Jon Teitel's "Coaching Greats" Series: Former Xavier head coach Pete Gillen

January 26th, 2011
In his latest installment in the "Coaching Greats" interview series, CHN writer Jon Teitel spent some time with Pete Gillen. Coach Gillen led programs at Xavier, Providence and Virginia before moving over to the media side of things to call games for CBS College Sports. At Xavier Coach Gillen led the Musketeers to six conference titles and seven NCAA Tournament appearances in nine seasons at the school before moving on to Providence.

Jon Teitel: Your first coaching gig in college was as an assistant at Hawaii, where one of your fellow assistants was Rick Pitino. What was it like to go from your native Brooklyn all the way to Hawaii, and could you tell at the time that Pitino was going to become a star coach?

Pete Gillen: It was a gigantic change from Brooklyn, but it was wonderful. I knew Rick was special: he was really driven and had tremendous enthusiasm. He recommended me for the job, so I owe him a lot.

JT: You later ended up as an assistant for two other great coaches in Rollie Massimino at Villanova and Digger Phelps at Notre Dame. Who was the best coach you ever worked for, and what did you learn from these two guys in particular?

PG: They were both great coaches. Rollie taught me the value of family and that a team has to be a close group. He would have the team over to his house for dinner every couple of weeks. Digger was very organized, like the chairman of the board at IBM. He taught met that the little things in life are important.

JT: In 1985 you became head coach at Xavier, and proceeded to make the NCAA tourney in seven of your first eight years. How were you able to come in and have so much success so quickly?

PG: My predecessor Bob Staak did a great job of setting the table, as we had a good veteran team returning, so he should get more credit for the team's development. I believe that success begets more success. We also had great assistant coaches like Skip Prosser, Dino Gaudio, etc. We got a little lucky as well, since future NBA All-Star Tyrone Hill happened to live down the block from the school and Brian Grant also lived in Ohio. The school administration also gave us great support.

1987 NCAA Tourmanent

JT: Byron Larkin scored 29 points and had 10 rebounds in a one-point upset win over Missouri for the first-ever tourney win in school history. How big a deal was that win, and how were you able to hang on at the end?

PG: It was a tremendous win, as I think Byron made a ton of free throws (16-20). Missouri did not really respect us, as they did not even know what state we were from! We just had a bunch of tough, hard-nosed kids, and were able to pass the ball around at the end to run out the clock. I think it was the 1st-ever college game at the Hoosier Dome, and we were able to slow down Derrick Chievous (16 pts).

JT: Tommy Amaker scored 20 points in a five-point Duke victory. How close did you come to winning the game, and what was the feeling like in your locker room afterwards?

PG: We came very close, as we had a slight lead with about five minutes left. Duke was a little more poised than we were, due to guys like Amaker and Danny Ferry.

JT: What are your memories of the 1990 NCAA Tournament (Tyrone Hill scored 29 points and had 14 rebounds in an eight-point win over Kansas State. Derek Strong scored 19 points and had 12 rebounds in a three-point win over Georgetown, then scored 27 points and had 14 rebounds in a loss to Texas)?

PG: The win over Georgetown was one of my biggest wins, as it was the first time that Xavier had ever made the Sweet 16. Georgetown had Alonzo Mourning (15 points and 10 rebounds) and Dikembe Mutombo (9 points and 12 rebounds), but we were able to beat their Twin Towers. I think Aaron Williams made a basket at the end to give us the lead (his only basket of the game).

1993 NCAA Tournament

JT: Williams and Brian Grant scored 20 points apiece in a win over New Orleans. What were your thoughts going into the next game against Bob Knight's top-ranked Indiana team, and how did you feel about having to play them at the RCA Dome?

PG: UNO was coached by Tim Floyd, and they had a good team. There were about 40,000 people at the IN game, and about 90% of them were wearing red.

JT: Calbert Cheaney (who you had coached on a team that traveled to England the previous summer) scored 23 points in a three-point Indiana victory. What was it like to coach against Knight, and where does Cheaney rank among the best opponents you ever faced?

PG: Damon Bailey smartly took forever to inbound the ball at the end of the game, which led to the rule being changed in the future so that the clock would not keep running. Cheaney was one of the best: tremendous poise, very bright, left-handed, etc. I loved coaching him in England. He was not flashy but would make shots and was a great teammate. We had two pros in Williams and Grant, so we had some great big men of our own.

