, six rebounds and four assists.
He has started the last 11 games this season and is averaging 4.0 points and 1.5 assists and is a 40-percent shooter from the 3-point arc.