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Pete Gillen: Eight Years Later, He Was Finally Virginia's No. 1 Choice For The Job

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

September 17, 1999 CHARLOTTESVILLE – From the moment Virginia athletic director Terry Holland started thinking about changing men's basketball coaches, people were saying that he wouldn't find somebody with a better record than Jeff Jones. Despite an 11-19 season that was the Cavaliers' worst in 30 years, Jones was 42 games over .500 (146-104) in his eight seasons. Sure, there were coaches with better percentages than Jones' .584, but most of them weren't available.

Timing Is Everything
Maybe Pete Gillen wouldn't have been available if his fourth Providence team hadn't gone 13-16, but the Virginia job came open when he was ready for a move, which wasn't the case when Holland resigned as UVa coach effective at the end of the 1989-90 season. Then-Virginia athletic director Jim Copeland interviewed Gillen that time, but, by then, Rick Barnes had experienced an 11th-hour change of heart and turned down the job. Gillen, in the midst of a successful stint at Xavier of Ohio, didn't want to be somebody's second choice. Two other coaches talked to Holland about the job this time, George Washington's Mike Jarvis and Dayton's Oliver Purnell, but it quickly became clear that Gillen was Holland's No. 1 choice. When Gillen withdrew from consideration in 1990, there was speculation that he might have been more interested if Copeland had brought him to Charlottesville, instead of interviewing him at the Pittsburgh airport. Gillen didn't make it to Charlottesville this time, but that wasn't his fault or Holland's. Providence had refused to give Gillen permission to speak with Virginia, citing the seven-year contract extension he signed after the 1996-97 season, which meant that Holland had to decide Gillen was his top choice and then offer him the job virtually sight unseen.

For Gillen to take the job, he was going to have to resign at Providence first, and he wasn't going to do that unless he was assured that he was going to get the UVa job. Many had questioned if Virginia officials would give Holland a free hand to make the choice, but that was clearly the case. "As soon as Pete indicated he was interested, things moved very quickly," said Holland, who came to agreement with Gillen only 22 days after Virginia's last game and 12 days after Jones, under pressure, announced his resignation. "I thought it was an unusual position for (Providence) to take because the contract wasn't necessarily his idea. We obviously couldn't do anything until we got a sign from Pete, so he had to go out on a limb a little bit."

Respect From All Sides
What did Holland like about Gillen? His record, for one thing. His style of play, for another.

    But what stood out more than anything were the endorsements Gillen received from the coaches who weren't candidates in the days leading up to the decision.

"Did I do the right thing?" Holland asked in his introduction. "That was reaffirmed inside and outside basketball coaching. We wanted someone with excellent recruiting contacts on the East Coast. This gentleman has had a great deal of experience."

Gillen can be a little hokey with his one-liners, which doesn't mean he tells jokes about Virginia Tech, but he has won 10 NCAA Tournament games and his teams have enjoyed 17 victories over teams in the Top 25. "The underdog role is OK," Gillen said. "I'd rather be the big hound. I don't know much about Virginia this past year. I didn't see the team play. I was too busy in a foxhole with a helmet on my head. "Terry was very forthright. I knew about Norman Nolan and Curtis Staples (leaving), but I think the tools are here to rebuild. I think this can be a top-20 program again. I don't believe that's a death knell I hear ringing in my ear." Gillen's finest hour may have come in the 1997 NCAA Tournament, where Providence defeated eighth-ranked Duke in the second round and reached the regional finals before falling to eventual national champion Arizona 96-92 in overtime. That was the eighth 20-win season in 12 years for Gillen, who was 202-75 in nine seasons at Xavier and 72-53 in four years at Providence. His overall record of 274-128 gives him a .682 winning percentage for his career.