JT: At the time you left Xavier, your winning percentage of .729 was one of the best among all Division I coaches. Why did you choose to leave after having so much success, and did you have any regrets about leaving?

PG: I have no regrets at all. I loved Xavier, but I wanted to see what it was like to coach at the highest level, so when Providence made me an offer to coach in the Big East I decided to give it a shot. Providence was perfect. It was outside NY, so I could go visit my family and friends.

JT: In the summer of 1994 you were an assistant under Don Nelson with team USA ("Dream Team 2") as it won a gold medal at the FIBA World Championship in Canada. Was that the best group of talent that you have ever been around, and how did you feel about the decision to only use NBA players?

PG: It was an unbelievable team, with Shaquille O'Neal, Mourning, Reggie Miller, etc. I think it was good to use NBA players because our college players had been getting pounded in international competition when other countries started sending their own pros. Rick Majerus was an assistant on that team, and it was a wonderful experience. Joe Dumars impressed me by agreeing to sit out the game against Australia in order to allow other guys a chance to play. He was very classy.

1997 NCAA Tournament

JT: Austin Croshere had a career-high 39 points (15-15 FT) in an upset win over Marquette. Was that the greatest free throw shooting display you have ever seen, and did you feel any sense of revenge knowing you would be facing Duke a decade after they knocked you out of the tourney?

PG: The Marquette game was like a perfect storm. Austin hit a shot right before halftime from about 75 feet away, so everything we touched turned to gold. Austin was a great free throw shooter and we played a great game. Marquette coach Mike Deane got ejected because he got so frustrated. I did not really think about any revenge against Duke.

JT: Derrick Brown scored a career-high 33 points (12-16 FG) and had 10 rebounds in an upset win over Duke in Charlotte. Do you remember the crowd being pro-Duke or anti-Duke, and were you getting sick of playing tourney teams in their home state?

PG: Duke had a big crowd of supporters but we played very well. Derrick had no idea who Duke was, but he played great. You cannot worry about who you play and where you play them. It was a little frustrating to play them in North Carolina, but we did not make too much of it.

JT: God Shammgod scored 15 points and had 7 assists in a six-point win over Chattanooga (the last #14-seed to make the Sweet 16), and you became the second #10-seed to ever make the Elite 8. Did you feel like you were just a #10-seed playing with house money at this point, or do you think you had enough talent to go all the way?

PG: God was great that night, as he was a tremendous penetrator. It was a battle of the underdogs, as Chattanooga was not supposed to be there either, but we thought we could beat them. We almost did not get into the NCAA tourney, as we had to win a couple of Big East tourney games just to get in. Some of our guys got food poisoning from salmon earlier in the week, so we got some pasta/homemade sauce from Providence mayor Buddy Cianci!

JT: Ruben Garces scored 16 points and had 19 rebounds in a four-point overtime loss to eventual national champion Arizona (Miles Simon had 30 points). What was the story with all the technical fouls in the second half, and did you think that Corey Wright's shot at the end of regulation was going in?

PG: Arizona played Kansas in the Sweet 16, who was picked to win it all. My two assistants (Tom Herrion and Bobby Gonzalez) went to scout the Arizona/Kansas game, and they came back hot and sweaty because it was such an exhausting game. It was almost as if they had played in the game themselves! Arizona was loaded with a bunch of future NBA players (Mike Bibby, Michael Dickerson, etc.), so we tried to play some zone defense even though I was not a zone coach. God missed a 10-footer with about six seconds left, as he decided not to penetrate and risk picking up his fifth foul. We were out of timeouts, but Lute Olson called one, which helped us draw up a play. The play was not designed for Wright, but he took it and it went off the backboard. Austin fouled out with about eight minutes to go. I think that all those technical fouls were a bit of an injustice, especially in a big game like that where the winner goes to the Final Four.

JT: What are your memories of the 2001 NCAA Tournament after you had moved on to Virginia (Roger Mason, Jr. had 30 points but missed a shot at the end in a one-point loss to Gonzaga)?

PG: It was painful. Gonzaga was a #12-seed due to their weaker conference, but they were good enough to be a #7-seed. We took a one-point lead at the end, but then had a freshman miss the front end of a 1-and-1. We blocked Dan Dickau's shot, but his teammate made the follow shot to give them the lead. We had a timeout left, which was rare, as I was known for usually not having any left at the end of the game. I did not call a timeout because Roger had the ball and had been hot all night, but he missed a 10-foot jump shot in the lane at the end. If we had won, then we would have played Indiana State (who had upset Oklahoma), and I think we could have beaten them. Gonzaga coach Mark Few told me before the game that it was an honor to coach against me, but looking back it was an honor for me to coach against him.

