Stories from my interview with Niagara Falls coaching legend Pat Monti from the LaSalle basketball dynasty

“People probably don’t know this, but Coach Monti is a better classroom teacher than he is a basketball coach.”

The first principle of my blog is “Creating Ecosystems of Success”. As a part of a writing project I’m working on regarding my high school basketball experience and what it taught me about life, success and failure, I was granted an interview with Western New York coaching legend, Pat Monti who was the Architect of the LaSalle basketball dynasty. I’ve already published parts one and two of the interview, but Coach Monti blessed me with enough material for one more piece. His was unlike any interview that I’ve done up this point, in that during the interview, he told numerous ‘stand-alone’ stories in addition to the question and answer portion of our interview.

The following are the numerous stories Coach Monti told about his coaching career and the LaSalle basketball program – stories which were too long to publish in parts one and two of our interview, but which also were too valuable to not share. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have. The pictures in this interview come from an archive of Western New York basketball assembled over the years from issues of the Buffalo News, the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, and Sections V and VI playoff programs by my first Coach at Hutch-Tech High School, Dr. Ken Jones. Other pictures were generously shared by Coach Pat Monti himself. Click on any of the images to enlarge them.

The Syracuse Parochial Schools

Back in Syracuse we had what we called the “Parochial” league which were ten small Catholic schools. You went to school and right across the street was a church. All we had was basketball and baseball as our sports. It was an unbelievable basketball league – phenomenal. We used to beat up on all the public schools. I went to St. Patrick’s High School in Syracuse, but there was also St. John the Baptist, the Evangelist, St. Lucy’s, Cathedral, Assumption – there were ten and none of them exist anymore obviously – they just got devoured and private education was taken over by a couple of bigger Catholic schools.

The 1975-76 Explorers – Coach Monti’s First LaSalle Varsity Team

First off, a little background how I landed the Varsity job. As you know I graduated from Niagara University in 1968 but being from Syracuse and not being local, there were politics like everywhere else, and I was unable to get my foot in the door as a coach even though I was teaching in the district. So, in 1968-69 I landed the Freshman job at St. John Neumann under Johnny McCarthy, former Buffalo Braves and Canisius College Coach. I did that for one year, and then the late Bob Laurrie who was the Varsity Coach at Bishop Duffy which became gave me a job as his Junior Varsity (JV) Coach for the next three years from 1969-72 which was great because I was close to home and LaSalle where I taught. By the way Niagara Catholic just closed its doors this summer.

Finally, after applying for years, I got hired as the LaSalle JV Coach from the 1972-73 season thru the 1974-75 season. At 29 years of age, I then landed the Varsity job at LaSalle replacing legendary coach Matt Mazza for the 1975-76 season. After coaching those previous three years as the JV coach, if memory serves me we had records of 15-3, 12-4, and 16-2. The Varsity team with most of those kids I coached on the JV were struggling big time. They lost their last seven games of the 1973-74 season and then went 0-18 in 74-75. I guess the administration had had enough after the 25-game losing streak and hired me for the 1975-76 season from a pool of quality applicants.

So obviously going into my first season I had nothing to lose, and we went 8-10 and became fairly competitive. Our starters on that first team were led by: Co-Captain Edwin Keith Ridgeway and “Buckwheat” Harris at the guards, Kevin Downey and Keith Taylor at the forwards, and Wayne Gould at center. Co-Captain Mike Roberts was the ‘sixth man’ and became the starter with Ridgeway when we lost Harris to grades. The rest of the squad was comprised of: Chris Hyla, Ricky Williams, Dan Ciszek, Mike Amato, Dan Coombs, and Alan Valentine!

We went 8-10 that first season and almost made the Sectionals under the leadership of seniors Ridgeway and Roberts – two very solid players and really great kids who almost immediately bought into what I was trying to accomplish with the program. With Downey and Taylor, two outstanding very strong forwards returning and many of the returning players who were juniors that first year, we went 9-8 the following season including going 8-7 in the regular season, and then winning in an upset at Amherst – the first sectional win for a LaSalle team in many years! Back then you had to qualify for Sectionals with a 0.500 or better record! We beat Amherst on the road in that 1976-77 season on a buzzer beater from Alan Valentine on a great pass from Billy Clingersmith who had come over from Niagara Falls High School that year.

