eeks into his new job as UMass head basketball coach, Steve Lappas' office resembles an apartment on move-in day. Framed pictures lie against the bare white walls, waiting to be hung. Boxes filled with momentos lie scattered on the floor, just asking to be placed accordingly. It is apparent that the new boss has not had much time to concern himself with office decorations. Yet one eye-catching piece of furniture looks as if it has been handled with the greatest of care. Displayed atop the table on the right side of the room is an impressive array of championship trophies, newly polished and perfectly arranged, signaling the dawning of a new regime in UMass basketball.
On March 26, Athletic Director Bob Marcum announced the hiring of Steve Lappas as the 19th head coach in UMass basketball history, replacing Bruiser Flint, whose five-year reign ended with his resignation two weeks earlier. Lappas arrives at UMass after nine seasons at the helm of Big East Conference power Villanova, where he guided the Wildcats to a 174-110 (.613) record and seven postseason appearances. After a weekend of frantic negotiations, Marcum plucked Lappas from the ranks of the unemployed just a few days after he resigned from his post at Villanova. The 47-year-old Lappas received a five-year deal.
A native of the Big Apple, Lappas attended the City College of New York, where he was a three-year letterwinner on the hardwood and graduated in 1977 with a B.S. in elementary education. After one-year stints at York College and Fort Lee High School, he earned his first head coaching job in 1979 at Harry S. Truman High School in the Bronx. In four seasons he complied a 91-32 record, led his team to the New York State Class A Championship and was twice named New York Daily News Coach of the Year. Lappas debuted at Villanova in 1984-85, when he was hired as an assistant under Rollie Massimino, the school's all-time winningest coach. In four seasons, his teams went 87-53 (.621), and in his first year `Nova stunned Georgetown to win the National Championship. Lappas was subsequently hired as the head coach at Manhattan College, where he turned a perennially sub-.500 team into a conference champion. He earned Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Coach of the Year, National Association of Basketball Writers District II Coach of the Year and New York Metropolitan Coach of the Year honors in 1992, after his Jaspers posted the best mark in school history (25-9) and advanced to the third round of the NIT Tournament. After taking over at Manhattan, his teams improved their victory total every year, going from seven wins in his first season to 11 in his second, 13 in his third and 25 in his fourth and final season.
Lappas was hired as the head coach at Villanova in 1992 and transformed the program into a conference and national powerhouse. After an 8-19 record in his first campaign, his team went 20-12 the next year and won the NIT championship. The following season the Wildcats went 25-8 and won their first-ever Big East tournament. For his efforts that season, Lappas was named the Eastern Coach of the Year by the Philadelphia Sports Writers Association, won Big Five Coach of the Year honors, and was a finalist for Associated Press and Naismith College National Coach of the Year awards. In nine years his `Nova teams averaged 19.3 wins per season and reached the 20-win plateau six times. Lappas' Wildcats faced UMass twice during that stretch, defeating the Minutemen 66-55 at `Nova in 1998-99 and then falling 52-51 at the Mullins Center in 1999-2000.
Lappas inherits a team that has not gone dancing at the NCAA tournament in three seasons and missed the postseason all together last year. But with a proven winner prowling the sidelines, expectations entering next season will be high.
"That's our goal, to be in the NCAA tournament and the NIT as often as we can," Lappas said. "Expectations go with the turf. That's the nature of college basketball, and those are the expectations people have and those are the expectations that I have."
Due to NCAA regulations that prohibit him from monitoring his team's play in the offseason, Lappas is somewhat unsure of what to expect when he sees his players step out on the court together for the first time next fall.
"I've been watching tape from last year, but that's not really fair to them because we've got to make assessments," he said. "So I'm not really sure what we are. It's hard to say until we get them out there who's capable of doing what."
Lappas personally introduced himself to each of his players shortly after his hiring, and impressed them with his communications skills and the fact that he still keeps in touch with many of his former Villanova players.
Lappas' team will play an offensive style that differs from the one orchestrated by Flint.
