Grey Giovanine has seen the grass on both sides of the fence.
And, oh, how the grass was green.
A decade ago, he was standing at destiny’s door. He had been one of the youngest Division I coaches in the country when he took over a struggling program at Lamar University in 1993. In six years, he turned the tide, recording wins over Baylor, LSU, Ole Miss, Houston, USC and Western Kentucky along with raising the Cardinals’ attendance figures and academic record from last to first in the Sun Belt Conference.
He had come up through the coaching ranks with names like Izzo and Self and Gillispie, and he was poised to make the same splash on the national stage as them. But Giovanine passed on the big time, forgoing possible fame and fortune and instead thinking of family when he accepted the head coaching job at Augustana College in 1999.
Entering his 10th season, Giovanine has rebuilt the Vikings into a power in the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin. Coming off three consecutive conference championships, Augie, which opened its season with an 82-79 win over Simpson on Saturday night, is ranked No. 2 in the nation and appears ready for another postseason run.
Looking back, Giovanine has no regrets.
In his blood
Coaching always has been in Giovanine’s blood. He is the son of Illinois high school coaching legend Chips Giovanine, and he played for his father at Western High School in Sheffield.
The son was a standout guard for his father, and after a highly successful run at Western, he went on to Highland Community College in Freeport, Ill.
When he came home for his first Thanksgiving, Grey had been lighting it up, scoring 30 and 40 points a game, and he said to his dad, “Geez, what do you think I would have averaged if you would have let me shoot in high school?” To that, Chips replied, “Probably in the 20s, and we’d have been about .500,” because, Chips explained recently, “You’ve got to get it to the big men if you want to win.”
Lesson learned. And Giovanine never forgot it.
In two years at Highland, Giovanine scored 1,024 points, a mark that still stands as the school’s all-time record. From there, he went to Central Missouri State, where he led his team to the NCAA Division II national title game and led the nation in free-throw shooting percentage.
When is playing days were done, Giovanine knew what he wanted to do.
“He’s always been involved with winning programs,” his father said. “He had a lot of success in basketball early, and he decided that’s what he wanted to do. He wanted to pursue coaching.”
Giovanine got his coaching start as a graduate assistant at Central Missouri in 1981. After a year, he moved on to Valparaiso, where he was an assistant coach for three seasons before serving as an assistant at Oral Roberts from 1985 to 1987.
In 1987, he was hired by Moline native Scott Thompson as an assistant at Rice, and he stayed there for five years before moving with Thompson to Wichita State.
As the recruiting coordinator in his only season at Wichita State, Giovanine put together a class rated in the top 25 nationally. The next year, he landed the head job at Lamar University, a school of roughly 8,000 students in Beaumont, Texas.
The Lamar program was a mess. It was under NCAA investigation, had only three scholarship players returning and was one of a half-dozen schools in the country with a graduation rate of zero the previous six seasons.
It took Giovanine three years to build, but from 1996 to 1999 he put together three consecutive winning seasons. It was the first time that had been done at Lamar in more than a decade.
“It was obvious right from the start that he had the whole package. He’s a great coach, a great speaker, a great motivator,” said Ric Wesley, Giovanine’s top assistant his last four years at Lamar. “He always knew what he wanted to do. He did a great job of communicating it to the staff and the team. There were never any gaps in the communication, and he is like that every day of his life. It was infectious. He had a way of drawing everyone into the team.”
Quality of life
After going 17-11 in the 1998-99 season, his best yet at Lamar, Giovanine had every one of his key players coming back. Having knocked off big-time programs such as LSU, Baylor, USC, Ole Miss and others, he was in line for a move up the coaching ladder, and his program was in position to take a big step forward, perhaps a Sun Belt Conference championship, perhaps an NCAA Tournament berth.
But Giovanine and his wife, Kelly, had started a family, and, for Giovanine, family had to come first.