It was a HUGE upset and the kids went crazy it was as if we won the Sectional Title instead of simply a first-round game! Well that was the start of it all, and the players the following years started understanding that it was all about: fundamentals, no nonsense and structure. Things at LaSalle turned around and by the 1979-80, and the 1980-81 Michael Freeney-teams, we won consecutive Niagara Frontier League (NFL) titles – the first and second of our 13 league championships. LaSalle High School basketball had arrived on the scene in Western New York after many years of mediocrity!

LaSalle’s late 1980s matchups with Christian Laettner and the Nichols School

During Christian Laettner’s (pictured) junior year which was 1986-87 – they beat us twice – both times were single digits – six to seven points, and we hung right there with them. After not losing a game his junior year, they won the Class C state title. The next year 1987-88 was his senior year. We went to Nichols’ little dingy gym in late December and I don’t know if they took us for granted which would’ve been crazy because we had everyone back, and they lost their point guard, even though they still had Laettner.

You can look back at my teams, especially when we got really good starting in the early 1980s all of the way up until the school closed – my teams were really run and dominated by guard play. We never had any size to speak of, and that year Eric Gore was probably our best player. I had to use him inside at 6’4” though he ended up playing the two-guard position in college down in Texas. We went down to their gym and blew them out. We turned their guards over and took Laettner out of the equation because their guys couldn’t get him the ball the way they needed to and I think we beat them by 17 points.

We then went on a run where we were 19-0 and they were 18-1 – we were ranked the top ‘Large School’ and they were ranked the top ‘Small School’ in the Buffalo News, and they came into our gym for the last regular season game in the Niagara Frontier League. It was unbelievable – a zoo. If you were a Junior Varsity (JV) player, you had to be crapping in your pants. The JV game started at 6 pm, and if you didn’t get into the gym at quarter to five, you didn’t get a seat – our gym held well over 2,000 people.

Everyone was there – Mike Kryzewski (Duke) and Digger Phelps (Notre Dame) – all the bigtime coaches. It was a game for the ages. I can still see it as if it was yesterday, and it was 1988. Nobody led by more than four – they didn’t take us for granted this time – they were very well coached.

It was back and forth, back and forth – just an incredible high school basketball game. I think that with about a minute or so left, we might’ve been up four. They came down, scored, called time out and cut it to two. I only had one time out left and I’ve always taught my young coaches to save your time outs for the fourth quarter. If you know, you’re going to be in a tight ballgame, don’t waste time outs. It’s amazing how simple it sounds and how important it is in coaching.

They obviously knew us inside and out, and I should have been smart enough to change our ‘press-breaker’ but I didn’t, and they pressed us. They double teamed my point guard Michael Starks – great player – 6’1” or 6’2” – really smart with the ball – a good decision maker. His brother Frank was a 6’2” 210 lb. rebounding machine but didn’t handle or shoot the ball very well. They took Michael away and Frank had the ball coming up the right side of the court across from the benches. I couldn’t get my timeout fast enough and it was so loud that the referees couldn’t hear me. I could see it coming but it was too late.

Laettner left Gore and Frank Starks is dribbling the ball above his waist – it looked like he was dribbling a beach ball. Laettner stripped him clean and went in for what would have been a thunderous dunk which would have sent the game into overtime – there were 20 seconds left at the time. He was the only guy across half court now. He looked up just as he crossed near the foul line – I think to see where he was with relation to the basket, and he kicked the ball out of bounds believe it or not.

So, I called my final timeout and drew up a different press-breaker. At the time I didn’t give it a name, but since then I called it my “One-Breaker” where my point guard takes the ball out of bounds. Because we’re leading the game, they must go trap the ball. We got the ball back into Michael Starks’ hands. He got fouled and made both shots – we beat them by four 61-57 – we went on and went 20-0, we won the Class B Sectional pretty easily, went to Rochester and won that pretty easily, and then we went to Glens Falls and beat some really, really good teams – the state’s ‘Public School’ part of it.