"I'm more of a freelance type, whereas Bruiser was more of a set play coach," Lappas said.
But basketball aficionados may recognize the offensive sets being played on the Mullins Center floor next season. Lappas says that he developed his motion offense from watching two of the most successful coaches in college basketball history.
"It's a combination of Bobby Knight's motion and Dean Smith's motion," he said. "They really are different, but you put it all together and kind of develop your own style."
Lappas likes to employ an offense that relies heavily on ball movement and three-point shooting.
"I'm into everyone touching the ball," he said. "You can become a better team offensively by playing together, by making the extra pass, by moving the ball and by reversing the ball."
Last season his `Nova squad took 587 shots from downtown, compared to 486 by the Minutemen. But without top gunslinger Monty Mack, who accounted for 261 of those attempts, Lappas knows he may have to get the ball down inside more often.
"We like to shoot three's, but we do get the ball inside," he said. "I know we have some very good inside players. Between Kit (Rhymer), Micah (Brand) Jackie (Rogers) and Eric (Williams) those guys have done a good job playing down low."
Lappas plays mostly a man-to-man style defense but may throw in an occasional full court press to mix things up. Facing off regularly against high-powered Big East offenses, his 2000-01 Villanova squad held opponents to 74.9 points per game. While his team should be more offensive-oriented than Flint's squad, Lappas still puts solid "D" atop his list of team goals.
"You have to be a great defensive team, because without question that's where it all starts," he said.
Lappas had five players selected in the NBA draft while at Villanova, including lottery picks Kerry Kittles of the New Jersey Nets and Tim Thomas of the Milwaukee Bucks. Kittles came to Villanova virtually unheralded, and under Lappas' tutelage left as an All-American and the eighth pick in the NBA draft. Player development was one of the signatures of his regime at Villanova, as he helped his players reach their potential both on and off the court. Lappas initially sought a career as a teacher, and although he ultimately chose a different career path, he takes great pride in his abilities as an educator. In his 13 years as a head coach, every player that has been a senior has graduated, and he hopes to continue the trend at UMass.
Lappas has already signed his first recruit-Kyle Wilson, a 6-2, 175-pound guard out of White Rock, British Columbia, who signed a national letter of intent to join the Minutemen on April 20. Wilson, a deadly shooter from beyond the arc, averaged 24 points and 9.5 assists as a senior, and was ranked Canada's top point guard.
He has far-reaching recruiting ties, with players on last year's Villanova roster from as far as Germany, England and Holland. Lappas also hopes that the past success of UMass basketball is still enough to lure scholastic stars to play for the Minutemen.
"The kids that are 18 or 19 and coming out now were 10 or 12 during those great, great years," he said, referring to the mid 1990s, when UMass won five straight Atlantic 10 titles and advanced to the Final Four. "They remember when UMass was still really good, so it's still an opportunity to strike while the iron is hot."
Lappas and his family were involved in a variety of community activities while at `Nova, most notably the Special Olympics and Coaches vs. Cancer, an organization formed by the National Association of Basketball Coaches in the wake of the death of former North Carolina State head coach Jim Valvano. Lappas joined forces with other Philadelphia-area coaches to help raise money and create awareness of the disease through annual events, including a golf outing and a three-point shooting contest. Lappas also brought his Wildcat teams into the Philadelphia community, making visits to Children's Hospital and participating in a campus beautification initiative and a pen pal program with local schools. Lappas sees similar opportunities to get involved in the Amherst area, expressing a desire to appear at local organizations and even (gulp) in the UMass dorms.
"The Amherst community revolves around the University of Massachusetts," he said. "I believe it's very important that we get involved with the community and it gets involved with us. I want to get out in the community and speak as much as I can."
Lappas has already developed an affinity for the Amherst area, and is looking forward to settling down with his wife, Harriet, and two children, daughter Kristen (13) and son Peter (10).
"I think this is a very special opportunity I have here," Lappas said. "Bobby Knight had the famous quote that `It's great to be a coach that's the university of something.' I have the opportunity now to coach at a state university with a lot going for it academically and athletically."