Meet the college coaching lifer who once got Michael Jordan to visit his school by jumping in a puddle

Columnist
Yahoo Sports

It stands to reason Tom Abatemarco’s name will not be mentioned during Florida Gulf Coast’s NCAA tournament game against Florida State on Thursday.

It’s probably never been said during any of the appearances Abatemarco’s teams have made in a coaching career (mostly as an assistant) that dates back to 1974, when the tournament featured just 25 teams. His NCAAs have ranged from first-round defeats, to play-in game victories, to winning the 1983 national title with North Carolina State.

Abatemarco is one of FGCU’s assistant coaches and as always, he’s more than fine existing outside the spotlight. He spent most of his time while being interviewed for this column doing what he does best – selling and coaching.

Selling whatever program and head coach that employs him, in this case FGCU’s Joe Dooley. Coaching whomever he hopes will listen, in this case a columnist he wants to steer away from writing about he and other longtime assistants like him, and back to Dooley and FGCU making its second consecutive trip to the tourney.

“Look, Joe is a big-time coach, and this is a mid-major job, but it has a lot of pizazz, great location, great weather, great support. Andy Enfield got it started here and now Joe is pursuing his dream of turning this into a Gonzaga, a Wichita State, where you go to the tournament every year and you do damage,” Abatemarco said.

There is no sense interrupting him because a) he isn’t wrong and b) he’s on a recruiter’s roll.

“It’s happening,” he continues. “It’s happening here right now.”

FGCU assistant Tom Abatemarco has lived and coached all over the country in his career. (Getty)
FGCU assistant Tom Abatemarco has lived and coached all over the country in his career. (Getty)

You have to be a pretty hardcore college basketball fan to know Abatemarco. He isn’t a famous head coach. He isn’t even a longtime assistant sitting at the side of a famous head coach, gaining recognition by proximity.

He is a grinder, a lifer, an example of the many behind-the-scenes people that make this sport spin. He’s one of those guys in suits on the bench, holding a clipboard. His career is far more the reality of college basketball than Mike Krzyzewski or John Calipari.

There are long hours and little job security and always something else to do – from running individual workouts, to scouting one last prospect, to running bed checks.

It requires a deep love of the job, reinvigorated this time of the year in the glow of March Madness.

“I love it,” Abatemarco said. “I’m lucky.”

Abatemarco has worked at 16 different college programs in 12 different states (including two separate stints at the University of Colorado). There was also a run as a WNBA assistant, a year with the Reno Bighorns in the D-League and some broadcast work with the Sacramento Kings. Three times he’s been a lower-level head coach – at Lamar, Drake and Sacramento State. Through it all, he just kept grinding.

Can coach, will travel. Can recruit, will relocate.

In the end, the path, as meandering as it’s been, always seems to lead back to the same place, the NCAA tournament.

Here’s a breakdown of his coaching career, in case anyone thinks this profession is easy.

New York Tech (1974-75), Iona (1975-77), Davidson (1977-78), St. John’s (1978-1979), Maryland (1979-81), Virginia Tech (1981-82), N.C. State (1982-86), Lamar (Head Coach, 1986-88), Drake (Head Coach, 1988-1990), Colorado (1990-1994), Rutgers (1994-97), Sacramento State (Head Coach 1997-2000), Kings Broadcasting (2000-04), Sacramento Monarchs (WNBA 2003-09), University of Utah (2003-04), more Kings Broadcasting (2005-08), Reno Big Horns (NBA Developmental League 2008-09), Colorado (2009-13), Loyola Marymount (2013-14), Tulsa (2014-15) and Florida Gulf Coast (2015-present).

He says he’s particularly satisfied at FGCU because he believes in what Dooley is accomplishing, building a mid-major power. The school is young, but potential is everywhere. Dooley has put together four consecutive 20-win seasons – 26-7 this year – to continue the momentum of the 2013 “Dunk City” Sweet 16 appearance.

Other than winning another national title, creating something lasting at a place with a head coach he believes in is everything.

“At this stage of my career, that’s what I’m looking for,” Abatemarco said.

Considering he’s been in just about every other professional situation, he should know. While the résumé looks nomadic, it isn’t that unusual. Most of the moves were career advancements, good opportunities leading to better ones – more money, more responsibility, a bigger conference.

He’s coached large schools and small schools and even women’s professional hoops. He’s hoisted championship trophies and been on staffs that received pink slips en masse. He’s worked for Catholics, Presbyterians and Protestants, never losing his New York accent. He’s seen, scouted or taught every style of ball imaginable. He’s been the boss and called Lefty Driesell, Lou Carnesecca and Jim Valvano the boss.

Through it all he’s found a way to get players and coach players and help win games. His first break came when Valvano, then just hired at Iona, went to a New York City all-star game and was curious why so many of the good players were headed to a NAIA school, New York Tech. It was because of Abatemarco, then fresh out of Dowling College on Long Island, he was told. So Jimmy V offered him a job, with a catch.

“I went home and told my wife, ‘The good news is I got the job,’ ” said Abatemarco, who was moonlighting as a middle school teacher. “The bad news is it pays $2,000 a year.”