The 27-0 1988 Class B State and Federation Championship Team

We beat a local team out of Gloversville that had two brothers – stars and both great basketball players – one was a quarterback who I think went on to play at Boston College – one of the Boston schools for football. But they were local – right outside of Albany in the Glens Falls area. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Glens Falls to watch basketball, but the Civic Center is a beautiful venue for watching basketball – very unencumbered, no pillars in your way. It holds about 7,000 people and the place was a sea of red – Gloversville fans galore and the game went back and forth, back and forth. We ended up beating them in a tightly fought contest in overtime.

It was funny because we used to play the semifinals on Friday nights and the finals on Sunday – later in my career it was Saturday and Sunday. On Saturday, our kids would go and watch the Cs, the Ds and the As, and the talk all over the Civic Center, and even the local newspapers was, “How is little LaSalle going to handle this Nottingham team out of Syracuse with Dorsey Levens?” – the great running back who would go on to star for the Green Bay Packers. He was a tremendous basketball player.

Jason Buchanan went on to star at St. John’s as a point guard. They had won something like 45 straight games, they were the defending state champions, and they were undefeated as we were so you had two great teams. We ended up beating them and people were talking as though they were going to blow us out of the gym by 30 because we barely beat Gloversville 61-60 who was good, and they crushed a team from Section XI on Long Island by 35 points.

But what they didn’t see was the real Eric Gore because he was scoring 27 points a game, and I hate to say it but against Gloversville it was a ‘home job’ – a setup, and the poor kid couldn’t breathe without being called for a foul – it was ridiculous. He finished the semifinal game zero points. He got his third foul at the start of the second quarter. I joke with my old assistant coach who is still works in the Niagara Falls school system Frank Rotundo, who coached for a while at Niagara County Community College.

Frank came down to me with about five minutes left in the game and we were up by six against this great Nottingham team out of Syracuse coached by the legendary Jim McGrath. Coach Rotundo said, “Look at Eric. His head is down at the end of the bench.” I said, “We’re doing okay.” We had Elon McCraken who played at Niagara who stepped in as a junior at Eric’s spot for me and we were handling them with no problem.

Coach Rotundo asked, “Would we be here without Eric?” It gnawed at me and gnawed at me, so I put him in. We had the game basically won. We had no shot clock back then and I ran a really good “delay and strike” game back then where we could kill the clock and surprise you with a back-door layup every once and a while.

I shouldn’t have put him back in, but I listened to my assistant whom to this day I jokingly say to Frank, “You know that’s the last time I ever listen to an assistant.” Eric having such a bad performance got in the game, turned it over, took a couple of bad shots and before you know it, here we are tied in a game that never should have been like that. It ended up going into overtime and Eric fouled out in regulation anyway.

We were down three to Nottingham with ten seconds play in regulation. We had just fouled Dorsey Levens. It was a ‘one and one’, and I called one of my timeouts. I told my players, “Okay remember the power of positive thinking,” hoping it happens but never expecting it to.

They had just instituted the three-point line. If Dorsey missed his shot, we’ll fire up the court and if we don’t get a good shot, we’ll call a time out, draw up a play and get the ball in Michael Starks’ hands. He misses it, and Frank Starks his brother gets the rebound – the player who turned it over against Laettner and Nichols. We never let him shoot it beyond eight feet because he has no touch at all. He pulls up right in front of our bench – it was almost an NBA three – nothing but net, we go into overtime and we win the game going away. It was an incredible game.

That week after we won the State Championship for the public schools, we had to go back and play for the Federation Championship. We played two really good teams out of the Public School Athletic League in New York City – Samuel Gompers and then Nazareth out of Brooklyn who had Robert Phelps who went on and started at Arizona. We beat both of them and ended up 27-0 and I still think that’s a Western New York record. We had successes before then but nothing like that.

