North Central College alumnus and Trustee John Giannini ’84 is enjoying the spotlight that comes with guiding an NCAA Division I basketball team to the Sweet 16, but he certainly hasn’t forgotten his alma mater.
“I’ll tell you how much I love North Central,” says Gianini, head basketball coach for the La Salle University Explorers. “I talked with four people this morning. Mike and Mike on ESPN radio, Coach K (Duke University head coach Mike Krzyzewski) and Rick Spencer (North Central College’s vice president for institutional advancement).”
Giannini, head coach of the Philadelphia school since 2004, took the Explorers on their deepest run into the NCAA tournament since 1955, when La Salle played for the national title. La Salle faced Wichita State March 28 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles but came up on the short end of a 72-58 score. It was an ironic matchup since another North Central alumnus, Gene Smithson ’61, was Wichita State’s head coach from 1978 to 1986.
“The fact that we’re playing Wichita State gives me another chance to talk to the national media about North Central College,” Giannini said before the game.
Giannini earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology at North Central in 1984 and went on to earn a master’s degree at the University of North Texas and a Ph.D. at the University of Illinois.
“I never had better professors than those I had at North Central,” says Giannini. “My experience at North Central prepared me so well to be who I am today.”
As a freshman he helped lead the North Central College men’s basketball team to a 7-3 finish and a 7-18 record after starting the season with a 15-game losing streak. By his senior year, the Cardinals tied a school record for a then-season high in wins and secured the program’s first appearance in the NCAA Division III tournament. Bill Warden '55, who began coaching the Cardinals during Giannini's sophomore year, remains an influential figure in Giannini’s coaching.
“I still use some of the drills I used when I played for coach Warden,” says Giannini.
The North Central men’s basketball team just enjoyed its own historic run, advancing to the Division III Final Four.
“I followed every game and I usually touch base with Coach (Todd) Raridon at the end of every season,” says Giannini. “In some ways, going to the Division III Final Four is more difficult because there are more teams. To be in the top 1 percent is a fantastic accomplishment and I’m so proud of the Cardinals.”
Giannini began his head coaching career in 1989 at Rowan College in Glassboro, N.J., for a program that had struggled for years. Rowan’s men’s basketball team missed the postseason for 13 years prior to Giannini’s arrival and experienced a 9-16 record the year before he arrived. Within three years, Giannini coached the team to the NCAA Division III Final Four and to a national championship in 1996.
Giannini left Rowan following the championship season to assume a Division I head coaching position with the University of Maine, where he again achieved coaching success. The Maine Black Bears soon became regular conference contenders in the Atlantic East. In his eight seasons with Maine, Giannini became the winningest coach in the program’s history and led the Black Bears to the only two 20-win seasons in school history.
The magic has continued for Giannini as head coach for La Salle as he leads the team to its first appearance in the Sweet 16 since the 68-team format was introduced. La Salle defeated Mississippi 76-74 on March 24, Kansas State 63-61 on March 22 and Boise State 80-71 on March 20. La Salle was the second-to-last team to earn an at-large bid and one of eight teams that had to play a first-round game. Now, the Explorers are near the center of the college basketball universe.
“This nation has a wonderful love affair with NCAA basketball,” says Giannini. “While the amount of attention makes game preparation a challenge, it’s a wonderful thing to be part of.”
Giannini and his wife, Donna Fuhr Giannini ’85, have two daughters and live in Mullica Hill, N.J. They met outside Rall Hall on the North Central campus.