Commentary

Brian Giorgis right at home at Marist

Originally Published: November 26, 2012
By Graham Hays | espnW

Brian GiorgisAP Photo/Phil SearsEntering 2012-13, Brian Giorgis' .775 winning percentage was fourth-best among active D-I coaches.

POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y. -- It seems incongruous at first that one of the most successful giant slayers in women's basketball has turned over much of his home to a celebration of some of the most venerated behemoths in sports.

A small city on the Hudson River, Poughkeepsie sits about 75 miles north of Manhattan and an equal distance south of Albany, the state capital. It's also home to Marist College, but a visitor to Marist coach Brian Giorgis' abode could be forgiven for thinking he had stumbled off course and ended up a little farther west in the state, in an annex of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. There is so much on the walls, on shelves and on most available surfaces that Giorgis jokes that the only thing absolving him of hoarder status is the level of organization he puts into his extensive collection of sports memorabilia, mostly baseball items.

The man who has guided a MAAC school with an enrollment of about 6,000 students to five NCAA tournament wins since 2007 -- four more than Texas, the same total as Ohio State and just two fewer than Georgia -- has devoted considerable space and personal resources to autographs, uniform swatches, bats and others items from players like Lou Gehrig and Derek Jeter, the biggest names for the biggest brand in baseball.

"I'm not a Yankees fan, that's the funny part," Giorgis said. "I like almost anybody who beats the Yankees."

What draws him to those players, or someone like Cal Ripken Jr. or Roberto Clemente, is the excellence of constancy, whether of career or character.

"My idols in sports, as far as players, are people who are good people," he continued. "And if they stay at one place, where you identify them -- the Yankees: Jeter, Gehrig -- those people."

And so it begins to make some sense. After all, few coaches are as identifiable with a place as Giorgis is with Marist and the city it inhabits.

Major conferences are full of programs now under the direction of coaches, often young, who rose to prominence by winning (and winning often) with mid-major programs. Last offseason alone, Indiana hired Curt Miller from Bowling Green and Illinois plucked Matt Bollant from Green Bay. They followed the likes of Washington's Kevin McGuff (Xavier), Michigan State's Suzy Merchant (Eastern Michigan) and even Duke's Joanne P. McCallie (Maine, before a stint at Michigan State). It's a basic building block of the coaching profession and a deal that benefits even those schools serving as the stone being stepped on in the proverbial steppingstone equation. They get tomorrow's coaching stars at today's prices.

But for whatever reason -- perhaps in part because, at least until recently, the difference in compensation between major and mid-major jobs wasn't as pronounced as in the men's game -- women's basketball also finds some of its best coaches remaining in the mid-major ranks with little apparent interest in moving on. Middle Tennessee State's Rick Insell, Gonzaga's Kelly Graves (who passed on the Washington job), Hartford's Jennifer Rizzotti and Giorgis are among the more prominent members of that club. Some, like Graves, succeed by constructing quasi-major programs that compete against BCS teams for recruits and others by mastering the limitations of the level.

Marist is never going to win a national championship. It is never going to land a recruit like Connecticut freshman Breanna Stewart; instead, it's going to get role players like Leanne Ockenden, a gifted outside shooter who played AAU basketball with Stewart. Almost exclusively a shooter early on at Marist, and without the size or speed that would have attracted top-25 programs, Ockenden grew into an all-around game and captaincy in her first two seasons. Players improve in Poughkeepsie.

When Giorgis looks at Geno Auriemma, Pat Summitt or Sherri Coale -- the latter got a college head-coaching job directly from the high school ranks, just as Giorgis did, and he sought her counsel when he took over at Marist -- he doesn't see Final Four appearances and top-five rankings that he lacks the resources to replicate. He sees a model of something he can do, something he has done in winning nine consecutive conference titles and 75 percent of his games.

The challenge isn't to get the best cards; it's to make the most you can out of your hand.

"To me, that's the sign of greatness," Giorgis said. "To me, when you can do it over and over again is the sign you're doing something right. So my, I don't know if you want to call them idols or role models, but the Sherri Coales, the Geno Auriemmas, Pat when she was around, they just do it all the time. They get the great hands dealt to them, but boy, do they know what to do with them."

[+] EnlargeLeanne Ockenden
Debby Wong/US PresswireLeanne Ockenden and the Red Foxes seek their eighth straight NCAA tournament bid.

That his opportunity to do so came at Marist, or in Poughkeepsie at all, is something of a quirk of fate. When Giorgis, who attended SUNY-Cortland and grew up in the Syracuse area, came to Poughkeepsie more than 30 years ago to interview for a teaching job at Our Lady of Lourdes High School, he was more interested in catching up with a college buddy in the area than the job itself. His dad intervened after picking up the phone when the school called to offer Giorgis the job. He told his son to try it for a year, that he needed the experience. Now, as Marist assistant coach and former point guard Alisa Kresge puts it, Giorgis is the unofficial mayor of Poughkeepsie.

