Big Talker, Bigger Dreamer: Meet Siena's Jimmy Patsos, CBB's Quirkiest Coach

Jason Franchuk@@harkthefranchukCollege Basketball Featured ColumnistDecember 11, 2015

Seina coach Jimmy Patsos yells to his team during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Wisconsin on Sunday, Nov. 15, 2015, in Madison, Wis. (AP Photo/Andy Manis)
Andy Manis/Associated Press

Loudonville, N.Y. — Jimmy Patsos would say it himself: He can be all over the place.

The third-year Siena coach said before the season that he’s trying to be more “dialed in” this year. It’s not hyperbole to say he can be hyper. He sees outside the box, around the box—he sees boxes down the street. Maybe even during a media-timeout huddle.

“I’m a little bit of a dreamer,” he says. “I probably got that from my old man.”

His Saints started the season with a murderer’s row of opponents, as they faced national champion Duke and runner-up Wisconsin in their first two games, both on the road. Both one-sided losses. Maybe that’s a nightmare to some, but it could be worse to him. He’s lived a dream basketball life by many accounts.

He has rebuilt a program, shut down Steph Curry (yeah, that Steph Curry) and basically done it his way, with his unique style.

Patsos, who will turn 50 in October, also coached at Maryland during the glory years. Who wouldn’t want that? He was a valued assistant for Gary Williams and was part of the national championship team, then stayed in-state at Loyola and turned a one-win doormat into an entryway to the NCAA tournament.

DURHAM, NC - NOVEMBER 13: Head Coach Mike Krzyzewski (R) of the Duke Blue Devils speaks with Head Coach Jimmy Patsos of the Siena Saints prior to their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on November 13, 2015 in Durham, North Carolina. Duke defeated Siena 92-7
Lance King/Getty Images

He is a coach in a fairly small conference, and the program hasn’t made an NCAA tournament since 2010. The Saints will have to dogfight through the traditionally one-bid MAAC with Iona to have any chance of hearing about them again come March. You're probably hearing a lot about giant-killer Monmouth these days, too. It will be a terrific race, though not exactly national news.

But as this college basketball season takes shape, the name Jimmy Patsos deserves some play.

He called the opening two games a “lifetime adventure” for his players. The Saints chartered a plane and flew with 30-some fans, a very rare luxury. The Blue Devils and Badgers were also part of the 2K Sports Classic. Everyone knew Siena could easily get blown out. But that’s not exactly the point here. Even while coming off an 11-20 season, this time of year bears telling a few Patsos stories.

With Patsos, there’s always a story. And usually a lesson, too.

BOB JORDAN/Associated Press

Legendary former Maryland coach Gary Williams never had a reputation as the warmest guy in the business. But he’ll gladly return a call about Patsos, who spent 13 years with him rebuilding the Terrapins. Williams talks glowingly about his old pal’s energy level, commitment and an ability to talk to anyone.

“Jimmy being Jimmy,” Williams says, almost like a proud father.

And it doesn’t need to revolve around basketball season. Patsos loves the Grateful Dead, so he saw their last show in Chicago last summer. And how many Division I coaches do you suppose have a tie-dye peace sign on their arm? He shunned booze for a little more than a year, and his reward in 2008 was ink, done at the legendary Spotlight Tattoo by Bob Roberts in Hollywood: "The John Wooden of the tattoo business, really,” Patsos says, proudly extending his arm.

Dec 1, 2013; Orlando, FL, USA; Siena Saints head coach Jimmy Patsos calls a play against the Purdue Boilermakers during the first half at ESPN Wide World of Sports. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

He loves horses, so you can find him making the short drive to Saratoga Race Course often in the summer, too. He is a foodie at heart (like his wife, Michele). He’ll chew your ear off, too, on just about any topic.

He is more well-rounded than the basketball itself.

In August, he was gung-ho to talk about the Middle East.

That’s because it had been less than 24 hours since he returned to Siena from a goodwill basketball trip to Kuwait (joining several ex-coaches, such as Pete Gillen and Steve Lavin). Patsos marvels at how the oil-soaked country is the size of Rhode Island.

He could talk about this for hours with a close friend or a perfect stranger. But then he interrupts himself, drops this Middle East-related nugget: “I was supposed to be on a 9/11 plane.”

You wonder how he gets from topic to topic at a tempo that would be at the top of any KenPom conversational algorithm. But then, this is a guy who, on his Nov. 3 televised coaches show, mentioned (former pro basketball player) Lawrence Moten, (downtown Albany’s) Corning Tower, (former president) Ulysses S. Grant and Cooperstown (site of the Baseball Hall of Fame in upstate New York) before the emcee could sneak in a question.

But the 9/11 story, told on the fly, is one Williams confirms. Patsos had a ticket bound from Boston to the West Coast to visit a recruit who committed to Georgetown. Ultimately, the trip was canceled. The memory of that fate travels on.

Patsos remembers sitting slack-jawed in the Maryland basketball offices, watching the national disaster with Williams and other staff.

“Yeah, that makes you think,” Patsos said.

Patsos is shaped by that experience. Don’t take basketball too seriously, in other words.

“It’s No. 1, but it’s not everything,” he says.

Patsos would take his Loyola (Maryland) teams to nearby historical landmarks. He met his wife on a team tour of Gettysburg.

He's committed to making the most of everyday. Maryland won the national title in 2002, the season affected by 9/11. UM wasn’t even sure it would have a season, because the campus is so close to heavily affected Washington D.C.

That’s part of why he lives the life he loves, and he loves the life he lives.

