Can Jimmy Patsos use his high-octane personality to fuel others' passion about Loyola men's basketball?
By Michael Anft
On the second night of the new year, Reitz Arena, though not all that much bigger than a high school gym, crackles with energy.
Some of the regulars -- former Oriole B.J. Surhoff, TV lawyer Stephen L. Miles and one-time Maryland Stadium Authority chairman John Brown -- take courtside seats below the 1,200 or so fans. Others sit behind the home team's bench, awaiting the show-within-a-show to follow. It doesn't take long for the curtain to go up.
One minute into that night's game, Jimmy Patsos, coach of the Greyhounds of Loyola University, jumps out of his seat and yells at his team about a glitch in the flex offense they're running, his voice a pugnacious churn of gravel and nails, his face a pretzel twist of a sneer. A 3-pointer his star forward, Maryland transfer Shane Walker, makes calms the coach down. But this is Patsos: Something else will disgust him, and it will likely take only a few nanoseconds for it to send him into apoplexy.
"You've been practicing like [bleep] all week, young man," he screams at his freshman point guard R.J. Williams, from St. Frances Academy, after benching him.
"When's the last time you guys took a charge, seventh grade?" he asks the team.
As the half wears on and the Purple Eagles of Niagara extend their lead to 11, the Loyola bench becomes a revolving door of loudly chastised players. A suit coat goes flying after a Niagara player swishes a trey.
"You talk to him," Patsos shouts at assistant coach Luke D'Alessio, imploring him to preach defense to sixth man Justin Drummond. "I can't [bleeping] talk to him."
People behind the bench howl, repeating lines for those who didn't catch them the first time. A smiling father half-jokingly puts his hands over his young daughter's ears.
"It's a fun atmosphere here and that's what I always wanted," Patsos had said earlier during the week, conveniently omitting his often-profane, ever-passionate self from his ingredients list. "The students, the parents, the fans, the band from Poly-Western, the Baltimore community -- it's a nice show."
Patsos, the son of a Tony Award-winning stage producer, is the director of this show, one he has put on since becoming Loyola's complicated coach in 2004. When he arrived at Loyola after 13 years as Gary Williams' assistant at Maryland, Reitz at game time was an empty cave, a cold landing spot for a guy who had rightly claimed a piece of a national championship two years earlier. Patsos inherited a team that finished 1-27 the year before, and with the lowest ratings percentage index in the country.
The story gets worse.
"There was one Loyola T-shirt in the whole place," Patsos said. "The seats were yellow [and not Kelly green, the school's dominant color]. We never had TV games, and we were always scheduled for back-to-back away games in our league. We'd had one winning season in the (Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference) in 12 years. That's what worried me."
The team had lost 39 consecutive road games before beating Siena on the road during Patsos' first year.
"The guys were crying in the locker room," he said. "I thought, 'Jesus, what did I say?' And then they told me it had been ages since they'd won on the road, that they'd forgotten what it felt like."
There's more to the transformation, still ongoing, than one bus-trip win. And, according to those who know him, there's more to Patsos than the fulminating dervish who intimidates players and entertains fans with his gruff, trip-wired sideline act. He has used his passion and energy for the game to turn the program around, whether that has meant adding courtside seats (and making the other ones green), courting sponsors, garnering support from famous Baltimore faces, winning over alums or persuading tough kids from Baltimore to give him a shot at coaching them. He has built Loyola up from nothing, and even those who suffer his wrath say they like him.
"Jimmy's really a great guy," said Walker, a 6-foot-10 senior with aspirations of playing pro ball somewhere next year. "He's been through a lot, so he tells us stories about it and how we should avoid some of the trouble he's gotten into. He gets on us, but he cares. He's looking for perfection in an imperfect game. So, he'll get impatient."
Perfect or not, the team is winning. As of Jan. 12, the Greyhounds were 11-4 overall, and 4-1 in the MAAC, sitting in second place behind conference power Iona. This for a team that hasn't finished that high in the league in 15 years, and which has never won a regular-season championship, is no small feat. The buzz around the program is that this is Patsos' best batch yet, and that the coach who once sought solace in AA meetings and heart-to-heart talks with his mentors has turned a corner into the clear. Now 45 and recently married, the head Greyhound seems to have ditched the hounds on his trail.
"He's done a really good job of calming himself down and focusing the last few years," said Gary Williams, the recently retired men's basketball coach at Maryland and Patsos' former boss. "He's very comfortable with coaching these days and it shows. Getting married was a big step for him -- a lot of people thought that would never happen. He thinks he can balance coaching and a family, which is really difficult. It just shows where he is now."
The Patsos stage act obscures a jock's version of a Renaissance man, a coach who leaves copies of Vanity Fair and The New York Times for his players in the locker room, takes them on side trips to historic monuments in Washington, D.C., movie houses ("We watch international films with him -- not Hollywood," Walker said.), Broadway plays and the stock market. He travels to Paris every summer to museum-hop and visit Monet's gardens. He encourages his players to watch Tavis Smiley and read Cornel West "to learn about why they should be distressed about all the poverty in this country," he said.
He suffers the slings and arrows of coaching young men.
"Eighteen- to 22-year-old dribbling men control my paycheck," he is fond of saying.
As Loyola goes completely cold for the last three minutes of the Niagara game, negating a strong comeback it had made after halftime, Patsos has his own distress to deal with. He looks vanquished and helpless, his face a mix of pain and disbelief as his team fails to muster an answer to Niagara's 3-point shooting -- a reminder of work that still needs to be done. The team suffers its first MAAC loss of the season, 66-61. As he shakes hands with the Purple Eagles, Patsos' eyes shoot daggers and his shoulders sag. He's angry and heartbroken, like a Little Leaguer whose team just lost on a ninth-inning, walk-off homer.
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Issue 169: January 2012