“My children were 5, 3 and 1, and I was never home, and I knew it,” Giovanine said. “The Augie job opened, and it was something I thought would be a difference in quality of life. Either I was going to try to get the LSU or Texas A&M job or I was going to spend more time with my family and still enjoy coaching.”
For Giovanine, coming to Augustana meant coming home. It was within driving distance of his family, and it was a basketball program with a rich tradition, where he knew he’d have the necessary support to produce a consistent winner.
And, of course, with his father being an Illinois Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Famer, he had no trouble setting up a recruiting network within the state.
“I was still just Chips’ kid. It was amazing. It was really kind of humbling,” Giovanine said. “He gave our program such credibility. He was so well-respected. So, so much of what I did the first four or five years, really, I just kind of jumped into his network.”
A traditional Division III power, Augustana had won only one conference championship since 1982 when Giovanine took the job.
He won only 10 games the first year but has averaged more than 19 a year and collected at least nine conference victories every season since. Last year, the Vikings won their fourth CCIW championship in six years, and Giovanine was voted the conference coach of the year for the third straight season.
With a 165-71 record, he is second on Augie’s all-time wins list behind legendary coach Jim Borcherding.
“He’s not doing anything different now than he did in his 18-year career in Division I basketball,” said Giovanine’s lead assistant, Tom Jessee, who coached six seasons under Steve Yount before Giovanine’s arrival. “It’s the pace at which he has practice, the intensity he comes with every day, just the organization of our program from minute detail to big-picture ideas. Everything he does is the same as he did for 18 years before getting here.”
Vikings guard Brett Wessels, who spent two years playing at the University of Iowa under Steve Alford before transferring to Augie last season, said Giovanine runs a Division I program that just happens to play in Division III.
“I see fire and intensity in him every day when he comes out to practice,” Wessels said. “He’s energetic. He’s all over the place. He’s really good at teaching the fundamentals. We do a lot of drill work. He does a great job of breaking it down. I definitely see a lot of that fire and enthusiasm that was at the Division I level.”
When Giovanine left Lamar, he predicted the Cardinals would win the conference the next year. Sure enough, they did, and they gave top-seeded Duke a battle in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Last year, Bill Self, with whom Giovanine used to work camps at Kansas, won a national championship with the Jayhawks. Tom Izzo, who also worked those camps, won a title at Michigan State in 2000. Billy Gillispie, who used to work camp for Giovanine when Giovanine was at Rice, is the head coach at Kentucky.
They are three of the biggest names in the sport.
Still, Giovanine is content with his decision and his place in coaching. He said he doesn’t look back and wonder what might have been.
“People ask me if I miss it, and I tell them, ‘Only once a month. Only on payday,’ ” Giovanine said. “Augustana’s been a great place to work and live and raise a family.
“I wouldn’t change it. I’ve had so much fun. One of the things I quickly learned was that the wins feel just as good, and the losses feel just as crummy, and I’ve gotten to coach my kids’ little league teams and be around for bitty basketball and youth soccer and kung fu and all the things they do.”
And he has had the same success. He’s still one of the best coaches in America, minus the bright lights, big arenas and decimal points on his paycheck.
He’s still winning.
“With Grey, not being successful is not an option,” Wesley said. “He works too hard. He’s too passionate. He was going to win wherever he ended up.”
For the record
Grey Giovanine’s year-by-year record as a head coach:
Year All Conf.
93-94 10-17 6-12
94-95 11-16 6-12
95-96 12-15 7-11
96-97 15-12 10-8
97-98 15-14 7-11
98-99 17-11 11-7
Totals 80-85 47-61
99-00 10-15 4-10
00-01 17-8 9-5
01-02 17-8 9-5
02-03 20-5 11-3
03-04 16-9 10-4
04-05 17-8 9-5
05-06 23-6 11-3
06-07 22-6 11-3
07-08 23-6 11-3
Totals 165-71 85-41
Career total 245-156