Set to join DiMaggio and Marciano in the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame this fall, Gene Pingatore has earned his place in the pantheon through his longevity and stellar record.
Gene Pingatore still can’t quite believe that in November he’ll be among the inductees into the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame.
“I am totally honored and extremely humbled,” he says. “When you think about it, I’m a high school coach. And here I go to the hall of fame with all my heroes who are there — Joe DiMaggio, Rocky Marciano. It just boggles my mind.”
Except that Pingatore is not just a high school coach. He’s the winningest boys’ basketball coach in Illinois history and has earned a long list of recognitions and awards in his nearly 60-year career, including Student Sports Magazine National Coach of the Year in 1999 and induction into the Illinois Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame and the Catholic League Hall of Fame.
Pingatore reached 1,000 victories in February 2017 as head basketball coach of St. Joseph High School in Westchester, Illinois. He was the 15th boys’ basketball coach to reach that milestone and the second coach in Illinois history behind Marshall High School girls’ basketball coach Dorothy Gaters.
His grand total is now 1,021 wins, to which he plans to keep adding when the season kicks off in November.
Pingatore has won two state titles, Class AA in 1999 and Class 3A in 2015, and placed among the state’s top four another four times over the years.
He grew up in Cicero, a suburb of Chicago, and got an athletic scholarship to play at Loyola University of Los Angeles, now Loyola Marymount University. After earning a bachelor’s degree, he came back to the Chicago area and was hired in 1960 as assistant basketball coach at St. Joseph. Ten years later he was promoted to head coach, a position he’s held for 49 years.
He’s now in his 50th year as head coach. “No one should be around for that long,” he jokes.
The role of a high school coach is to prepare kids for the future, he says.
“We have to prepare them for college, for their career. I’m just like another teacher, in a sense. The gym is my classroom. Obviously, we want to teach them to be successful. We want to be successful. But that’s not the bottom line. To win, it’s not an end in itself. We want to use that so it will help kids, help them go to college and do the things they want to do.”
Recruiting players is about looking for good athletes, sure, but also for character, he says.
“The challenge is to get the kid that needs the help so that he can do something with his life.”
Doing that at the high school level is much harder than as a college coach, he points out.
“At the college level, the kids are almost a finished product. Character is defined, athleticism is defined. In 7th and 8th grade, sometimes things are not as obvious, so you might end up with kids that don’t fit the mold. The challenge then is, can you help them?”
“The thrill, the reward, is when we get a kid that’s on the edge, and he turns and makes all the right decisions and does all the right things and makes something of himself.”
Pingatore has coached a slew of successful athletes, most notably two-time NBA champion Isiah Thomas, a 1979 St. Joseph graduate. The two were featured in the 1994 documentary “Hoop Dreams,” directed by Steve James and Simon Schumann.
Pingatore says he didn’t spot Thomas during a recruiting trip — Thomas was not playing that day, for whatever reason — but during a tournament game. “The first time I saw him,” Pingatore recalls, “I said, that’s a kid we have to have.”
Pingatore says his biggest joys in life are family and friends, which is why he ended up rooting himself in Westchester and never pursuing his initial dreams of moving up the coaching ladder.
He has a daughter and three grandchildren and lives with his longtime partner Jill Oakley. He loves fishing and playing golf — “I had potential for about 60 years,” he jokes — and enjoys cooking Italian staples like “pasta e fagioli” (he calls it “pasta fazool”), marinara sauce and turkey meatballs.
“My ambition was to become a college coach, but probably for that I made the wrong decision,” he says. He believed coming back to the Chicago area after college and becoming a successful high school coach would catapult him into the college ranks.
“But that’s not the way it works,” he says. “I probably should have stayed as assistant coach at my alma mater. That would have done it.”
If that sounds like regret, it’s not. “It never happened for me, but I have no regrets. A couple of opportunities presented themselves at one point, but the timing wasn’t right.”
The most important quality in a coach is to be genuine, Pingatore says. “Whether you’re coaching or teaching in the classroom, you can’t be something you’re not, because the kids will see right through that,” he says. “You can never be phony.”
As for his own style, “I’m a screamer. I’m demonstrative. I can never sit in a game,” he says. “I’m Italian. I pace, my hands are moving.”
But he never holds grudges or lets what happens on the court weigh on his players, he says. “I tell the kids not to take it personal. When the game is over, I let it go, I don’t dwell on it. I put my arm around a kid I chewed out, we talk about whatever, and I make sure they are OK.”
When you ask him which memory shines the most, he hesitates. “That’s a really tough question because the first time we accomplished something was always a game that shined,” he says. “The first time we won regionals, the first time we won sectionals, the first time we went downstate. The first time we won state. All those games stand out.”
One really tough loss that stands out was during Thomas’ senior year in 1979, Pingatore recalls. St. Joseph was No. 1 in the state and lost in a buzzer beater to its nemesis, De La Salle Institute of Chicago. “That was probably the most difficult loss,” he says.
As for whether he’ll keep coaching after this year, he has no idea.
“It’s one at a time. I’ve always felt that I was never going to plan and say, ‘I am going to coach two more years, then I will retire. I just think, when it’s over, it’s over. I will just walk in one day and say, ‘That’s it.’”
The above appears in the October 2018 issue of the print version of Fra Noi. Our gorgeous, monthly magazine contains a veritable feast of news and views, profiles and features, entertainment and culture. To subscribe, click here.