Commentary

Where are they now: Lou Campanelli

Originally Published: September 27, 2011
By Diamond Leung | ESPN.com

LAFAYETTE, Calif. -- Lou Campanelli walked into the gym not asking for much.

The retired coach didn't want a salary, his name in the paper or even a seat on the bench during games. He just wanted to share his basketball knowledge with younger kids at the local high school. His main request? That the heat in the facility be turned up to relieve his arthritis pain once the winter rains begin falling on Northern California.

[+] EnlargeLou Campanelli
Courtesy of Cal AthleticsWhether coaching in the NCAA tournament or in a high school gym, Lou Campanelli has a passion for teaching the game.

Campanelli, the former James Madison and Cal coach, has found warmth and satisfaction at Campolindo High in Moraga, Calif. Long after his 21-year college head-coaching career came to an unceremonious end, Campanelli in his golden years is enjoying a behind-the-scenes presence with a junior varsity team that lines up its players after every practice to shake the hand of the white-haired man they call "Coach Lou."

"When you reach a point in your career where you've been there and done that, I just wanted to devote my time to teaching," the 73-year-old Campanelli said. "I have to teach.

"They've got to have fun, and I've got to have fun."

For the Campolindo Cougars, Campanelli has been a godsend. He offered his services as a volunteer assistant three years ago, and within the month, he was called upon to provide a calming effect for grief-stricken JV assistant Chris Banard, who was thrust into the head coach's role for the first time after Ken Nelson succumbed to cancer at the start of the season.

Banard -- whose voice cracks with emotion when discussing that difficult time in 2008 -- recalled how Campanelli stepped right in, opened up his playbook and conducted the team's first practice after Nelson's death. The team immediately found catharsis in running Campanelli's defensive drills.

"He has almost a saintly appearance to him," Banard said. "He has a Pac-10 sweatsuit on, and there was a halo over his head. He listened to the team and said, 'I'm going to take it from here.' It was a beautiful thing to watch. They had no idea that on this night in a middle school gym, they were going to have the best coaching they ever received.

"I drove home that night just thinking 'Somebody's smiling down at me.' That bad time couldn't have had more of a silver lining."

Campanelli pledged to mentor the players on fundamentals, and Banard as well, offering some initial words of advice for the rookie head coach: "Don't be intimidated."

After compiling 361 wins and six NCAA tournament appearances during his head-coaching career, the demanding, hard-nosed New Jersey native had established his reputation by successfully going head-to-head with some of college basketball's finest. In 13 years at James Madison, he ushered the Dukes into the Division I era and scored consecutive first-round NCAA tournament upset wins against Georgetown, Ohio State and West Virginia from 1981-83.

North Carolina freshman Michael Jordan famously hit the game-winning jump shot in the 1982 NCAA championship game, but was held to only six points against Campanelli's defense in the second round as JMU lost a 52-50 heartbreaker to Dean Smith's Tar Heels.

At California, Campanelli resurrected a program that had long been in hibernation. In his first season in 1986, the Bears beat UCLA for the first time in 25 years and went to the NIT. By 1990, they made their first NCAA tournament appearance in 30 years, with Campanelli once again getting the best of a marquee opponent and beating a Bob Knight-coached Indiana team in the first round.

[+] EnlargeLou Campanelli
Courtesy of Cal AthleticsSeen here after Cal's first win over UCLA in 25 years, Campanelli got the Golden Bears on the right track but was abruptly fired in February 1993.

But Campanelli's college coaching career ended in headline-making fashion when in February 1993 then-athletic director Bob Bockrath abruptly fired him with a 10-7 record, citing verbal abuse the coach had directed toward his players, who would soon publicly confirm their dissatisfaction. Assistant coach Todd Bozeman replaced Campanelli and led the Bears to the Sweet 16 that season behind the efforts of freshman point guard Jason Kidd. The National Association of Basketball Coaches condemned the controversial firing, and Campanelli filed a $5 million lawsuit against Cal that wasn't dismissed until years later.

"I'm not going to get into that," Campanelli said. "It's ancient history now. It's unfortunate that I wasn't treated very well, but there are a lot of coaches over the years that probably haven't been treated very well. I don't dwell on that. I know what I accomplished."

After his ouster, Campanelli was unable to land a job with another college and remained in Moraga while traveling for stints as a television analyst, as a coach in Japan and as an NBA advance scout that kept him active in the game. After six seasons as the Pac-10's coordinator of men's basketball officiating, he retired in 2006. He also occasionally helped at nearby College Park High School, where his son, Kyle, was once the varsity coach.

At Campolindo, he discovered kids with a willingness to listen and an inexperienced head coach who began as a nervous wreck but showed the commitment to get better. Just as Rollie Massimino did for him when Campanelli took his first job as the freshman coach at Hillside (N.J.) High School in 1960, he took Banard under his wing.

On the practice floor, Campanelli taught man-to-man defense, preached effort on every possession and discouraged selfish play. Rather than cursing at the young high school players, he emphasized his Italian accent to shout "Bravo!" and "Bellissimo!" upon seeing the kids put in the effort.

It was a beautiful thing to watch. They had no idea that on this night in a middle school gym, they were going to have the best coaching they ever received.

-- Campolindo JV coach Chris Banard

"He doesn't have to worry about wins and losses and pleasing the alumni," Campolindo athletic director Bob Wilson said. "He's teaching basketball."

Said Banard: "Maybe he didn't throw his jacket on the floor or get as emotional, but I think the passion today even still exists for young men he is teaching to get what he is teaching and execute what he is teaching."

During games, Campanelli sits in the bleachers and takes mental notes, looking for potential areas of improvement -- even for the coach himself. Banard recalled Campanelli asking after one game if he was going out on a date afterward. The young coach had worn a stylish pair of jeans, and Campanelli noted that might be a negative lasting impression for an athletic director who might be in search of a new varsity coach in the future.

"To think someone would care that much for me as a coach, I never took that lightly," said Banard, who hasn't worn jeans during a game since that night.

With Banard coaching and Campanelli providing guidance, Campolindo didn't lose a league game in either of the past two seasons. The Cougars responded to the teaching and met Campanelli's goal of holding teams to under 40 points per game during their three seasons together.

The two coaches grew close, with Banard only recently beginning to call his golfing buddy "Lou" just before resigning to relocate to Boston. The 45-year-old Banard hopes to become a varsity coach one day, and Campanelli has promised to be in attendance for that coaching debut. In the meantime, he expects to assist the new junior varsity coach and continue giving back at Campolindo.

"It's my love," Campanelli said of coaching. "It's my passion. If you don't share your gifts and the knowledge that you have, it stops. I'd rather pass it on.

"To me, once you coach, if your heart's in the right place, you coach for the rest of your life."

Diamond Leung covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at diamond83@gmail.com.

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