Joe Lombardi left behind the glitz and glamour of big-time basketball, the overflow throngs at Madison Square Garden, the national television appearances, for a return to Division II.
Call him crazy, if you like. After all, he is crazy—about his new job.
Joe Lombardi, right, with President Tony Atwater at Lombardi's first IUP press conference.
Lombardi, an assistant to Jamie Dixon at the University of Pittsburgh the past three seasons, was introduced in April as the head coach at IUP, where glitz and glamour are about as abundant as seven-foot centers. Not that he minds.
“I wouldn’t have left Pitt for just any job in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference. This is the only job I was interested in leaving Pitt for,” said Lombardi, who met his wife—the former Janet Servinsky, a 1985 graduate—at IUP while serving under head coach Tom Beck for three seasons (1984-87). “I believe in this institution, I believe in this community, and I believe great things can happen here.”
Lombardi arrived armed with nineteen seasons’ of Division I experience. Since leaving IUP he has worked as an assistant at St. Francis, St. Bonaventure, La Salle, and Pitt. The Panthers forged a 76-22 record during his three years on Dixon’s staff, won the Big East Conference regular-season title in 2004, and made three NCAA tournament appearances.
But the lure of becoming a head coach for the first time—albeit at a school that receives a fraction of the national exposure Pitt does—proved impossible to resist.
“This is a great opportunity for me to do what I want to do. I just want to coach,” Lombardi said. “I don’t need 15,000 people in the stands. Am I going to miss the Garden when March comes around? Sure. I’ll miss playing the Big East championship games there, which we did two out of the past three years. I’ll miss playing the UConns and the Villanovas when they’re No. 1 and No. 2 in the country. I’ll miss the challenges that we faced in the Big East year in and year out. But I’ll never have any regrets about coming to IUP, because my passion has always been to work with young men who want to be successful on and off the court and who want to win championships.”
Just don’t count on any of those in 2007. The Indians lost last season’s top four scorers to graduation, senior forward Avery Oliver is recovering from knee surgery, and several other veterans were possible academic casualties as IUP Magazine went to press. What’s more, Lombardi fell behind on the recruiting trail because he was hired at such a late date.
All things considered, the odds of matching last season’s win total (19) are about as long as Methuselah’s beard.
“Let’s not think the beat’s just going to go on,” Lombardi said. “This is a rebuilding year. I’m looking at this as a long-term process to build a program and not just put a team together. I feel optimistic that we’ll be competitive next year in the conference and that over the next couple of years we can reestablish ourselves as one of the elite programs in Division II basketball.”
Lombardi emphasizes he’s a construction worker, not a miracle worker. Building a program will take time. But ultimately, he sees no reason why the Indians can’t one day challenge for national supremacy, just like the Pitt Panthers.
Only without the glitz and glamour.