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        <b>An Impressive Resume

Gillen, who turns 51 in June, is a 1968 English Literature graduate of Connecticut's Fairfield University, where he played basketball and baseball and was the captain of the baseball team as a senior. After graduating from college at 20, Gillen became the head coach at Brooklyn Tech and worked during the summers at the Five-Star basketball camps, where he was associated with Rick Pitino, who recommended Gillen for his first college job as a fellow assistant of Pitino's at Hawaii. From there, Gillen went to VMI for two years and then got on college coaching's fast track as an assistant, first for Rollie Massimino at Villanova and then Digger Phelps at Notre Dame. Gillen recognized the influences of both men at his news conference, while describing his two years at VMI as his "most enjoyable" in coaching. Gene Corrigan was the athletic director at Notre Dame when Gillen was on the Irish's men's basketball staff and gave Holland a favorable review when asked. Corrigan, most recently the ACC commissioner, now lives in retirement in Charlottesville. "Terry talked to me one day and said, 'Who do you like?'" Corrigan said. "I said, 'Terry, why are you asking me? You know these coaches a lot better than I do.' When he told me he was thinking about Pete, I told him I thought that was a great choice. Pete doesn't have a phony bone in his body. "These things are never easy, but I don't know how (this search) could have been handled any better. I've never seen one better. It's a matter of persistence. If there's somebody out there you really want, you've got to find a way to make it happen." Holland also heard good things about Gillen from Wake Forest head coach Dave Odom, who worked alongside Gillen at the Five-Star camps operated by Howard Garfinkel.

"He's a fierce competitor, yet he's very, very popular among his peers," Odom said. "He's one of those guys you never hear a bad word about. I believe he will come into Virginia and very quickly gain the trust of his constituents. "He's the perfect choice for Virginia. He's got tremendous academic integrity. He really cares about his kids academically. He has tremendous moral fiber, and he's consumed with the game." "The one word that is going to symbolize this basketball program is not going to be fastbreak, it's not going to be rebounding, it's not going to be defense, it's going to be family," Gillen said. "We did that at Xavier, we did that at Providence, and we're going to try to be close to our players here. "They are people first, athletes third, students second – my math isn't that good – but we are going to laugh together, cry together, win together, lose together, pray together. We are going to do everything together."

Questions And Answers
It might surprise some people that Gillen's last Providence team was last in the Big East in scoring, given his professed commitment to an up-tempo game, but he lost point guard God Shammgod to the NBA after only two seasons. He said he believes in pressing and running and will do so at Virginia, as he has tried to do for the past 23 years at the college level.

"Our style of play is going to be very fast, but you still have to be able to recruit," said Gillen, whose top aide, Bobby Gonzalez, has been mentioned among the top three assistants in Division I by ESPN analyst Dick Vitale. "You think I talk fast? Bobby Gonzalez makes coffee nervous."

While Gillen signed few All-Americans at Xavier or Providence, Virginia is more of a traditional college setting than the urban campuses he was trying to sell in Cincinnati and Providence.

"Nothing changed at Providence," Gillen said. "I wasn't dying to leave, but the University of Virginia is special. I think you can recruit nationally because of the academic reputation, the ACC and the environment here." Gillen was in a whirlwind during his first two weeks at UVa, quickly establishing contact with the Cavaliers' two fall signees, Adam Hall and Chris Williams, and getting visits set up with junior-college All-American Silester Rivers and his Utah Valley State teammate, Beau Archibald. Gillen's schedule limited his contact with the media, although nobody foresaw any problems in that area. Eventually, Gillen will have to answer questions about an item in Sports Illustrated that suggested he was less than forthcoming when Providence signee Sean Connolly asked about his involvement with the Virginia job. Gillen had been on the job less than two weeks before he was no longer the ACC's most junior coach, yielding that "distinction" to Larry Shyatt at Clemson. Of course, he hardly qualified as a rookie in the first place, and that's why the Cavaliers wanted him. "If we can do a good job, hopefully this will be our last stop," Gillen said. "I read where Thomas Jefferson lived for nine years after he began building the university, and he couldn't get all the buildings done. "If it takes me nine years, I'll be in a kayak in the middle of the Chesapeake."