JT: You are on a short list of coaches who have taken three different teams to the tourney and had a winning record at each school. How were you able to have so much success at different schools?

PG: I was blessed with great assistant coaches: the guys mentioned above, Louis Orr, Mike Malone, etc. I was also fortunate to have coached three future lottery picks: Hill, Grant, and Croshere. We had some great NYC point guards who were quick and athletic. When you have God (Shammgod) on your team, how can you lose!? You are only as good as your talent. I was just happy that I did not screw it up. We tried to recruit athletes, and people liked to play our up-tempo style.

JT: In 2008 you were inducted into the NYC Basketball Hall of Fame along with NBA stars Kenny Anderson, Sam Perkins and Rod Strickland. What did it mean to you to receive such an outstanding individual honor?

PG: That was perhaps the greatest honor of my life in basketball, especially coming from Brooklyn. I never dreamed that I could get in along with the other great players and coaches who are in there.

JT: In 2009 you took a goodwill trip to visit our troops in Afghanistan. Why did you decide to do that, and what do you remember about it the most?

PG: That was one of the greatest experiences of my life. We were the first group of basketball coaches to go to Afghanistan: Dave Odom, Jeff Jones, etc. We tried to make the troops feel better, so we brought some hats and t-shirts and took some pictures. We visited three different bases during the week we were there, and played some games with the soldiers. They made me feel better about the youth of our country and our military. We took a Blackhawk helicopter to get to Kabul, and there was a 2-star general in the copter ahead of us and guys with machine guns hanging out the windows. We saw two flares go flying by the helicopter, and I was a bit scared. It turns out that our copter set off the flares due to something it sensed, just in case someone was shooting a heat-seeking missile at us. I would go back tomorrow if they asked me. I was really impressed by the courage of the young women and men I met, as well as their morale.

JT: You currently work as a college basketball analyst for the CBS College Sports Network. How do you like the TV gig compared to coaching, and what do you hope to do in the future?

PG: I love working for the network and the people are nice, but I hope to get better. I was a head coach for 20 years and an assistant for 10 years, so I do not think I will ever coach again, but you never know. I also do some radio work for Westwood One. I just like to have fun, which helps balance all the hard work and preparation, but I often have to remain reserved in these politically correct times. There are many more important things to worry about than basketball, but some people can be a bit sensitive. A lot of my humor is self-deprecating.

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

PG: I just hope they remember that I gave it my best shot and sincerely cared for the players that I coached.

Coach Gillen is also on Jon's list of best coaches in Atlantic 10 history.

Charlotte: Bobby Lutz (1998-2009) 199-146, 5 NCAA tourneys, 1 conference title

Dayton: Don Donoher (1964-1989) 437-275, 8 NCAA tourneys, 1 NIT title

Duquesne: Chick Davies (1924-1943, 1946-1948) 314-106, 1 NCAA tourney, 3 NIT appearances, 1 conference title

Fordham: John Bach (1949-1968) 263-193, 2 NCAA tourneys, 1 conference title

George Washington: William Reinhart (1935-1966) 319-237, 2 NCAA tourneys, 2 conference titles, 1-time conference COY

La Salle: Ken Loeffler (1949-1955) 144-28, 2 NCAA tourneys, 1 NCAA title, 1 NIT title

Massachusetts: John Calipari (1988-1996) 189-70, 5 NCAA tourneys, 5 conference titles, 1-time national COY, 3-time conference COY

Rhode Island: Frank Keaney (1920-1948) 401-124, 8 conference titles

Richmond: Dick Tarrant (1981-1993) 239-126, 5 NCAA tourneys, 5 conference titles, 4-time conference COY

Saint Louis: Eddie Hickey (1947-1958) 211-89, 2 NCAA tourneys, 3 conference titles, 1 NIT title, 2-time conference COY

St. Bonaventure: Larry Weise (1961-1973) 202-90, 2 NCAA tourneys

St. Joseph's: Jack Ramsay (1955-1966) 234-72, 7 NCAA tourneys, 7 conference titles

Temple: John Chaney (1982-2006) 516-253, 17 NCAA tourneys, 8 conference titles, 2-time national COY, 5-time conference COY

Xavier: Pete Gillen (1985-1994) 202-75, 7 NCAA tourneys, 6 conference titles, 5-time conference COY