He took it and never looked back. He made a splash at Iona by beating bigger programs for future NBA all-star Jeff Ruland. One of Abatemarco’s tricks? Proving Iona needed him the most by leaving near-daily notes on Ruland’s car as it was parked at his high school. It’s always been like that – just find a way. As much as the sport has changed, it hasn’t. When he was at Rutgers, Abatemarco was famous for sending 500 letters in a single day to a recruit, making the Scarlet Knights impossible to ignore. “Now it’s all about social media,” he notes.

There was the time Abatemarco was at Maryland and trying to get involved with the best high school player he ever saw: Michael Jordan. He went to the Five Star Camp in Pennsylvania, where even though he couldn’t speak to Jordan, he hoped to draw his attention somehow. Maybe it would start the process.

Jordan was set to play a game outdoors, on the asphalt. Abatemarco was there early for warmups, but Jordan wouldn’t look his way. It had recently rained, so Abatemarco spotted a puddle near the sideline. He walked over and stepped hard in a puddle.

“The splash caught Jordan’s eye and he looked at me, saw the Maryland shirt I had on,” Abatemarco. It worked. Jordan and his father took an unofficial visit to Maryland after the camp on the drive back to North Carolina. Jordan went to the University of North Carolina, of course, but that’s assistant coaching.

So, too, is finding a hidden gem in the face of much doubt. Consider the 5-foot-6 point guard from a Texas junior college that Abatemarco first heard about from an article in Sports Illustrated. Video was sparse back then, but Abatemarco became convinced he could play in the ACC even as Valvano was dubious on stature alone. It didn’t help that when Valvano and Abatemarco went to the Raleigh airport to pick up the recruit, “he looked 12 years old.”

Incredulous, Valvano turned to Abatemarco and said, “If that’s Spud Webb, you’re fired.”

Even here in an era where so many hires are based on connections with specific AAU teams or even recruits, Abatemarco thrives. It’s why smart coaches often find a role for a guy who’s been around the block. Dooley brought him to FGCU because he wanted an experienced coach to help teach his younger assistants, plus Abatemarco has always been able to get, or find, players.

Example: FGCU’s freshman forward Raysean Scott, who came all the way from Compton, Calif., because Abatemarco knew him from his year working at Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles. Another example: incoming recruit Brian Thomas, 6-foot-8 from the Atlanta area. Dooley believes Thomas is a big-time sleeper prospect that Abatemarco “discovered” and then kept just as the SEC started moving in.

“Tommy is a classic recruiter,” Dooley, 51, said. “And when he talks to our guys about working with NBA players, winning the national title, they can relate to that.”

Like always, Abatemarco just wants to keep doing good work. It’s a crazy business. There are bad breaks and lucky breaks. Rick Majerus once hired him because he got to know Abatemarco during trips to Sacramento when Abatemarco was working in the WNBA.

“A girl Majerus was dating lived in Sacramento,” Abatemarco said. “He’d call me and ask me to find him a pool to swim in [Majerus’ preferred method of exercise]. So I’d find him a pool and then we’d go to dinner. That’s how I got close to him.”

This was 2003 and it felt like a big break, getting with a coach of that caliber. Health issues caused Majerus to resign a few months later, though, and even after interim head coach Kerry Rupp led the Utes to the NCAA tournament, the school decided to sweep out the entire staff. The Utes program soon struggled. “They should have kept Kerry Rupp,” Abatemarco said.

Hard to come, easy to go.

The career is mostly full of great memories, though. Best arena he ever coached in? Kansas’ Allen Fieldhouse. “It’s an unbelievable environment, you’re down 15 before the ball is tipped.” Best recruiter he ever went against? George Felton, a fellow New Yorker who put together a similar grinder of a career in the NBA and NCAA, including stints at Kentucky (assistant) and South Carolina (head coach). “Every time I’d think of something with a recruit, George would have already done it.” Best player? Jordan. Best college town he lived in, maybe Blacksburg or Boulder?

“No, Raleigh,” Abatemarco said. “Back then [early 1980s], everything was about college basketball, the fans, the media, the buzz, 24 hours a day. You had Duke and Carolina right there. The ACC. It was incredible.”

Fort Myers is pretty good, too, Abatemarco was quick to note. He began rattling off attendance numbers and sellouts and how so many in the community financially support FGCU even though they didn’t go there. Each winter Southwest Florida surges in population, but there are no other teams. The Eagles have become the team to watch.

Plus, he noted it was amazing seeing how Dooley connects with the city. And how his fellow assistants, Michael Fly and Aaron Miles, are young but talented, full of bright futures.

And he laughed at how just being around it all keeps him young. Tyler Schwab, the team’s director of basketball operations, recently tore his Achilles playing in a manager’s game. Now he has to go to the NCAA tournament wheeling around on a scooter, much to the endless teasing of the staff.

Oh, and it was 83 degrees that day, too, he noted. No snow. Ever, said a guy who spent nearly a decade, cumulatively, working in the Rockies. Whatever.

“Just a great place, great people,” Abatemarco said.

Always selling, always coaching, always hyping someone or something other than himself, Abatemarco continued on, full of passion. He’s one of an army of guys just like him on benches all over the place, the coaching lifer.

Another NCAA tournament beckoned, another chance at an upset, another chance at another run.

Maybe no one will notice he’s there. When did that ever matter, though?

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