He coached almost everything in his time at Our Lady of Lourdes, starting out with a focus on baseball but eventually coaching basketball on both sides of the gender line, as well as volleyball, softball and tennis.

"Tennis was the funnest," Giorgis recalled of what was often on-the-job training. "You hit it into the net? Hit it higher."

But basketball became his calling card. He went 451-44 in 19 seasons as girls' basketball coach at Lourdes and won nine state titles. During those years, opportunities arose in the college game to become an assistant coach at Georgia Tech under Agnus Berenato (Karen Lounsbury, Georgia Tech's second-leading all-time scorer played for Giorgis at Lourdes), but he twice turned down the moves. Even when the Marist job opened, he wasn't sure. People at Lourdes had to talk him into it, assuring Giorgis his old job would be waiting if things didn't work out.

There was no Marist tradition to sell to recruits when he started. The program had never been to the NCAA tournament, and it was tough to travel much more than 50 miles on a recruiting trip without having to explain where and what Marist was. But between players he had coached at Lourdes or in AAU and players who had so often lost to those teams, he built a foundation.

"Being at a high school level, you see the turnover, and you don't always get the best players, but he managed to make it work," Kresge said. "He figured out what was best for his players, and he made it work somehow, some way. That was really interesting to me as a player. He doesn't lose, and I hated losing, so that was a great connection."

In just his second season (2003-04), Giorgis led the Red Foxes to a sweep of the MAAC regular-season and conference tournament titles and the program's first trip to the NCAA tournament. Sitting in the locker room in Tempe, Ariz., before a first-round game against Oklahoma, he talked about the story of David and Goliath.

"He made us believe," said Kresge, a freshman on that team. "Believing in each other works best for Marist. We always find kids that buy in. We bought into his system and us. We were going to come out that day like any other game, like we were underdogs, and let's try to prove everyone wrong."

Brian Giorgis coaches every last detail and nuance of his system to such a degree that the players have not just the motivation but the tools to compete.

The Red Foxes didn't win that game, but they came closer than most expected, trailing Oklahoma by just five points at halftime en route to a 58-45 loss. Three years later, they did prove everyone wrong in one of the more memorable mid-major NCAA tournament runs in recent memory. After a four-point win against Ohio State in the first round, Marist knocked off Middle Tennessee State in the second to earn a place in the Sweet 16 opposite No. 1 seed Tennessee. Three more first-round victories have followed, including wins against Iowa State and Georgia the past two seasons.

Rarely is Marist the more athletic team when it steps out of conference to play big games. And on some occasions, as in a 42-point loss to Connecticut over Thanksgiving, that's too big a hurdle to overcome. But in addition to the David-and-Goliath rhetoric, Giorgis also coaches every last detail and nuance of his system to such a degree that the players have not just the motivation but the tools to compete. Annually among national leaders in assist-to-turnover ratio and field goal defense, Marist is much better at five-on-five than it would be in five games of one-on-one.

"Our bread and butter has been our five-out motion [offense]," Giorgis said. "You go watch any big school that we played, whether we won or lost, 90 percent of the time we're running five-out motion because they don't let you get into anything else because we're just not as athletic. It's hard shaking people. You've got to bump somebody, you've got to screen somebody."

As at Lourdes, he has had chances to move up to supposedly bigger and better things. Some opportunities tempted him, like the Georgetown job that came open after last season, but he remains, in his words, a big proponent of the hometown discount. He likes running into fans everywhere he goes as well as people he taught at Lourdes and the children of people he taught. Formerly crammed into a small office not far from the pool at Marist, Giorgis and his staff -- which, led by associate coach Megan Gebbia, has been remarkably stable -- now occupy more spacious digs in a new wing built for the basketball programs. Since Marist's last real brush with greatness on the men's side came when Rik Smits played for the Red Foxes, and the women's team routinely outdraws the men's team, it's clear what role women's basketball played in that.

The school is expected to soon announce an eight-year extension for Giorgis, essentially a lifetime contract for someone who will be 65 by the time that deal expires.

Continuity is the toughest thing to find at the mid-major level. Coaches who can't count on landing top-tier talent often have an eye open for the next job, and recruits know that the better a coach, the more likely he or she won't be around for four years. Recruiting remains a challenge for Marist, which has lost players to just about every school in the region at some point, but with each passing year they have less and less reason to think Giorgis will leave.

It seems unlikely he will, if only for a simple reason all too often ignored: He likes where he is.

"I love the underdog role," Giorgis said. "I love beating people who are better than me. You look at how many times do you beat those people versus how many times are you better than somebody and they beat you?"

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

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