Most coaches won’t hesitate to tell you how difficult it is to win a basketball game at the Division I level. No matter how easy it may appear, success is never taken for granted for those who have been part of the coaching grind.
For Anthony Latina, he received a cruel first-hand education on the arduous challenge of winning as Sacred Heart’s head coach. Thanks to a perfect storm of untimely injuries, poor late game execution, and disappointing individual performances, the Pioneers went 5-26 in Latina’s first season in charge.
As difficult as that season was, Latina’s seemingly infinite supply of optimism kept himself focused on the long-term goal of building Sacred Heart into a winning basketball program. After inheriting a program that failed to make three of the past four NEC tournaments, transitioning this roster into a NEC contender certainly wasn’t going to happen overnight.
Nevertheless, there were some emotional rough patches to navigate through. Losing will do that to anyone, even someone as positive and optimistic as Latina. But it’s par for the course.
“I think when you’re trying to change some things you’re going to have some growing pains,” Latina said at NEC Social Media Day. “We unfortunately caught some more bad breaks than most. I’m not the first coach that went through that and I’m not going to be the last.”
Throughout the tough times, the 40-year-old coach received support, both expected and unexpected, from adversaries within the Division I coaching community. Head coaching rivals like Mount St. Mary’s Jamion Christian and Bryant’s Tim O’Shea reached out to offer encouragement, while Sacred Heart athletic director Bobby Valentine also proved to be a valuable resource. As a Major League Baseball manager for the Texas Rangers, New York Mets, and Boston Red Sox, Valentine certainly understood the physical and mental toll losing may take on one’s psyche.
There was one close friend in the coaching business that spoke to Latina more often than not when the debilitating losses, and sleepless nights, continued to pile up. That person was Stony Brook head coach, Steve Pikiell.
“He doesn’t need any encouragement; he’s a real positive guy to begin with,” Pikiell said, recalling his conversations with his former coaching colleague at Central Connecticut. “[I said] ‘Hang in there, it’s a process. As much as you like to skip the ten rungs on the ladder, you have to step on each one of them before you can get to the top of the ladder.'”
Pikiell continued, “It’s tough. It’s the most competitive business in the world. Men’s basketball, it’s 351 teams. Everyone is trying to win and everyone has 13 scholarships. And so it’s just very competitive and you have to have patience. It’s a hard thing because no one has any patience; everyone wants to win right away.”
Under Pikiell’s leadership, Stony Brook has won three America East regular season championships in four years. But if you delve further back into Stony Brook’s history, you’ll quickly become aware of the mounds of losing Pikiell had to endure as he attempted to build a Division I program from scratch. Latina is certainly cognizant of it too.
“You look at Steve Pikiell’s first four years – I think he won four games, went up to eight [it was nine] games and then back down to five games,” Latina explained. “At that point everyone was writing his obituary as a coach. People aren’t talking like that anymore; they’re talking about him being one of the best coaches in the Northeast.”
Latina and Pikiell’s friendship goes back to their days as assistant coaches under Howie Dickenman at Central Connecticut. Even while both men were busy building up their coaching resumes under their mentor, Pikiell always enjoyed giving Latina a hard time when the opportunity presented itself.
Pikiell attended Latina’s introductory press conference when he was introduced as the second ever Division I head coach in Sacred Heart’s history. And the first thing Pikiell did when he arrived on campus was go straight to Latina’s office to move some stuff around.
“He’s the most organized person I’ve ever met in my life. He’s unbelievable,” Pikiell joked. “His pencil has to be in the right spot and the calendar has to be [perfect]… He’s really unbelievable about that. But that’s a great trait to have as a basketball coach. He’s detailed and organized but I get a kick out of it. I appreciated those traits that he had but I also had fun with it.”
The Sacred Heart head coach has always been detailed oriented. Before every practice, Latina types up an Excel spreadsheet to detail every drill his players will perform that day, down to the minute. Having to deal with the daily rigors of collegiate coaching, Latina’s preparedness certainly helps. Yet sometimes, the coach admits, he can be a little obsessive compulsive with certain things.
“It’s a curse – I don’t want my kids to be like me, but I never lose anything and I never forget anything,” Latina said with a smile.
Nevertheless, the wonderfully organized and prepared coach is ready to embark on his second season leading the Pioneers. “We’re hoping to make [last season] a distant memory. What did we do wrong, what do we have to get better at…I think we addressed those things. I addressed it individually with players, our coaching staff and as a team. I think we corrected things that may have held us back.”
Pikiell is confident his friend will get things turned around. “He’ll do a great job. He’s a real good basketball guy, he’s a real good worker.”
You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride