'Unconventional' Vincentian coach winning in style
The Vincentian Academy boys basketball team won 16 consecutive games to start the season. After the streak ended two weeks ago, Royals coach George Yokitis was upbeat and positive at practice, telling his players that he appreciated how they played and handled defeat. That is, he said, “with grace.”
Shedding the suit coat he wears at his regular job as a lawyer (but sporting silver cuff links shaped like basketballs), Yokitis offered an inspirational quote. It came not from a famous coach or military leader but a Greek historian about 2,000 years ago.
“Those who aim at great deeds must also suffer greatly,” Yokitis, by way of Plutarch, said to the team surrounding him.
Getting 40 points from 5-foot-9 guard Ryan Wolf, the Royals hung tough with Obama Academy. They lost by four despite being outmatched by a City League opponent that plays in Class AAAA. Obama, located in East Liberty, is an exception. It has a relatively small enrollment for its class. But Vincentian, a private Catholic institution in McCandless, has even fewer students, 262, and their toy-size gym holds even less. The Royals compete in Class A with the smallest schools.
They played their game. Obama simply was better.
“We still did what we do,” said Yokitis, a perpetually bubbling fountain of optimism. “Vincentian basketball.”
That means a distinctive style, a high-energy, blistering pace maintained for nearly 32 minutes. The offense is melded with the defense, a frenetic, ball-hawking, trapping scramble that forces turnovers and creates points. Lots of points, 91.1 per game, more than any WPIAL school. Yokitis likes to use at least 10 players. Most shots are taken within 10 seconds.
“Basically we just run the whole time,” senior Jimmy Kenna said. “Don't let up. If you're tired, (Yokitis will) give you a break. As long as you're getting in people's faces, going after loose balls, diving on the floor, he's happy with what you're doing.”
Kenna is among a handful of Royals' players who stand 6-foot-1, or a shade less. They are the tallest players on the team.
After his team lost to Vincentian, 96-72, last month, Eden Christian coach Todd Aiken said, “I like the way George has got them playing together. They play unselfishly. They play all out.”
Seated on the bench with Aiken was Aaron Smith, the former Steelers defensive end learning the coaching ropes as a basketball assistant. Smith was asked if he could compare Vincentian to something football-related. He gave a surprising answer. Rather than point to, say, a hurry-up or no-huddle offense, Smith said, “I equate it to a stout running game that beats you down, and you don't have anything left at the end. They just wear you down.”
Yokitis flashed a toothy grin when he heard that.
“We play full floor and try to get teams to play our tempo,” he said. “The kids like it. It's fun. The fans like it. It's exciting. It's good for team morale. Everyone gets to play. We play it every night. The other team doesn't.”
These are the points Yokitis gleaned several years ago from a Rick Pitino tape that inspired how he wanted to play. Yokitis said he has about 100 coaching videos but uses them only marginally. He has his own methods, from quoting ancient Greeks to limiting time spent watching tape — “They lose interest after 10 minutes,” he said — to handing out animal crackers at practice to get a message across. A player moving too slowly gets a turtle, a speedy player a rabbit.
“We do things different from everyone else,” he said.
This is Yokitis' sixth season as coach. He inherited a 3-20 team. In the past four seasons, including this one, Vincentian is 95-10 with a pair of WPIAL championships. They are 20-1, ranked No. 4 statewide in Class A. For good measure, the Vincentian girls' team is ranked No. 1 in the state in Class A.
Yokitis describes himself as “unconventional.” He is a tall, lanky 62-year-old former quarterback, first at Louisville, where Lee Corso sat him on the bench, and then at IUP, where he starred. He tried out with the New York Jets, appearing in a couple of preseason games during the 1974 players strike, and the Cleveland Browns.
He also played semipro football before scrapping the sport to attend Temple Law School. He went at night for four years and finished first in his class. He is a partner with a prominent downtown firm, specializing in commercial litigation, media law and environmental law. He usually shows up for practice straight from work, without changing from his fancy lawyer clothes.
Yokitis previously coached seventh- and eighth-graders at St. Sebastian in Ross. He continued to coach there during his first three years at Vincentian, performing double duty.
“I don't sleep,” he said.
“It's pretty simple with my dad,” said one of Yokitis' four sons, Mick, a Naval Academy graduate who played football there and now coaches the wide receivers. “From the time we were little boys, he taught us to be the hardest worker at whatever you do. I don't know if you can work harder than my father. I've never seen him fail at anything.”
“Basketball is a release,” said Yokitis' wife, Toni. “Whatever he does, he has to be the best at it. He just internalizes it.”
‘It's a culture here'
Yokitis grew up in Nanty Glo, an old mining town in Cambria County. For much of his youth, he said, he and three of his four brothers shared the same room. He said his work ethic comes from his father, John, who was known as “Snorky.” He was a coal miner and police officer and also a talented minor league baseball player whose career was cut short by World War II.
“The toughest man I ever knew,” Yokitis said.
He expects the same toughness and hard work from his players. Although tuition is more than $11,000 a year, “these are not spoiled kids,” Yokitis said. “They play blue-collar.”
Yokitis' son, Dan, who coaches the Vincentian junior varsity and assists his dad with the varsity, said, “I think he does a very good job selling to these kids that this is the only way we can win.”
Playing for Yokitis “was the most fun I've ever had playing basketball,” said Adam Dian, a relief pitcher for the Pitt baseball team after transferring from Temple. “George is a great guy. He's so dedicated to what he does. You couldn't find a better coach to come to a school like that.”
All of Yokitis' players go to college, and many receive academic financial aid. Rarely do they play basketball.
“He tells the players they're students first, gentlemen second and athletes third,” said Brian Nee, whose son, Jamison, is a sophomore guard for the Royals.
Given the academic demands, exhausting pace and lack of emphasis on individual play, the program is not for everyone.
“It's a culture here,” said school president John Fedko, a former TV sportscaster. “If you're gonna play basketball at Vincentian, you have to be coachable.”
So do the parents. Like most coaches, Yokitis is tough and demanding, but he counsels players one on one rather than in front of the team and tosses out the occasional barb.
“I've never heard a parent complain,” Fedko said. “George is a strong-willed character. In his meetings with the parents, he lays the law down.”
Brian Nee said, “He absolutely just loves the kids.”
“I played baseball and basketball at Washington & Jefferson, but I've never been around a coach that got as much as he does out of his players,” Dan Yokitis said.
George Yokitis likes to say that coaching is a “solemn responsibility.”
He began coaching more than 20 years ago because “this is where I think I can make a difference,” he said. “Kids are really listening when they're in sports. I think I can really reach them.”
Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com.