Thursday, January 16, 2014

Meet Justin Piergrossi

Justin Piergrossi had options. Wall Street was beckoning right after his graduation from the Wharton School of Business, quite the siren song for someone who who began trading stocks at age 12. But that was the call from his mind. Piergrossi's heart was pining for another direction, one surely not as financially lucrative but fulfilling nonetheless. Coaching basketball won out and a large number of student-athletes have been the beneficiaries ever since.

Back in high school in Connecticut, Piergrossi was a three-year varsity basketball player, All-Conference soccer player, and two-time state tournament qualifier in tennis. He was one of those guys who wasn't blessed with the shock and awe body or athleticism so his success was predicated, as he put it on, "a matter of playing smart, always being in the right position and thinking a play ahead."

Piergrossi had the honor of playing for Joe Reilly, one of the most respected and successful high school basketball coaches in Connecticut state history. A member of the New England Basketball Hall of Fame, Reilly won over 500 games and five state titles during his 35+ years of coaching. Not only was he a masterful X & O coach, but he viewed basketball as a tool for developing the hearts and minds of young men, while instilling core life values. 

That influence would prove important.

Come graduation, Piergrossi applied solely to the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, generally regarded as the top business school in the country. He began his college career with the idea that he would head to bulls and bears ground central and become an investment banker. "I had the opportunity to begin trading at a very young age and really enjoyed it.  It was intense, demanded high attention to detail, and offered a challenge every day."

But a funny thing happened on the way.

That original life plan got waylaid.

The culprit: a love of basketball. "Playing multiple sports in high school, I always appreciated coaching. There was a part of me that knew coaching was in my future, I just didn't know how to go about it," Piergrossi said.

Drawing up a new direction meant reaching out to anyone and everyone who might be able to aid him in his new endeavor.

Piergrossi wrote letters to countless coaches at every level seeking advice. One response he remembers was from Bob Knight -- his career counselor advice: 'forget coaching, go to Wall Street, you'll thank me in the future' wasn't followed.

He recalls discussing the dilemma with his parents.  "It was a pretty big decision.  I was at an Ivy League school, pursuing a finance degree, when I decided that coaching was where my passion led. My father had coached me as a youth in every sport and understood the desire to enter a rewarding profession such as coaching. However, he also saw what the future held in finance. My mother always told me to follow my dreams and ask questions later. She sent me a letter stating- 'Don't be afraid to go out on a limb, that's where all the fruit is.' I still have the original piece of paper with that quote hanging in my office because I was really going out on a limb giving up a potential career on Wall Street to pursue coaching." 

Trying to take advantage of his time in Philadelphia, Piergrossi interned in the front office of the Philadelphia 76ers during his senior year. Following graduation, "I applied for every coaching job on the planet." Although he did not land anything immediately, one of the coaches he interviewed with recommended him for another job. As it turned out, he couldn't have asked for a better place to start.

Piergrossi was hired as an assistant coach at Hanover College in Indiana, a Division-III program with a rich basketball history. "I always thought I wanted to be at the Division-I level, but starting at the Division-III level enabled me to gain exposure to every aspect of a college basketball program right away. At the D-III level, there were no limitations on what assistants could do. I was able to coach on the floor, recruit, scout, everything. I was also named head coach of the JV program, which was another bonus to the job. On top of it- I was in the great basketball state of Indiana! You couldn't script it any better."

While at Hanover, Piergrossi worked for a very experienced and successful head coach in Mike Beitzel. He was a five-time conference Coach of the Year, coached the 2006 NABC Player of the Year and received the Outstanding Service Award from the National Association of Basketball Coaches during his career. "I'll never forget the opportunity Coach Beitzel gave me. I learned something new from him every day on the job. He thought I had a great attention to detail, and I was just trying to keep up with him." Piergrossi was quick to point out that "there are some phenomenal coaches at the D-III level in the midwest. It's no surprise D-III players like Brad Stevens (who played against Hanover during Piergrossi's time there) and Shaka Smart are having so much success."

While finishing college and working for the 76ers, he decided to apply to the University of San Francisco's Sports Management Master's program. He deferred his admission after accepting the job at Hanover but two years later decided it was time to venture out to California.

"This is where the storybook ending really comes into play," Piergrossi laughed.

His future wife was in California working in the wine industry while he was coaching in Indiana. Electing to pursue his Master's degree would bring everything together in California. Piergrossi had begun to establish a relationship with the coaching staff at the University of San Francisco while still in Indiana. Call it the stars aligning or a sprinkling of pixie dust magic, but when the time came to make the move west, USF coach Phil Mathews had an opening on his staff. He named Piergrossi as the third assistant for the 2009-10 season. The position allowed Piergrossi to earn his master's degree while continuing his dream of coaching.

"Being at the D-I level and having the opportunity to work for Coach Mathews was such a blessing. I was coaching some very talented players and working for one of the best men in the business. Phil was fiercely competitive and loyal. He recruited guys with character and they delivered for him, both on and off the floor. He was incredibly demanding but the guys really appreciated their relationship with him. He represented everything good in college basketball. He held guys accountable, motivated them earn their degrees and prepared them for future success." 

That run on The Hilltop lasted five years and then Piergrossi moved down the Peninsula to Skyline College where he has worked as an instructor and coach for 10 years.

The Trojans currently sport a 9-5 record and one of the reasons for this success is continuity -- "Retention is very important to the overall success of our program.  Every single freshman from last year returned and that's how we grow and develop as a team," Piergrossi explained.

He also sees the mission of a community college "as serving the community.  I'm very proud of the fact that 117 of the 133 players that have worn a Skyline uniform during my tenure were from our local recruiting area."

Speaking of his program and players, "We recruit guys that want to achieve success. In my mind, success at our level encompasses much more than just the results on the floor. Our primary focus is the overall development of our players. Every decision we make concerning our program revolves around preparing them for future success. Following winning seasons or losing seasons, the primary focus on development remains the same, as does our commitment to recruiting local players."

"We take a lot of pride in our players' accomplishments on and off the floor: we have established ourselves as a model for student-athlete success on campus, academically we are one of the highest-ranked teams in the state year in and year out and our former players have achieved a high level of success playing at the four-year level.   

Piergrossi was quick to point out that the most important decision he makes regarding his program, is who will be a part of it. He recalls advice he received from his first boss: "only recruit guys you'll like riding back with in the vans after a loss." He thinks the inputs are incredibly important because, "we spend so much time with the guys in our program that we need to ensure we have the right ones."

He continued, "I have had the great fortune to work and play for three Hall of Fame coaches, but it was my very first coach who taught me the most important lessons in my coaching life -- balance and perspective."

Nicholas J. Piergrossi was a very successful endodontist. He ran his own practice, served on the admissions committee at UCONN, and appeared as a guest lecturer at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine.

"But it was very evident to anyone who knew him what his true passion was," Piergrossi recalled. "It was with his family. I can count on one hand how many of my games he missed. It's pretty common to hear coaches talk about all the things they miss while their own children are growing up. That time can't be replaced."

Piergrossi makes it very clear: "A husband and father is who I am, coaching is what I do."

It's another behavior he models which may help in the overall development and future success of his players.

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