Jimmy Patsos still taking baby steps at Loyola
Loyola men's basketball coach Jimmy Patsos was pacing the hallway outside his locker room Wednesday night, still hyper a few minutes after his team had lost its home finale to Rider, 82-70. A win could have put the Greyhounds in a tie for second place in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference standings with two games to play. The loss left them alone in fifth place.
The first question Patsos had asked Joe DelBalso, his sports information director, as he walked into the locker room was direct: "League scores?"
Soon after he came out, DelBalso had his answer: Siena had lost to Saint Peter's. Patsos threw his arms up into the air and said: "Yes! No play-in game." The Saints' loss meant the worst Loyola could finish in the 10-team conference was sixth - meaning it wouldn't have to play the first night of the MAAC tournament.
Rob Ades, Patsos's good friend, agent and mentor whose "what can go wrong next?" demeanor when the Greyhounds are playing often reminds his friends of Eeyore, sat a few feet away staring at Patsos as if he had just announced he had figured out how to fly to Mars and back in a week.
"What, I can't celebrate that? I'm not allowed to celebrate some good news?" Patsos said to Ades - who had not actually opened his mouth. "That's a good thing. It means we only have to win three games to get to the [NCAA] tournament, not four. That's only the third time in seven years. Baby steps, okay? There's nothing wrong with a step forward, even a little one."
Patsos is now in his seventh season of trying to move forward at Loyola, and perhaps the most important thing he has learned has been to revel in baby steps. When he arrived in 2004 after working 13 years as an assistant to Gary Williams at Maryland, he was absolutely convinced he could leap tall buildings in a single bound. He brought manic energy to the job - an upbeat approach that was desperately needed at a program that had just gone 1-27 - and a singular belief that simply wishing for something can make it happen.
He was 37, his hair was jet-black and he was ready to conquer the world - or at least the MAAC. Now, at 44, he's gone gray and understands that baby steps are a lot more realistic to hope for than those single bounds.
Loyola made clear progress during Patsos's first four seasons, going from six wins to 12 to 15 to a school-record 19. Then came two seasons of going backward, to 12-20 and 13-17. That wasn't the arc Patsos had in mind. Nor was the attention he received when he left his seat on the bench during a November 2008 game against Cornell to sit in the stands because he was frustrated with the officiating. Or, for that matter, the criticism showered on him two games later when he had most of the entire Loyola student body guard Davidson's Stephen Curry, leaving his teammates wide open all night. Curry didn't score, but it didn't matter: Davidson won the game, 78-48.
This season started with more steps backward. Loyola was 6-9 in early January after an 18-point loss at Iona, but a surprising win over conference leader Fairfield started a four-game winning streak. Even after Jamal Barney, the team's second-leading scorer, left the Greyhounds (again) for good - he and Patsos had become the college basketball version of Billy Martin and George Steinbrenner - the Greyhounds continued to improve. Barney's absence turned out to be a case of addition by subtraction. Patsos, whose bench demeanor had been a cause of concern at times to friends, became a kinder, gentler person. Gone were the tirades about the league not wanting Loyola to win - "we overcame it at Maryland, we'll overcome it here," he yelled one night, sounding just a little bit like his coaching mentor in College Park.
During a game against Siena last season, Patsos began screaming at the referees that his team was getting jobbed when the score was 2-0 and Loyola had the two. When it was suggested to him after the game that he might be just a bit paranoid about the officials, Patsos said, "They missed five block-charge calls - five!"
"With the score 2-0?"