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Long road for Loyola (Md.) coach

| Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The odds weigh heavily against Loyola (Md.) in its NCAA Tournament second-round game against Ohio State, but the Greyhounds figure to gain from the experience. They also will leave town culturally enriched.

A small, private Jesuit university located in Baltimore, Loyola is seeded 15th in the East region. The loaded Buckeyes are seeded second. The teams play Thursday night at Consol Energy Center but many hours before that, coach Jimmy Patsos will shepherd his players through the Andy Warhol Museum on the North Side.

"He was a devout Catholic, and our players actually know who he is," Patsos said.

Patsos said he is looking forward to the trip for a variety of reasons. There is the exposure for his program, which was 1-27 before he took over in 2004, prodded to take the job by, among others, Boston Celtics coaching legend Red Auerbach.

But Patsos said he loves the city, too. Last summer, he married a woman he calls a "Pittsburgh girl." The former Michele Schmidt is from West Middlesex in Mercer County, a big Penguins fan whose favorite athlete is Marc-Andre Fleury. A Robert Morris graduate, Michele Patsos works for a Republican lobbying firm based in Harrisburg

Once while they were dating last spring, Patsos said he suggested they see a movie. Big mistake. "Are you kidding?," Michele uttered in disbelief. "The Penguins are opening (the playoffs) against Tampa Bay!"

"She loves politics, and I love coaching," he said.

Patsos, a former Maryland assistant with a national championship ring, stands a beefy 6-foot-3. His world view, perspective and experiences, on and off the court, are as broad as his frame. He is not entirely proud of some, although he has taken pains to change.

But one thing he feels good about is enlightening young athletes to the non-basketball part of life. He often schedules field trips on the road to places like the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Muhammad Ali Museum in Louisville, Ky., and the Warhol.

At halftime during the Greyhounds' win over Fairfield in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament championship last week, Patsos referenced the former militant group, the Black Panthers, to make a point. He has read poetry before games. On the bus ride back to Baltimore after a frustrating loss to Marist, Patsos had the team watch the sappy 1970s movie, "Love Story."

"Because they'd never seen it," he said at the time. "Because we lost, and we were mad in the locker room. I said, 'This is a game; that's real loss.' See, it's not the end of the world when you lose on the road to Marist."

Some might be surprised by this, given Patsos' well-chronicled courtside demeanor. While relentlessly promoting his team and school, he also has made himself a big part of the show. And a show it is. The son of a Tony Award-winning Broadway producer, Patsos not only knows he belongs to the entertainment world, he embraces it.

"This is a business," he said. "This isn't just coaching."

For years the big attention-getter was Patsos' sideline behavior. He presumably has calmed down a bit, but his gyrations and rants at players, officials, and occasionally, fans, have become the stuff of legend. Once he was so frustrated he left the bench and briefly joined his athletic director in the stands.

"He's two different people," said his friend, New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, a pal of Patsos from when they attended Catholic University in Washington, D.C.

"Jimmy as coach vs. Jimmy as civilian. As a friend, he'd give you the shirt off his back. Great guy. Great friend. As a coach, his job description is to be the best. Anything that gets in the way, get out of the way. He is intense and extremely passionate."

Patsos and Cashman met as kids at a Ted Williams baseball camp. They unwittingly reunited years later at Catholic where Cashman played second base and outfield for the baseball team and Patsos was a bruising power forward, a wide-bodied banger who made anyone pay who dared call him "Jimmy Fatsos."

"He was a tough (guy)," Cashman said. "He was physical. He was a really good baseball player, too. I tried to convince him to play for us. But basketball was his love."

A Boston native, Patsos, 45, loves art, music and travel. He is a film buff and a big Grateful Dead fan. He has a peace-sign tattoo. When he started working as a graduate assistant for Maryland coach Gary Williams, Patsos tended bar a few nights a week in Georgetown to help make ends meet. The job lasted 10 years. He still enjoys a beverage or two, more back then. Different friends have used the same words to describe him: "The life of the party."

"I couldn't think of a better thing to do," Patsos said of bartending. "Now I think it might have taken five years off my life."

He played and worked beyond hard. That and some basketball episodes led to some soul-searching. Patsos was skewered when he sat in the stands "for 30 seconds," he said, and was shaken by the fallout a few years ago after he employed a triangle-and-two defense for every possession against Davidson star Stephen Curry. The ploy held Curry scoreless but Loyola lost by 30. Fans were upset. Commentators railed. A popular website called it "Coaching Tactics for the Comically Insane."

Patsos admits to messing up some things and, more important, learning lessons. He tries to impart some of that to his team.

"We learn lot of new stuff that we wouldn't learn otherwise," said junior forward Erik Etherly, a transfer from Northeastern and the team's best player. "He has a wealth of knowledge."

"You don't have to live by working 80 hours (a week) to get into this profession," Patsos said. "You've got to have a little balance in your life. When I was young, I was a little wilder. I know what I want to do is enjoy the moment. I was always looking to do the next things. I didn't go home enough. I love basketball, but there's a fine line between obsession and passion."

Patsos said marriage has provided a new perspective. Before that he lost a lot of weight (and gained some of it back) and quit drinking for a year, attending Alcoholics Anonymous.

"I learned a lot from the meetings," he said. "I've grown up, and I needed to grow up. I had a fun run, but there are a lot of things going on.

Cashman, who grew up in Lexington, Ky., and remains a die-hard Kentucky fan (he turned down an invitation from Patsos to sit on the Loyola bench when the Greyhounds played the Wildcats in December), said he has noticed a change in his friend.

"I think he's trying to put the best program he can in place," he said. "He's trying to represent the university and what's best about basketball. As long as you don't sacrifice your core beliefs. But it's a people game. That means making sacrifices and adjustments, give and take. Over time he's adjusted to finding his niche."

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