Jon Teitel's Coaching Greats Interview Series: Louisiana Tech's Andy Russo

    
January 10th, 2011
In the most recent installment in his "Coaching Greats" interview series CHN writer Jon Teitel spent some time with former Louisiana Tech head coach Andy Russo. In six seasons at the school Russo led the Bulldogs to a pair of NCAA Tournament appearances and coached future Basketball Hall of Famer Karl Malone.

Jon Teitel: In 1970 you were co-captain of the Lake Forest HS team along with legendary computer magnate Mike Maiman. How good a player were you back in the day, and did you ever think that Mike would turn out to be so successful?

Andy Russo: Mike is still my best friend in the world. We are like brothers. I was not that good, and did not think that Mike would be such a success off the court, but he is the greatest overachiever I have ever known.

JT: In 1970 as coach at Brother Martin HS you went 36-0 and finished with the best record in Louisiana history. What did it mean to you to go undefeated?

AR: I started as a HS coach in Chicago. When I got the Louisiana Tech job, all the papers reported that I had coached at Brother Martin...but it was a completely different guy with the same name! I would have people come up to me in the stands and tell me that they knew me, and I would have to explain to them the case of mistaken identity. It has been a standing joke for many years.

JT: You were a graduate assistant at UTEP under Hall of Fame coach Don Haskins. What was the most important thing you learned from him, and what made him such a great coach?

AR: I learned more basketball from Coach Haskins in the first five minutes of practice then I ever learned before in my life. I recently saw a show about Vince Lombardi, and I felt very similar to John Madden watching Lombardi conduct a clinic. One of my biggest regrets was only spending one year at UTEP. Haskins was great at Xs and Os from a defensive standpoint, and as a motivator he was simply amazing. I attended Don's funeral a couple of years ago, and they handed out ID badges with his picture on it. I still see him every day because I have that photo of him sitting on my desk.

JT: When you arrived at Louisiana Tech as the youngest Division I head coach in the country, the pep band would often pack up after the legendary women's team games without staying for the men's games. Did you feel that you were ready to be a head coach, and what was it like to coach a men's team at a school that was more supportive of the women's team?

AR: The band left early a few times but not every time. One time we could not get out of the locker room because there were so many fans leaving after the women played the first game of a doubleheader with us. It took us five minutes just to get out to the court! I came from Panola JC, where the women's team had won a national title the year I got there. When Louisiana Tech interviewed me someone actually thought I was the other Andy Russo! I honestly think I got the job because I got along so well with women's coach Sonja Hogg. I even did color commentary for some of their games. I realized that if it could happen to them, then it could happen to me.

JT: What are your memories of the 1984 NCAA Tournament (Karl Malone had a one-handed alley-oop dunk that was shown over and over on national TV in a 10-point upset of Fresno State, then Malone scored 18 points in a seven-point loss to eventual runner-up Houston)?

AR: The biggest game of my career was actually prior to the NCAA tourney, as we won the Southland Conference title game by three points and snapped Lamar's 7-year home court winning streak in Beaumont. Everything after that was gravy. We were waiting for the selection committee to make their announcement, and I told one of my assistants that the one team I did not want to face was...Fresno! Karl definitely blossomed in the tourney but was in foul trouble during the Lamar game. We had a great team that year; it was not just Karl. I was licking my chops because Fresno had beaten Houston earlier in the year, but we just could not get it done against the Cougars. The Houston game was the last time my dad ever saw me coach, and he and I had a great time at the Final Four.

1985 NCAA Tournament

JT: Willie Simmons tallied 13 points and 10 rebounds in a win over Pittsburgh. Did you or your team have a different attitude going into the tournament as a favorite instead of an underdog?

AR: We were not a favorite, as Pitt had won the Big East that year. Earlier in the week Bill Raftery said that we were the most overrated team in the tourney, and he ended up announcing our game. It was a blowout, as we were up by 30 points in the 2nd half. Raftery interviewed me after the game and I told him, "Not bad for an overrated team, eh?" I never let him hear the end of it!

JT: Three-time All-American Wayman Tisdale had 23 points and 12 rebounds and made a shot with two seconds left that bounced around the rim several times before going in to clinch a two-point overtime win by #1-seed Oklahoma. How devastating was that shot and were you really out for revenge after Oklahoma coach Billy Tubbs reneged on a contract three years earlier to play in the opening game at your new arena?

AR: All the Louisiana Tech women's fans were cheering for our team which was great. Tisdale's shot was on the rim for several seconds before going in. You can still see it on ESPN Classic every so often. Tubbs was an old friend of mine and Oklahoma was supposed to come to the opening of our new arena, so that was definitely on my mind during the game. Billy never even called me to tell me that Oklahoma was not going to show up. I heard about it from Nolan Richardson.

JT: What are your memories of the 1986 NCAA Tournament in your first year as coach at Washington (Scott Skiles scored 31 points and made two free throws with two seconds left to clinch a two-point Michigan State win, and the two teams tied a tournament record by only having nine players combined who scored in the game)?

AR: We were up by double-digits at half and Michigan State had no inside presence. We made a couple of mistakes in the 2nd half, but they called a ticky-tack foul in a tie game at the end that got Skiles to the line. If we had won then we would have played Georgetown, who I think we could have beaten as Michigan State ended up beating the Hoyas. I was real disappointed as it would have set the tone for my entire career at Washington.

JT: You coached one year in the Italian Professional Basketball League, and in 2008 you became head varsity girls' coach at St. Andrew's School. What is the biggest difference between coaching college players vs. coaching European professionals vs. coaching high school girls?

AR: A lot of great college coaches have a hard time coaching professionals because it is more about managing than teaching. The pros think they know all the fundamentals but they honestly do not. Coaching girls was a tough adjustment for me as there was more drama, but my daughter was one of my players and she helped me a lot.

JT: When people look back on your career how do you want to be remembered the most?

AR: As a person who was honest and always took the high road. We never beat up on any team worse than we had to. The person I credit most is former Fresno coach Boyd Grant. When we pulled off the upset over his team in 1984, he said in interviews that he got outcoached and his team got outplayed. To give us credit rather than blame anyone was very classy of him.

Coach Russo is also on Jon's list of best coaches in WAC history.

Boise State: Bobby Dye (1983-1995) 213-133, 3 NCAA tourneys, 2 conference titles, 3-time conference COY

Fresno State: Boyd "Tiny" Grant (1977-1986) 194-74, 3 NCAA tourneys, 3 conference titles, 1 NIT title, 3-time conference COY

Hawaii: Riley Wallace (1987-2007) 334-265, 3 NCAA tourneys, 2 conference titles, 3-time conference COY

Idaho: Don Monson (1978-1983) 100-41, 2 NCAA tourneys, 2 conference titles, 1-time national COY, 2-time conference COY

Louisiana Tech: Andy Russo (1979-1985) 122-55, 2 NCAA tourneys, 1 conference title

Nevada: Mark Fox (2004-2009) 123-43, 3 NCAA tourneys, 4 conference titles, 3-time conference COY

New Mexico State: Lou Henson (1966-1975, 1997-2005) 289-152, 7 NCAA tourneys, 2 conference titles, 1-time conference COY

San Jose State: Walter McPherson (1940-1942, 1945-1960) 264-208, 1 NCAA tourney, 3 conference titles

Utah State: Stew Morrill (1998-present) 308-101, 7 NCAA tourney, 6 conference titles, 4-time conference COY