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Best move La Salle didn't make

When La Salle struggled in recent seasons, there was grumbling about the coach. Now the university is being rewarded for sticking with John Giannini.

La Salle Head Coach John Giannini talks to media members during practice at the Staples Center. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)
La Salle Head Coach John Giannini talks to media members during practice at the Staples Center. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)Read more

LOS ANGELES - It takes time to rebuild a program from ashes and from injury, but the builders aren't always given the time.

Wisely, La Salle gave its coach time.

The La Salle men's basketball team was rocked by a rape scandal in 2004, which led to the hiring of Dr. John Giannini.

Injury crippled Giannini's club in 2009-10, when it was expected to make an NCAA Tournament run. The grumbling began.

Bad attitudes smothered the Explorers' chances before they could grow in 2011-12. The rumbling got louder.

Which explains why, after La Salle beat Boise State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last week, La Salle athletic director Tom Brennan responded to a question about the significance of the win by saying this:

"We stuck by John."

Right then, that was all that mattered.

Often, winning in big-time college sports hinges on the coach's profile. Often, choosing the man to project the profile is as important a hiring as an administration can make.

Often, a non-firing is as important as a hiring.

That was the decision that faced school president Brother Michael McGinniss and Brennan.

"Fans and boosters are impatient. People want their team to win," Brennan said. "There was a lot of heat. A lot of feedback suggesting we might want to make a change."

How close were they to firing Giannini?

"We didn't come close at all," Brennan said. "We were 100 percent on the same page."

That's a good thing.

A few seasons later, running Giannini's improvised, four-guard scheme, La Salle is an NCAA Tournament darling, one of just two play-in teams to reach the Sweet 16 since the format changed 2 years ago. It is one of six 13 seeds to make it this far.

La Salle plays No. 9 Wichita State Thursday night in the West Regional, shooting for its first slot in the Elite Eight since 1955. It is another winnable game; and, certainly, a win will push Giannini's rising star even higher; push it to where Brennan believed it would go when he retained Giannini.

And, yes, Giannini knew his future was at risk.

"I knew the next year needed to be better," Giannini said. "You had to turn a corner at some point. We needed to show improvement."

At a place like La Salle, in this era, improvement is highly subjective.

Is it better than .500? A run at the Atlantic 10 title? An NCAA berth?

By the end of Gianinni's seventh season, La Salle was better than .500 just twice, had not scared anyone in the A-10 and had inched farther away from the dance than ever, it seemed.

Brannan says he was not fazed.

"You make a determination whether you believe in the person that you've got. It isn't necessarily just what they've done. You have to be looking to the future. You have to be projecting what you think someone can achieve," Brennan said. "When I hired John, I always thought he had the potential to be successful at La Salle. Success is a relative term: You can't win all the games all the time."

Which is to say, you can't expect a coach to dominate when he is recruiting against five other Philadelphia programs (and the rest of the nation) to a 3,000-seat gym in North Philly harder to find than the Philosopher's stone and harder to fill than a budget meeting.

As long as the program routinely improves and occasionally contends, well, that is realistic. Giannini managed 18 wins in 2005-06 and 2008-09, but circumstance, more than anything, kept the program from moving forward further. Circumstances changed last season.

Ramon Galloway, an all-purpose swingman, transferred in from South Carolina. Jerrelle Wright, Steve Zack and D.J. Peterson flashed as sizable freshmen. Sam Mills became a dependable starter; and, more than anything, point guard Tyreek Duren took over the show.

Four wins in their last six regular-season games last season helped La Salle to 21 wins and an NIT berth, their first postseason spot and 20-win season since 1992.

Now, at 50, Giannini has consecutive 20-win seasons and three NCAA Tournament wins with La Salle, which accompany two 20-win seasons at Maine, as well as a Division III title won at Rowan in 1996.

A head coach for 24 seasons, he is ready for this moment, comfortable in this setting. He has been funny, and silky, and contrary, but never unsure.

Asked if he is disappointed that the West Regional lacks a "sexy" profile, he quipped, "Are you referring to the coaches? Or the teams?"

He absorbed the goofy, "Can we call you Doc?" catcall at the end of his press conference Wednesday with a pleasant smile and a quiet, "Sure."

After dealing with broadcast-rights-holders in a side room, Giannini, a Chicago native, lingered and kibitzed about NFC North football with his interviewers - the sort of politicking you get from a Pitino or a Calipari or a Roy Williams; except, in Giannini's case, it's sincere.

With a firm but polite timbre, Giannini routinely rejects the notion that, regardless of seed La Salle (unlike Florida Gulf Coast) is a Cinderella team:

"We're a school that's won a national championship. This is our 12th NCAA Tournament. It's not our second year of eligibility. We play in one of the top six conferences. So, we're not rags to riches."


They're riches to rags to riches.

So is their coach.

UCLA and Minnesota are looking for just such a figurehead to spark their programs.

Giannini said no one has called, but Brennan knows that, sooner or later, he will have to worry about keeping Giannini at 20th and Olney.

"In this business, you have to always be aware that that's possible," Brennan said. "John knows we want him to stay at La Salle. When the season's over, we'll sit down and talk about his situation.

"We have a good agreement with John," Brennan said. Then admitted, "But, based on his performance, it should be better."

Based on his performance, Brennan might have decided Giannini was not the man for this job 2 years ago.

"He hears the negative criticism," Brennan said.

Giannini does his best to ignore it.

"I don't believe people when they say I'm awful and I can't coach and I shouldn't be here," he said. "And I don't believe them when they tell me I'm amazing."

He paused and he looked at his team milling about the hallways of the Staples Center, relishing their moment, and his moment. He continued:

"I know I'm neither."

On Twitter: @inkstainedretch