Can Jimmy Patsos use his high-octane personality to fuel others' passion about Loyola men's basketball?
By Michael Anft
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As a kid in Boston, young Patsos would cheer on the Celtics at the Garden. But baseball was his first love.
"He was a great baseball player," said Brian Cashman, the general manager of the New York Yankees and a longtime friend of Patsos'. The two met initially as teenagers at the Ted Williams Baseball Camp, where Cashman, who played second base, became entranced with the strapping, power-hitting first baseman.
The two ran into each other again when Patsos transferred from St. Anselm College in New Hampshire to Catholic University in Washington, where Patsos was plugged in as the sixth man on coach Jack Bruen's Division II hoops squad. Later, he would become the team's gutty -- and undersized, at 6-foot-3 -- starting power forward. Cashman tried to persuade him to join the baseball team, to no avail.
Patsos roomed with the team's point guard, Mike Lonergan, the two of them a slapstick pair when not on the court, where they were seen as Bruen's tough guys. The duo spent a good bit of time dodging bullets in rough-and-tumble 1980s Washington, D.C. -- Patsos once had a gun pointed at his head at a McDonald's -- and visiting local watering holes. They once ran out on a cab fare, only to be reamed out when Bruen got word of it, said Lonergan, who would later take Patsos' spot on the Maryland staff after he left for Loyola.
"Jimmy was like a character out of a movie back then," said Lonergan, now the men's basketball coach at George Washington. "He danced to his own beat. … He was a ladies' man, the life of any party he was at, but not in any negative way. People always wanted to hang out with him."
Patsos tried to study accounting, but said it didn't take too long for him to figure out that wouldn't work. Bruen, a former history major, suggested Patsos follow his lead.
"The idea was I'd get a history degree and teach," Patsos said, "do some coaching and bartending on the side. I'd make a living that way."
Patsos went on to coach baseball and basketball teams at Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington. He also became one of the most popular bartenders in Georgetown, at a place called the Third Edition, Williams said.
After graduation, he and Lonergan would work Williams' basketball camp during the summer. That's where Williams first met him.
"He always communicated really well with everybody -- the kids, parents, other coaches," said Williams, who offered Patsos a part-time assistant's job in 1991. "He was the kind of guy you could get along with, which is really important when you spend a lot of time with people during a long season."
"He's an amazing people person," Cashman said. "The Jimmy I know doesn't sleep, works very hard, and gets people to like him."
Except when they haven't. Patsos' in-your-face style and edgy intensity haven't always played well, at least while he's been at Loyola. The Bleacher Report Web sit ran a serial about his antics during his fourth season, which Patsos said was his most tumultuous.
In a post titled "Jimmy Patsos is a Jerk, Episode I," writer Ari Kramer called Patsos "college basketball's Rasheed Wallace" because of his constant run-ins with referees. Against Cornell in 2008, Patsos coached from the stands to keep from being tossed out of a game. The national media took notice.
When, during that same year, Patsos concocted a triangle-and-two defense to contain Davidson's Stephen Curry, the nation's leading scorer, he again became an object of national ridicule, though his ruse worked, sort of. Curry was denied a single point.
Davidson's supporting cast shredded Loyola by the half, going ahead 39-17, as Curry stood in the corner, watched like a hawk by two Greyhounds. Patsos kept the triangle-and-two on during the second half, at the players' behest, he said.
Nevertheless, critics from ESPN's "Pardon the Interruption" and elsewhere treated Patsos to the media equivalent of a half-court trap. When he responded to Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon at ESPN with a note that read, in part, "As an American, I wish we had leaders like [Davidson coach Bob] McKillop and Curry, who could have gotten the CIA and FBI to talk so we could have prevented the Sept. 11 tragedy," people began questioning whether Patsos' edge had more to do with trouble than playfulness.
"I was going through a lot of things in my life that year," he said. "I stopped drinking, was trying to lose weight and my girlfriend of three years had moved out."
A year of sobriety and some soul-searching righted the ship, he said. He's hardly a model of reform, though. Friends said he had mellowed a bit, but he's still the same old Patsos. "People say you've changed your life when you start winning, which is what's happening with him now," Lonergan said. "Personally, I like him better when he has a cocktail or two."
Others said Patsos merely had to learn to channel his intensity and handle the losing that came with a program in need of an overhaul.
"It was more of a look-in-the-mirror, I'm-not-28-anymore kind of thing" than a sweeping change in personality, said Loyola's longtime former athletic director Joe Boylan, who took Patsos on in 2004. "When you hire someone, you wonder if they'll continue to grow. Jimmy got better."
And so have his teams. His superiors at Loyola said he worked hard to get his players to graduate and to learn how to comport themselves.
"He shows the kids the world," Boylan said. "But the bottom line is, you have to win."
Three nights after the debacle against Niagara, Patsos and his coaching staff, some AAU guys, his wife, some friends and several Loyola administrative staffers are carrying on at the Owl Bar, around the corner from the Patsos' Mount Vernon home. Patsos might as well jump behind the bar again for all the shooters and beers he orders for his crew of 20 or so, which had already ordered pizzas and wings.
The mood is jubilant, but hardly out of hand, and for good reason. Loyola had just pulled out a win when Dylon Cormier, a sophomore out of Cardinal Gibbons and Loyola's leading scorer, took a Walker pass and buried a 3 from the corner to top Manhattan during the closing seconds. Patsos pulls out his cell phone. There are tons of congratulatory messages -- from ESPN's Scott Van Pelt, former Towson coach Pat Kennedy, Williams ("Great win. I'll call later to talk zone offense."), and "some gay guys we hung out with at a bar in San Francisco" during a West Coast swing a few years back. Patsos has lots of friends. He's open and tolerant enough not to care where he makes them.
Making people believe in him and his program is paramount to him, he said. He recruits more than just players, and is relentless about it.
"He's not crazy," Cashman said. "He's driven. If you could hook him up, you could light up Baltimore for a week. Programs like Loyola's need that -- someone who cares much more than a normal person would, so they can make a difference."
For Patsos, that difference is no small thing. He sees a void in the Baltimore hoops market, and sees himself as the man to fill it. There's still work to do. He would like a video scoreboard, maybe a front entrance that leads directly to concessions and the stands. He has a strong recruiting class coming in next year. The naysayers have been silenced -- for now.
"Digger Phelps told me: 'You won't make it to 1,000 days. No one else has,' " Patsos said. "Other people thought I was crazy to take this job. But I was really lucky. We're out of the ER now and we're past rehab. We're healthy, but we've got to keep from going back to the hospital."
For now, the Greyhounds are galloping not only for the league lead, but for the city's hearts and minds, with their coach setting the pace.
"Baltimore is looking for a team to rally around," Patsos said, "and I think we can be that team."
Issue 169: January 2012