Pete Gillen: The coach with many talents
He missed his calling.
Well, sort of.
He won 392 games in 613 tries as a collegiate basketball coach at three major universities during a head coaching career that spanned some 20 seasons.
But anyone who knows Pete Gillen wouldn’t be at all surprised if he had a career as a stand-up comic, or hosting a late-night TV talk show.
Thank Jack Lawn from Brooklyn Prep for steering the redhead into the game of basketball.
“Jack was my high school coach,” Gillen told the Eagle, “But he taught me loyalty, attitude and integrity. Those were the things I took from him, and I wanted to teach those things to kids someday.”
He also taught the game of basketball.
“I was a starter and played four years at Brooklyn Prep,” he said. “We were in the Final Four my senior year.”
That Final Four consisted of Archbishop Molloy, Power Memorial, Rice and Brooklyn Prep.
“We beat LaSalle at St. John’s University in the semi-finals, lost to Molloy and fell to Rice in the consolation game.”
All wasn’t lost – Gillen’s next stop was Fairfield (Conn.) University.
A basketball scholarship? Not so fast.
“As a player,” he deadpanned, “I was shaky at best. I often impersonated a player.”
He was a walk-on for the Stags, but won a full-scholarship in his junior and senior seasons.
Next stop – back to Brooklyn.
The kid who lived at 537 77th Street was back home – back at his alma mater – and back as the freshman basketball coach at Brooklyn Prep.
What year was that, Pete?
“I think it was around the Franco-Persian War era,” he answered.
Actually, he coached the frosh for a year—’69-’70 then joined the varsity for the next two.
“We won the prestigious Msg. King Tournament both those years,” he recalled.
That tournament is named after former St. Thomas Aquinas pastor Msgr. Jeremiah King, who in 1954 instituted a fundraising campaign to help underwrite the cost of three new parish buildings one of which was the gymnasium.
The first tournament, sanctioned by the CHSAA and PSAL, was held in 1962 and honored Msgr. King. When it was founded, it was the first high school basketball tournament to be played at a grammar school gymnasium in the U.S.
After a 10-year hiatus, the tournament was resumed in 2014.
His success landed him as head coach at Nazareth Regional High School, while teaching English at Holy Name grade school.
“At Nazareth,” he said, “I taught Theology.”
He spent three years at Nazareth.
And then it was the Gillen Tour of America.
“I was a college assistant,” he said, “at four different schools.”
First stop – University of Hawaii, then VMI, Villanova and Notre Dame.
“I was moving up the coaching ladder,” he said, “very slowly.”
With a new set of mentors – Hall of Fame coach Rollie Massimino at Villanova and Digger Phelps at Notre Dame.
Finally – he got the call.
Pete Gillen was named head basketball coach at Cincinnati’s Xavier University in 1985.
He went 202-75 at Xavier, and left for Providence after nine seasons – “I wanted the challenge of The Big East,” he said. And he finished his career at the University of Virginia.
In total, Gillen went to the NCAA Tournament with those teams nine teams, and had seven NIT appearances.
Brian Grant and Tyrone Hill – former Xavier stars – and Austin Croshere and Eric Williams from Providence are just some of the future stars he’s coached.
New York City didn’t forget their son – he was inducted into the New York City Basketball Hall of Fame in September, 2008 along with NBA stars Kenny Anderson, Sam Perkins and Rod Strickland – and pioneers Lou Bender and Eddie Younger.
He received the Joe Lapchick Character Award this past September. He won the award in 2020 and the pandemic forced the 12-month wait. He was honored with former basketball greats from New York City – Nancy Lieberman and Len Elmore.
Coaching for Gillen ended in 2004-05 with the Virginia Cavaliers – but basketball didn’t.
“After 30 years of hitching, twitching and bleeding from the eyes,” he said, “I thought it was enough.”
CBS Sports had an opening and Gillen said he had to “reinvent” himself.
It wasn’t hard – he’s been broadcasting basketball for the network for 17 years.
“In fact,” he said, “I remember my very first game. It was Georgetown and Navy. I was afraid to push any of the buttons. I thought I’d blow up the building.”
Gillen has become somewhat of a star as an analyst for the network. Last year he did the Alabama-Georgia game, as well as the Division II title game between NW Missouri State and Lincoln and the UCLA-USC game.
Pete Gillen sat on the Notre Dame bench next to a Hall of Fame hopeful – coach Digger Phelps.
Phelps won 419 games in his career, which includes Fordham University.
Together, they combined for 811 victories.
“I’m thrilled Digger got the nomination,” Gillen said, “he’s certainly more than deserving for a spot in the Basketball Hall of Fame. He belongs there the way he won, and the way he marketed and sold the sport.”
Perhaps one day Phelps will again have Pete Gillen at his side.
This time in Springfield, Mass. – the home of The Basketball Hall of Fame.
Andy Furman is a Fox Sports Radio national talk host. Previously, he was a scholastic sports columnist for the Brooklyn Eagle. He may be reached at: [email protected] Twitter: @AndyFurmanFSR.
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