Pitino’s salary was slotted at $17,500 per year—certainly more than Sigler had made as head coach but certainly less than Pitino made as an assistant in central New York. The young coach would be able to make more money in the summertime by hosting a basketball camp—a perk that was becoming ever more common in the college coaching ranks. Simpson even threw in a car, a Renault Le Car. It was hardly the most comfortable vehicle for the 6-foot-tall Pitino, but this “windup toy,” as he later described the subcompact, was a lot better than Roy Sigler’s complimentary car, which didn’t exist.
A four-line story in the sports section of the March 31, 1978,
Boston Globe revealed that Boston University would name twenty-five-year-old Rick Pitino its head basketball coach at an 11 a.m. press conference at the Case Center. In two of the first three stories in the BU student newspaper, the writers misspelled his name as “Petino.”
Simpson made it clear at the introductory press conference that he was making an investment in BU basketball with the hiring of Pitino. Sigler had functioned on a shoestring budget, similar to other unheralded New England college programs. Pitino would work with a beefed-up budget, though by any measure not an especially beefy one. And he would be expected to win. The cocksure attitude that became Pitino’s signature was on full display at the press conference. “I hope we can rival the hockey program here,” Pitino announced less than a week after Jack Parker’s [Questrom’68, Hon.’97] BU Terriers defeated archrival BC to win the NCAA championship.
Parker’s first championship team featured four future members of the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” U.S. Olympic team, including Team USA’s two best known players, team captain Mike Eruzione [Wheelock’77] and goaltender Jim Craig [Wheelock’79]. “We intend to build the program to the point where we can play Boston College, Holy Cross, and Providence,” Pitino explained, citing New England’s top three college programs at the time. “We’ll be very well disciplined as a team. I can tell you that. I intend to motivate players too,” Pitino stated at the presser, foreshadowing the rigors that returning players and incoming recruits would face in the fall.
While some in the Boston basketball orbit found Pitino’s bravado refreshing, he irritated the hell out of others. “He was very cocky and very arrogant,” longtime WCVBsports anchor Mike Lynch said. “His claim to fame was that he’d played on the same team with Dr. J at UMass. Well, Rick Pitino can’t do any of the physical things that Dr. J can. That was the marketing point, the selling point for the people over at BU to come see him.”
Pitino hired Bill Burke, who had just guided Nazareth High School in Brooklyn to a New York City championship, and former BU basketball great Kevin Thomas [Wheelock’56,’60] as his assistant coaches. He brought in recent University of Maine standout Bobby Warner as his graduate assistant. He chose not to retain Ed Leibowitz, who had followed Simpson’s instructions and continued to pound the pavement for recruits even after Sigler’s resignation.
Considering his success in recruiting with just six available scholarships and essentially no budget, Leibowitz held out hope that he’d find a place on Pitino’s staff. “He [Pitino] interviewed me for less than half an hour and let me know I wouldn’t be retained. I had known him superficially in New York/New Jersey, but I wasn’t his friend or one of his guys. I wasn’t a Five-Star/Howard Garfinkel guy,” Ed Leibowitz said [referring to the famed basketball camp founded by Garfinkel that trained big-name hoops stars from 1966 to 2008]. Leibowitz later transformed Massachusetts Bay Community College into a nationally ranked junior college program.
“I don’t think it is going to be difficult to recruit players to Boston University,” Pitino said at his introductory press conference. The statement came straight out of the make-your-success-seem-effortless playbook and was itself a pitch to potential recruits. The confidence Pitino showed in the direction of his basketball program proved a great enticement to interested players. Pitino planned to pursue players he’d recruited to Syracuse but who had not yet committed to the school. In a clear demonstration of his recruiting prowess, Pitino delivered almost immediately on his promise to sign top-notch players at BU.
Photo courtesy of Clayton Trutor
Three plum recruits, all of whom Pitino had recruited for Syracuse, signed on as the new coach’s first recruiting class. Johnnie Ray Wall [CGS’80, MET’82], a hyper-athletic 6’3” guard who had been named Albany, New York’s prep [school] “Player of the Decade”; Gene Jones [CGS’80, CAS’82], a heavily recruited 6’3” guard from Virginia Beach who had impressed at the previous summer’s Five-Star [Basketball] Camp; and John Teague [CGS’80], a 6’4” forward from Anderson, Indiana, who had dominated at the 1978 Boston Shootout, went from potential Orangemen to brand-new BU Terriers.
“[Johnnie Ray Wall] was probably one of the best athletes I’ve ever seen,” his classmate John Teague said. “He could jump out of the gym, he was fast as lightning, had great ball handling skills, and was a decent shooter. He was probably the fastest player on the team.” Wall had been a multi-sport superstar at Albany High School. He was said to possess a thirty-eight-inch vertical and had received as many Division I football offers as basketball ones. Following his college basketball career, he even received a tryout with the New England Patriots.
Pitino spotted John Teague at the 1978 Boston Shootout. He was playing for an all-star team from Indiana coached by former Boston Celtic Bill Dinwiddie. Teague had signed a letter of intent to play at Butler University, but Dinwiddie convinced his young star that he could still talk to the Boston University coach. Teague powered his way onto the all-tournament team and threw down enough spectacular dunks in competition to earn second place in the slam dunk contest, despite not participating in the event because he was too sore after the games to compete. Teague flew home from the Shootout, still interested in BU but uncertain of his future.
“When I got home, there was an assistant coach [Burke] from Boston University that was literally waiting on my doorstep,” Teague said. “The assistant coach stayed there for like two or three days and wined and dined me and my family and talked to my parents about me attending Boston University. He left, and two days later another assistant coach [Thomas] showed up. And he talked to my family for another day or two. And then he left, and Pitino showed up the following week.”
After receiving all of this attention, Teague spoke with his father about his future. His father said it was his son’s decision, but it was obvious which school was more interested. BU had spent weeks doing everything imaginable to sign him, while Butler’s head coach had yet to come for a visit, despite living just forty miles away. Teague succumbed to Pitino’s full court press and changed his commitment to BU.
Gene Jones, who possessed a deadly jump shot, said, “Rick started recruiting me at Syracuse. He and Coach Boeheim had come to my house. I was signed, sealed, delivered going to Syracuse. Then Howard Garfinkel called and said Rick was going to Boston and I should give it a look.” Jones visited BU at the same time as Cincinnati high school standout Jay Twyman. The pair had become friends at Five-Star. When they parted ways after an enjoyable visit, both players thought they were headed to BU. Jones ended up deciding on Boston while Twyman accepted an offer from Frank McGuire’s powerhouse South Carolina program.
Before changing his commitment, Jones made a call to central New York. “I talked to Coach Boeheim, and he gave me the ok,” Jones recalled. Heading into the fall of 1978, Rick Pitino had the building blocks for a bright future—a robust recruiting class and a handful of strong returning players. The big question was whether the young coach could mold these young men into a winning team.
“Excerpted from Boston Ball: Rick Pitino, Jim Calhoun, Gary Williams, and the Forgotten Cradle of Basketball Coaches by Clayton Trutor. Used by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. Forthcoming November 2023 at the University of Nebraska Press.” All photos courtesy of Clayton Trutor Close