Lappas, UMass start anew: Coach can't escape from past glory in Amherst, so he'll gladly take task of restoring it
By Mark Murphy, The Boston Herald Staff Writer, 12/23/2001

AMHERST -- Virtually every college basketball program with a successful history has an old, somewhat faded name still hanging outside on a shingle.

Kentucky's current icon is Rick Pitino, even though he's now in rogue territory at Louisville. Steve Lappas learned to get on for nine seasons at Villanova with the spirit of his former boss, Rollie Massimino, hanging thick in the Pavilion's air.

So the first-year UMass coach was able to brace for what he knew would come this year. And yet Lappas was still done in during a golf outing with three local businessmen last summer at the Longmeadow Country Club. They kept talking about the wonder of John Calipari, and UMass' fleeting kiss with the big time during Coach Cal's rarified eight-year reign.

This line of conversation started on the first tee, and by the time they reached the par-3 17th, Lappas needed to sit down. He noticed a plaque on the back of the bench, and read it.

``It said that John Calipari shot a hole-in-one on that hole,'' Lappas said recently. ``You can't blame people for hanging onto something like that. They saw something they had never seen in a million years under John. And it's great, as long as you keep it in perspective.

``Just think of it this way -- Maryland reached its first Final Four last year.''

UMass reached its only Final Four in 1996, and thanks to the sins of Marcus Camby, every trace of that season was expunged from the NCAA record books. The athletic administration, faced with sagging attendance and expectations that hadn't wavered from that fervent 1996 level, forced Bruiser Flint to resign last spring.

Lappas is considered to be the new answer. But Lappas, too, can tell you a thing or too about misplaced expectations, and how the perennial demand for an NCAA postseason berth can eventually drive a coach out of town.

An end, a fresh start

Lappas coached at Villanova for nine years, won the NIT championship his second season, and took the Wildcats to the NCAA tournament in four of the next five years. The Wildcats advanced to the second round twice. But they only reached the NIT's second round two years ago, and were eliminated after one NIT game last March. With the ever-hot name of Philadelphia-area native Jay Wright lighting up the coaching market with his performance at Hofstra, Villanova officials looked north. Lappas' thoughts were focused even further north, on Amherst, at roughly the same time.

His bridge between Villanova and UMass was so short, many consider the three-day turnover a modern job-changing record for a college coach.

But Lappas smiled as he recounted the golf story, and said that he welcomed the Cal talk.

``John and I are good friends,'' he said.

It's also a honeymoon period, though Mullins Center attendance over four early season games has not revealed much change beyond a noticeably louder student section.

But peering through an interior office, down onto the Mullins Center floor, Lappas said that he is still at ease.

He first said this after a season-opening win over Arkansas-Little Rock, when a sigh could be heard in the coach's voice as he said, ``I haven't felt this relaxed in quite some time.''

This came before the Minutemen's 5-3 start, leading into today's game in the Mullins Center against Maine. Lappas' words were based on feel, as well as an escape from the accumulated pressure of nine years on Philadelphia's Main Line. He is vocal. He'll get on the referees and complain. He'll stamp his feet, walk out of the coach's box and annoy opposing fans.

He alienated many segments of the Villanova community as well. Unlike in his native New York or -- he hopes, Amherst -- Lappas' self-described emotional style didn't translate at Villanova. And according to Lappas, Villanova should NEVER be confused with Philadelphia.

``The expectations were very high, and there were some people there who didn't like my act,'' said Lappas. ``I grew up in New York, I was the son of an emotional Greek immigrant, and I wore my emotions on my sleeve. People didn't like what I was doing on the sidelines. Certain components of the Villanova (community) didn't go for it.

``But you have to understand that the Main Line is not Philly. The working class you get in Philly is not what is out at Villanova. A lot of people don't realize that. Villanova is five miles out of the city, away from everything. We fought all the time to let people know that we wanted to be part of the city.''

Lappas has drawn a different impression from the UMass community and, by extension, Boston. He senses a blue-collar culture that embraced Calipari's own emotional sideline act.

Lappas got a tatse of that local style through his long-time play in the Harry Agganis National Invitational -- a 45-year event for Greek-American basketball teams from across the country -- held annually at St. George's gymnasium in Lynn.

The North Shore may not be the Pioneer Valley, but it was close enough for Lappas to realize he is more in tune with Massachusetts than Villanova.

``Here they seem to be accepting of who you are,'' he said. ``But I never let what people thought affect what I was doing (at Villanova), except when they booed. That, I didn't like. And then I had to explain to the kids that it was directed at me, not them.

``But that can happen in a lot of places. It becomes a situation in certain places where you are not considered part of the school. You are just paid to coach their team. But I strove to be a part of it.

``That's why I would like to BE UMass, not just the guy they pay to coach UMass.''

Following Lou's lead

Lappas grew up in the Bronx with a deep love for the Yankees and Jets. He followed the Knicks when they won, but his basketball passion was tied to St. John's, and Lou Carnesecca.

Lappas doesn't expect to ever see another coach with Carnesecca's emotional connection to St. John's. But this is Lappas' idea of how it should be.

``I love Lou Carnesecca,'' he said. ``They gave him the gold watch, and then he was right there in the front row for every game.''

Even Lappas' nine-year run at Villanova was well above the norm.

But he's beyond that now. He has a new team to win over -- a task that, to this point, has gone surprisingly well.

Flint was very close with his players. Shannon Crooks looked to Flint as a second father.

But Crooks also began his senior year searching for validation. His performance had been uneven as UMass' starting point guard the last two seasons. Lappas, in handing the offense over to sophomore Anthony Anderson, told Crooks to start focusing on his own shot.

Crooks, one of the most improved players in the Atlantic 10 Conference over the last two months, may now be responding with a breakout season. He's also thankful for this late window in his college career.

``My whole thing was that I just hoped he would come in with an open mind,'' Crooks said of Lappas. ``I just wanted an equal opportunity to play, because I knew he wasn't going to give me anything.

``The nice thing is that he didn't come in here thinking about what other people had to say about my game -- he based his judgments on what he saw. He made me a part of getting the team ready for the trip to Greece (last August). And he's stuck with me. It's been nworking out well for me. He's formed his own opinion of me, and not what he might have heard.''

Winning them over

Considering that Lappas is Crooks' third college coach -- after Flint and Fran Fraschilla at St. John's -- skepticism would have been a natural reaction.

``There was a period of us having to prove to them that we knew what we were talking about,'' said Lappas. ``But Shannon was very receptive, right from the start. I'm sure it wasn't actually that way in his mind, but he never let on that that was the case. Kit (Rhymer) was the same way. They're two very different personalities, but they were both great.

``I worried about (the transition) for them,'' he said. ``I'm here for the long haul, and they'll be gone in a few months. But they saw it, and we worked at it. I've always had a great relationship with my players.

``I'm 47, and I've never felt my age, but I really feel rejuvenated right now. I don't like moving. I like to have a home, and be in a community.''

Not to mention a team willing to buy into a new system.

``I didn't actually play for Bru, so everything was new to me,'' said Anderson, who was academically ineligible his freshman year. ``But (Lappas) brought in a lot of changes. Before, you could listen to music, and he stopped that. It sounds like little things, but his stand was big on discipline when he first got here.

``But his sales pitch was, `I've put three or four players into the NBA, and only one of them was a McDonald's All-American.' I think everyone's eyes opened up when he said that.''

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