The rollicking Jimmy Patsos show moves from tiny Loyola to the Big Dance

BALTIMORE – Here he comes, bursting into March like some unshaven uncle late to the party. Loyola (Md.) coach Jimmy Patsos loves to talk. And he knows people, too.

He knows coaches and baseball players and hockey players and actors and politicians. He knows New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman. And because Cashman is one of Jimmy’s closest friends, Jimmy tells everyone he’s a Yankees fan. Which is ironic because Jimmy’s from Boston and works in Baltimore, and the last thing you want to be in either of those places is a Yankees fan.

Jimmy Patsos' Loyola (Md.) squad earned a 15 seed in the NCAA tournament.
(US Presswire)

Oh, yeah, Jimmy knows people all right. He was a bartender once, back when he worked at the University of Maryland, answering phones for coach Gary Williams. He needed extra money, so he spent his late nights behind a bar in the Georgetown area of D.C., and you’re going to meet a whole lot of folks that way. Senators. Congressmen. Lawyers. Doctors. People on the Hill.

He could have run the city in those days. But instead he wanted to be a coach, and so after 13 seasons working by Williams’ side, he came up here, to Loyola University, a small, gothic-and-limestone campus along the side of a winding road. Now, eight years in, he has a team in the NCAA tournament. And could anything be better?

You won’t find another coach this week quite like Jimmy. He’s an original, all right, nothing like those buttoned-up, corporate types who coach the other teams, always preening and promoting, trying to see who they can crawl over to get that next big job.

Jimmy doesn’t need all that; he has a great job. He gets to coach basketball. He has players he loves, and who appear to love him so much they don’t bother with the formality of calling him “Coach” but rather use the more affectionate “Jimmy.”

It’s a warm but blustery afternoon in the days before the bus is going to head up Interstate 70 toward a round-of-64 game in Pittsburgh. At this point, Jimmy hasn’t learned the NCAA is going to stick his Greyhounds with a 15 seed and a matchup with Ohio State, which is loaded with players bigger and stronger and more gifted than his. But he wouldn’t have cared anyway. Hey, this is Loyola, and Loyola plays in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, which is a nice little league but hardly screams “power.” What, did everyone think Loyola was going to be a 10 seed?

Jimmy has an office in the building where the Greyhounds play. It really isn’t much of an office; it’s more like a players’ lounge, assistant coaches’ office, TV room and place where they stuck a desk in the corner for Jimmy to sit, too. Not that he spends any time there. Computers? Email? He doesn’t deal with all that. Too confusing.

He has a phone. People call the phone. He can talk to people. Isn’t that what it’s all about? People?

He loves Jim Harrick, the former UCLA, Rhode Island and Georgia coach whom he talks to on the phone all the time. Harrick just gave him a line that he scribbled on the board in his office and later will deliver to the team: “Inch by inch, life’s a cinch. Yard by yard, life is hard.”

He loves that line, keeps repeating it. Doesn’t it make sense? “Inch by inch.” How do you get better advice than that?

Perhaps you’ve heard of Jimmy. He’s the coach who climbed into the stands to sit with his athletic director after picking up a technical foul in a 2008 game against Cornell. He was worried about picking up another and getting thrown out of the game, especially after the official kept warning him, so he crawled up two rows into the seats to avoid eye contact with the ref. On the bench, his assistants, including G.G. Smith, Tubby’s son, wondered what had happened to him. When he reappeared, they simply shook their heads. What do you say when your boss decides to coach from the stands?

And what do you say when your boss, a week after he coached from the stands, thinks it’s a great idea to double-team Stephen Curry in a game against Davidson? Curry basically stood and watched while two men guarded him and his teammates, playing 4-on-3, won by 30 points.

[Midwest Region: Strange seeding for Georgetown and Creighton ]

Jimmy knows these were mistakes. He tells everyone that whenever they ask. Really, he has grown up since becoming Loyola’s coach. He decided to stop drinking for a year and celebrated the occasion by getting a multi-colored tattoo of a peace sign on his wrist. He got it in Los Angeles while working a coaching clinic. He found a celebrity place in West Hollywood, Spotlight Tattoo. Got it done by Bob Roberts, who is something of a tattoo legend, undoubtedly making Jimmy the only coach in the NCAA tournament with a Bob Roberts tattoo, let alone a peace sign inked on his arm.

But if getting a tattoo to celebrate 12 months without drinking isn’t enough to show maturity, how about that he got married last year? To a Republican lobbyist, of all things. How funny is that? Because Jimmy loves the Clintons, and when you love the Clintons, you probably don’t love Republican lobbyists. Which is why he says of his new bride, “She’s no angel, either.”

The thing is, for all the silliness, Jimmy knows basketball, knows it really well. You don’t work on Gary Williams’ bench and leave without an understanding of how to coach. When he took the Loyola job, the Greyhounds were coming off a 1-27 season; that prompted an old mentor, Red Auerbach, to tell him at lunch one day, “You can do better than that.”

And he has. There have been rises and dips – a run of winning seasons not long after he arrived, then a three-year tumble before this one came along. Now, thanks to a victory over Fairfield in the conference tournament final, Patsos is in the NCAAs. He loves it, but he worries that people now are going to expect Loyola to be a Gonzaga or a VCU or a George Mason and get there every season, and how does he get them to understand that it can’t be that way?

Not at Loyola.

Not where they’re lucky to have a run like this and the most interesting coach in college basketball gets a podium and a live microphone for at least one day.

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Les Carpenter is a feature writer and columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Les a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Mar 14, 2012