Those who know him would say his biggest asset, his gregarious personality, could be his largest problem if the Saints aren’t winning. Win games, and he’s the toast of the town. Lose, and detractors will say he should be more reclusive. He is following in the Siena footsteps of Fran McCaffery (2005-10) and Paul Hewitt (1997-2000), so the fanbase arguably has more expectations for coaches than it does for players.

But Patsos calls Siena “the perfect job” to teach. It’s a different recruiting world, first of all, than the one Duke or Wisconsin live in. But it’s also on more competitive ground than, say, Loyola.

“If I didn't make it, I could always go be a Division III coach was how I used to figure it,” Patsos said of his playing days and a philosophy that shaped him. “When I started, I just wanted to be a high school coach and own a bar.”

That’s not the dream anymore, but he once upon a time found a way to make shooters and shooting guards mix.

He was a young bartender in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington D.C. at the famed (but since closed) The Third Edition, made famous in the 1985 film St. Elmo's Fire. He poured drinks for about a decade while in college, then as a restricted-earnings coach at Maryland. He could talk to just about anyone about anything.

Nov 15, 2015; Madison, WI, USA;  Siena Saints head coach Jimmy Patsos reacts to a call during the game with the Wisconsin Badgers at the Kohl Center. Wisconsin defeated Siena 92-65. Mandatory Credit: Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports
Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

A regular Sam Malone.

He invariably learned how to communicate with all types—a handy skill in becoming one of the ACC’s top recruiters.

He’d be the kind of guy you’d want as your barkeep, notes George Washington coach—and former college roommate at Catholic University in Washington D.C.—Mike Lonergan. Quick to talk to anyone. The ladies loved him. The life of the party.

Lonergan is, by Patsos’ standard, a very straight arrow. He quips he’s done giving his buddy advice. How to schedule. How to survive the landmines of the profession. Basically, how to tone it down from 10 to maybe 9.5. “Jimmy dances to his own beat, or whatever they say,” Lonergan says with a big-brotherly type of laugh.

Professor Patsos is still teaching, though. He once taught Loyola players about gay-rights activist Harvey Milk (who actually attended school near Siena, at the University at Albany) while they were in the Bay Area. They even visited the eye-opening Castro District. Recently graduated player Rob Poole noted how the Saints viewed movies like Selma. The team attended a showing of Straight Outta Compton this summer and then discussed it.

“I’m all about personal freedom,” Patsos says.

It’s not always so hardcore, though. He took a team to Wrigley Field once. Poole couldn’t believe when Siena visited Niagara Falls on a road trip. Patsos disdains fellow MAAC coaches who haven’t done the same when visiting the Buffalo area to face two league schools: “Aren’t we supposed to be educating?”

Patsos will acknowledge being typecast as quirky, but he also resists the label. His first break came helping at a camp run by legendary Maryland high school coach Morgan Wootten.

“I’m not as different as people think,” Patsos said. “I worked for Gary Williams, who was tough, regimented—pretty conservative and mainstream in this business. We worked from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at Maryland. We built the program from scratch. Put 13 guys in the NBA...I wasn’t some wild child out there.”

But he’s open to new thoughts. He’s open to being different. Maybe that comes from the confidence instilled by his mom, Joan, who kept him diversified—going to art museums along with Boston Garden. Or maybe credit a visionary father like Charlie Patsos. The Boston real estate developer was doing Airbnb before the concept existed—turning apartments in affluent neighborhoods into rentals, doing well in the 1980s. He was also a Tony Award-winning producer.

“He wants to win badly,” said MAAC commissioner Rich Ensor, also a book-trade partner with Patsos. “He wants his players to want it just as bad. He expects the whole league office to want to get better everyday, too. But he also wants to do it a certain way. Jimmy’s way. But he’s always thinking about things.”

Sometimes people don’t know what he’s thinking.

He once sat in the stands during a game, equally fed up with a referee and scared of getting tossed. (An amount of time Patsos declares wasn’t for that long and was blown out of proportion.) He’ll joke that marriage and time have mellowed him.

DURHAM, NC - NOVEMBER 13:  Head coach Jimmy Patsos of the Siena Saints watches on during their game against the Duke Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor Stadium on November 13, 2015 in Durham, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Often misunderstood still, there is one thing he’d like to get straight: the story of shutting down Steph Curry.

Patsos was generally vilified by media as a self-serving historian who cared at most about a goof, not winning, on Nov. 25, 2008.

He contends Loyola was road-weary and whittled to six scholarship players. The young head coach determined Curry would not light up his team. He ordered the constant double-team, thinking Curry would greedily hunt shots. The sharpshooter maturely let his fellow Wildcats tear up Loyola. Curry missed all three shots, but it was still over by halftime after Davidson scored 18 straight points.

Yet the jig continued, almost like a bar bet: “(Players) told me, ‘Let’s stick to the plan.’”

Dick Vitale snapped at him a week later for the “stunt.”

“We held him scoreless, I said that part,” Patsos said, leaning in for gravitas. “But the second part of my comment always gets chopped off. I said, ‘He outsmarted us.’ That’s what I was most impressed by.”

At the time, Patsos told everyone Curry’s long body and smooth shot would make him a top-five NBA draft pick. He felt Curry was too good and left him with no choice. Curry had been to an Elite Eight, but Patsos says he was mocked ruthlessly for holding a 6’3" guard from a tiny college in such high regard.

Patsos is more than happy to remind you he wasn’t dreaming. He was right on: “Guess Jimmy wasn’t so crazy, was he?”

Jason Franchuk covered BYU basketball for the Provo (Utah) Daily Herald for 11 years, including all of "Jimmer Mania," and now resides in Albany, New York. He has been with Bleacher Report since 2015. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. 


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