I miss them already.
It isn’t rational. La Salle fired John Giannini more than a year ago. Fran Dunphy’s farewell tour from lasted an entire season, and ended with Temple’s NCAA First Four bid, and loss.
But when the Ides of March delivered another untimely end last week, it completed a year of unsettling turnover. Sixty percent of the Big 5 coaches who began the 2017-18 season -- three men who admirably served as faces of their institutions -- were done.
When St. Joseph’s fired charismatic basketball coach Phil Martelli on Monday, four days after the 2,063rd anniversary of Caesar’s assassination, it closed the circle on a stunning “omne trium perfectum.” The Rule of Three usually indicates harmony in the universe. That’s untrue, today, in Philadelphia’s basketball galaxy.
Maybe it’s amplified today because Villanova got bounced from the NCAA Tournament on Saturday, and there’s no distraction. But probably not.
Giannini went first, five seasons removed from the Southwest Philly Floater that sent the Explorers to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in 58 years, but four of those five were losing seasons, so a Jay Wright assistant at Villanova, Ashley Howard, got Giannini’s job. Dunphy fell next -- a season-long, slow-motion, redwood tim-berrrr, while his assistant and negotiated heir, Aaron McKie, looked on.
Then, last Monday afternoon, Martelli -- his career assassinated as suddenly and as brutally as Caesar. St. Joe’s president Mark C. Reed and first-year athletic director Jill Bodensteiner offered him the chance to resign, but he refused. He told WIP, “It cut out of my heart,” that he felt like “I’ve attended my own funeral.”
Et tu, Bodensteiner?
The completion of this triumvirate ends an era in Philadelphia. An era of integrity; of innovation; of pragmatism, and of authenticity. Three superb basketball minds and three fine men no longer roost in their accustomed, windowless nooks.
It isn’t wrong, necessarily. Since Dunphy went from Penn to Temple in 2006, he and Martelli are 3-11 in the NCAA Tournament. Giannini is 3-1, but he took La Salle to the Dance just that once, in 14 seasons. Things change. Fine.
It just makes me ... sad.
If you paid attention to Big Five basketball for the past 30 years, it probably makes you sad, too.
(They’ve been coaching longer than 30 years, in different manifestations, but they started becoming themselves around 1989, when Giannini landed at Rowan, Dunphy got the head job at Penn, and Martelli was making himself indispensable at St. Joe’s, where he took charge in 1995.)
Because they know basketball. Their teams played hard. And they’re decent.
They were head coaches in Philly for a combined 68 years, concurrently for 14 of those years.
Giannini never became beloved like his predecessor, Speedy Morris, but he was something ... unique. Speedy has a Ph.D. in grass-roots hoops; he coached the women’s program at La Salle before the men’s, and, at the age of 76, he still coaches St. Joe’s Prep today. Giannini, 56, has an actual Ph.D. in kinesiology, so he spent the last year back at Rowan, running a sports communication center, teaching a class, moonlighting as an analyst.
And Dunph? He’s 70. He gets to be Dunph. Respected. Revered. Bulletproof.
Irate alumni and bumptious administrators unsentimentally brought us to this unhappy end. This might somehow be good for all of them, even if Martelli is still wet-hen mad.
But, in this moment, it’s bad for us. Bad for me. These three coaches operated with a rare humanity and kindness. The public recognized that. The press adored it.
I’d been in Philly for about 2 weeks in 1995 when my bosses sent me to St. Joe’s to write about the Hawks on the eve of their National Invitational Tournament appearance. I was clueless when I walked into the gym, but one of John Griffin’s assistant coaches knew I’d been working in Syracuse, and one of their seniors, Bernard Blunt, was from Syracuse. I’d covered Blunt, so I left the gym with something usable in my notebook -- thanks to Phil Martelli.
The next year, on the Penn beat, I saw Penn tie Princeton for the Ivy title; watched them lose to the Tigers in an overtime tiebreaker at Lehigh; and, after that game, heard Princeton’s Pete Carril stun the sports world when he abruptly announced his retirement. Dunphy had invited me to practice between those two games. Four days later, at the playoff game, Dunphy held his players for me as I chased the Carril story.
Giannini was always better away from the court. There’s a bakery between my home and La Salle University that makes the most sinful doughnuts on the planet, and each season I’d try to take a couple dozen to Dr. John and his staff. We’d chat, but I took no notes. Giannini did. I’d tell him about some other coach or athlete’s philosophies about training, or rest, or focusing under pressure; often, a coach or athlete in another sport. Giannini would stop me, find a notebook, and ask me to repeat it, and write it down. Apparently Ph.D.’s always seek knowledge regardless of the quality of the source.
My favorite teams? Not their best, necessarily.
Dunphy: 1998-2000 Penn teams, with Michael Jordan, Matt Langel and 7-footer Geoff Owens (the grandson of late Phillies general manager Paul Owens), who won Ivy League titles in 1998-99 and 1999-2000. Langel just coached Colgate to its first NCAA appearance since the trio committed to Penn, in 1996. Jordan is one of Langel’s assistants.
Martelli: 2013-14, when he pushed an unlikely group to the Atlantic 10 Tournament title, then lost to eventual NCAA champion Connecticut. Langston Galloway and De’Andre Bembry wound up in NBA, but Ron Roberts made the A-10 all-tournament team, too, and a role player named Halil Kanacevic was the tourney MVP.
Giannini: Of course, the 2012-13 team, a No. 13 seed that won a play-in game, then two more, and made it to the Sweet Sixteen thanks to a most unlikely shot from the sixth man, Tyrone Garland.
I don’t weep for Giannini, and his cerebral approach that melted down into the wildest sideline histrionics; nor for Dunphy, felled by a switch of conferences, from the A-10, where he’d earned NCAA berths six out of his first seven seasons, to the AAC, and went once in the next five (then went this season, too); nor even Martelli, who was done the dirtiest -- but then, it can be a dirty game.
Yes, they were all paid handsomely, but they were good and accessible and authentic, and they earned every dollar.
That’s why we miss them.