Anthony Latina needed a morale boost, a pick-me-up, anything, really, considering the position his team was in halfway through this season.
It was early January and Fairleigh Dickinson and Wagner had just blown out Latina’s squad in back-to-back games at home. The lopsided defeats sunk Sacred Heart’s record to an unexpected 2-13 overall and 1-3 within the Northeast Conference. After a promising sophomore season that saw his Pioneers improve by 10 wins, things weren’t looking up for the third year head coach.
And that’s when a phone call with his former boss helped.
Each season before the annual Sacred Heart/Central Connecticut showdown at Detrick Gymnasium, Blue Devils coach Howie Dickenman will reach out to Latina, his former assistant, to ask if he needs extra tickets for family and friends at the game. The phone call usually encompasses a hello, a brief discussion about tickets and then a cordial good-bye. Nothing more, nothing less. This year, however, the call took on a different meaning.
“So this year he calls and we were struggling, as were they at that time,” Latina said, recalling their conversation from six weeks ago. “He asked me ‘Ant, how you doing’ and I felt I could be honest with him. Now he’s going through his difficult season and he’s obviously wrestling with the whole retirement thing, [yet] he lifted me up and counseled me for 20 minutes because I was really struggling with our team.”
Because of moments like these, it’s literally impossible to hear anyone inside the NEC utter a negative word about Dickenman. Once again, the elder statesman of the league was doing his best to prop up and mentor a coaching adversary.
“Here’s a guy who most coaches would say ‘hey screw off, I have my own problems,’ but that’s just the type of person he is,” Latina said of Dickenman. “It was him telling me ‘you’re doing fine, hang in there this, hang in there that.’ He knows the role he has in my life and that’s a special person and we’re playing them the next day!”
Sacred Heart would go on to defeat Central Connecticut in a nail-biter, a game they were fortunate to win. The overtime victory sparked a Pioneers run that to this day has yet to subside. Sacred Heart currently sits in a second place tie with Mount St. Mary’s at 10-6 and has won nine of their last 12 games.
With the program back on the championship track, Latina remains ever grateful of the opportunity Dickenman extended to him more than a decade and a half ago. At the time, a chance to join Dickenman’s staff seemed rather improbable.
As a fiery, energetic, yet unproven assistant from UMass Lowell, Latina was given a token interview when a position opened up on Dickenman’s staff back in 1999. After interviewing three candidates on the same day – including current Cleveland Cavaliers assistant coach and former Doc Rivers righthand man Mike Longabardi — in entered the young coach who had graduated from Brandeis University just four years earlier.
“I got Anthony [in] and I know I’m not going to hire him,” Dickenman admitted. “He comes in and he just blew me away with his enthusiasm and knowledge.”
The interview went so well, in fact, that the serious discussion about coaching and basketball philosophies surprisingly turned to food.
“It got to the point where we were asking each other for our three favorite restaurants,” Dickenman said with a chuckle. “We started talking about … extra light virgin oil. Here I’m thinking, ‘What the hell am I doing, this is an interview.’”
Dickenman even admits that he always purchases Barilla pasta based on Latina’s recommendation that day.
Italian restaurants, olive oil and pasta aside, Dickenman’s decision to add Latina to his staff, a group that already included current Stony Brook coach Steve Pikiell and DePaul assistant Pat Sellers, was sealed after receiving a detailed, typewritten note delivered from the Post Office merely a day after the interview. It was those type of attention-to-detail characteristics that served Latina well as he eventually moved up the coaching ladder.
Dickenman marvels to this day at the first time he asked Latina to write a report on one of Central Connecticut’s past games. “I would ask him, ‘Anthony can you break down the tape of what we did, of every possession, offensive and defensive,” Dickenman said. “He had every play written down, what happened, who was involved, what play was run.”
It was the same meticulous style that also led to Latina getting teased by the Central Connecticut staff on occasion too. Whether it was falsely telling him had a scuff on his shined dress shoes right before a game or scribbling on his extremely organized desk calendar (that was a favorite of both Pikiell and Sellers), the staff certainly did their best to keep things light at times.
Nevertheless, the experience of serving under Dickenman for six seasons, however long they may have seemed, prepared Latina immensely as he looks back.
“I owe my career to Coach Dickenman,” Latina said. “When he hired me, Howie Dickenman was so respected in college basketball, when he hires you, it gives you instant credibility before I deserved any credibility at all. I went from ‘who’s that guy?’ to, ‘boy, he must be a good coach because Howie Dickenman hired him.'”
Latina takes a short pause to reflect and then continued: “He took a chance on a short, little Italian guy from the south end of Hartford who no one knew about. To the point where I’m one of 351 Division I head coaches.”
As Dickenman embarks on the final two games of his career this week, Latina has mixed emotions for his former boss, the man who taught him everything from work ethic, commitment, recruiting and what it takes to run a quality program.
“I’m sad, but I’m happy for him,” Latina said. “He’s a giant. Other than the governor, [Jim] Calhoun and [Geno] Auriemma, he’s probably the fourth most recognizable person in the state of Connecticut. Think about it!”
If Latina could, he’d attend the final game of his mentor’s career this Saturday, if only Sacred Heart wasn’t playing at the exact same time. As Dickenman’s final game comes and goes though, Latina hopes he’ll have a chance to selfishly pick the legend’s brain every now and then.
There may be more phone conversations with Dickenman in Latina’s future after all.
You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride