At the Saturday news conference that introduced Tony DiLeo as the 76ers' interim coach, general manager Ed Stefanski suggested that the struggling team needed to quicken its pace offensively.

That should be a simple mandate for DiLeo.

The native of Cinnaminson, Burlington County, not only is a devotee of the up-tempo style, but he also got his first taste of it from the "Guru of Go," Paul Westhead. DiLeo played at La Salle in the late 1970s, just as Westhead was converting the Explorers' offense from Ford to Ferrari.

And, as his former teammates noted, the studious and observant DiLeo soaked up those fast-paced lessons as eagerly as he absorbed the subject matter in his accounting courses.

"Tony was brilliant," Tony Plakis, a La Salle teammate of DiLeo's in the 1976-77 and '77-78 seasons, recalled yesterday. "He graduated with a 4.0 in accounting. And you could see that, even though he didn't play as much in the new system, he understood exactly what Westhead was doing."

Westhead's frenetic style forced DiLeo, Plakis, and the others on those La Salle teams to recondition themselves - or die.

"In practices, we did sprints, sprints, sprints," Plakis said. "Then, if, when we were running plays, we didn't get off a shot in under 10 seconds, we had to run laps."

DiLeo was a shooting guard, a transfer student whose La Salle career was just two years long. The Explorers went 17-12 in his junior year. The '77-78 Explorers, led by Michael Brooks, were 18-12 and earned an NCAA berth.

After averaging 18.6 points for coach Paul McDermott as a Cinnaminson senior in the '72-73 season, and after refining his game in the South Jersey summer league operated by his father, Lew, DiLeo went to Tennessee Tech.

Two seasons later, he transferred from the Cookeville, Tenn., school to La Salle.

"He was a dedicated student both on the court and in the classroom," said Kurt Kanaskie, the former La Salle star and current Penn State assistant who, like DiLeo and Plakis, was also an accounting major. "I was two years younger, and he was just a great role model for me in all ways."

DiLeo started at shooting guard early in his first Explorers season. But later that season, before the introduction of the 35-second clock to college basketball, Westhead installed his new run-and-gun offense. In doing so, he replaced DiLeo with the freshman Kanaskie.

"It wasn't like Tony got buried on the bench," Plakis said. "In some ways, because of the style we played, we used more players than before. . . . But at first, the system really didn't work as well as it could have, because there was no clock. Teams just stalled whenever they got the ball. But Tony adapted to it.

"That's how he is. He never gives up at anything."

Westhead, most recently an Oklahoma City Thunder assistant, would refine the frenzied offense - "Paul Ball" was one of the more flattering things it would be called - during DiLeo's final season, when La Salle earned an NCAA berth.

The coach carried it with him into the NBA and on to Loyola Marymount, where his 1988-89 team scored more points than any Division I team in history, averaging an astounding 122 a game.

By then, DiLeo was imparting his own up-tempo philosophy to the European women's team he coached to unprecedented success. His Dusseldorf team won seven consecutive German championships.

He went on to coach the West German women's national team for six years before being offered the same job with the men's national team. DiLeo was by then also working for the Sixers.

His teammates said no one on those La Salle teams worked as hard during and after practice as DiLeo. If he perceived a weakness in his game, he set about correcting it immediately.

"He'd always stay after we were done and work on something," Plakis said. "He always went the extra step. He was a fine shooter, but he wanted to make himself a great shooter. So after we were done, he'd stay and shoot for another hour or so."

With the Sixers, one of the coaches for whom DiLeo served as an assistant was another up-tempo proponent, Doug Moe.

"I've been here as an assistant coach for a long time," DiLeo said after his first game as an NBA head coach Saturday, "and I've learned through a lot of coaches who have gone through here. I think I have a vision of how we want to play, and I think my passion and my knowledge will help this team."

Kanaskie said that since the 76ers train in State College, he had talked with DiLeo during their most recent camp.

"I didn't get the sense he was interested in coaching," Kanaskie said. "But he's been with the organization so long that I guess he feels like he knows the personnel and can contribute. He's so organized and so smart, I'm sure he'll do fine."

Coaching Changes

Here are the five NBA coaches who have lost their jobs already this season:

Team   Fired Coach   Replacement   Date

76ERS   Maurice Cheeks   Tony DiLeo*   Saturday

Timberwolves   Randy Wittman   Kevin McHale   Last Monday

Thunder   P.J. Carlesimo   Scott Brooks*   Nov. 22

Raptors   Sam Mitchell   Jay Triano   Dec. 3

Wizards   Eddie Jordan   Ed Tapscott*   Nov. 24

*interimEndText

Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick
at 215-854-5068 or ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com.