The closing of LaSalle Senior High School and retiring

Don’t get me wrong, Niagara Falls High School was built in the 1920s and it needed to be replaced, but if it were up to me, I would’ve built Niagara Falls a new high school downtown somewhere on Main Street to try to revitalize the inner-city area there. Leave us alone and let us have the 1,200-1,250 kids like we had. That was another amazing thing in New York State – you had some of these Class A schools who had 3,000 to 4,000 students, and we had 1,250 kids when we would go to Glens Falls and play some of these schools from around the state, and some of the New York City schools.

To me building that one big mega-school with the four towers was crazy. You had teachers who didn’t like each other. You had students who didn’t like each other because of the rivalry and that’s when I retired. Niagara Falls High School has only won one New York State title in 18 years with twice the enrollment since the two schools combined in 2001. That was the year they had Paul Harris and Jonny Flynn amongst other Division I players.

Coaching at Niagara Catholic after the closing of LaSalle Senior High School

“Coach I know you’re not going to the new high school. Would you be interested in helping us out at Niagara-Catholic?” When they tore LaSalle down in 2000, that was it for me, and because my wife was still working, the President of the Board of Trustees at Niagara Catholic Judge Bobby Restino reached out to me. I was down here vacationing in my condo in Naples, FL at the time during Easter when LaSalle was closing.

“You just hired a young guy who graduated from Niagara last year, and he did an okay job for the amount of talent that he had,” I said.

“Well if we can get a Pat Monti, we’d love to have you come in,” he replied.

“You know what, when I get back from Naples Judge, I’ll sit down and talk with you,” I said.

“Your gym is atrocious. You have to renovate it,” I told him – I had some demands.

“It’s in the budget for next year,” he said.

“Well if it can be done this year, I might consider it. Plus, I’d have to bring my assistant Frank Rotundo with me, and Modie Cox,” who was helping us at the time I continued.

“Let me bring it up to the board’s attention,” he said and did, and they agreed.

We were the little guy and I’ll never forget our first time playing St. Joe’s. We had some great run ins with St. Joe’s when I was at LaSalle, but I didn’t have that kind of talent when I was at Niagara Catholic. The year before I want to say that St. Joe’s beat Niagara-Catholic by 54 points. My first year at Niagara Catholic, we lost by two and it was like we had won the freaking NCAA championship and we lost the game.

I coached there three years while my wife was still working and had a lot of fun building up the Niagara Catholic program. Matty Clingersmith who is the really good Baseball Coach at Niagara Community College now. He’s taken them to the National Junior College Tournament just about every year – last year they lost in the National Championships. He was a junior the year before I arrived and sitting the bench at Niagara Catholic. We turned him into an All-Western New Yorker his senior year – he led us in points and rebounds and I want to say that we probably went 15-5 – the year before they might’ve gone 6-14.

The only schools we lost to were the big schools. That was the last head coaching I ever did. Even though in name I’m not the Head Coach, I’ve really called a lot of the shots most of the years I’ve been coaching down here. My system is in place – a lot of the ‘gimmick’ defenses I used to use to shut down big-time scorers, we still use down here. So, I did that at Niagara Catholic and I see this year they had a really good year.

Coach Monti on what should’ve been his first State Final Four team

I’ll be honest with you, what I thought should’ve been our first Final Four team in Glens Falls was our 1983-84 LaSalle team. I had an unbelievable team I thought – no tremendous size. Joe Etopio played at the University at Buffalo (UB) – a 6’4” kid with monster hands (pictured to the left in the middle). If you got him the ball inside, he either got a layup and got fouled, or he just got fouled. I had a really good point guard, “Rockin” Rodney Ingram (pictured above to Joe Etopio’s right). That should’ve been a Final Four team but unfortunately, we just had a bad break.

We played in “The Aud’” (Buffalo Memorial Auditorium) and we were leading South Park who was heavily favored by 15 points in the third quarter. Joe Etopio goes down with a horrendous “charley horse” cramp where he couldn’t even bend his leg so obviously I couldn’t play him. So, they worked on him, and worked on him, and little by little, South Park whittled the down the lead and towards the end they started fouling us – we missed so any freaking front ends of one and ones. It ended up becoming a one-point game with 15 seconds to go. I called a time out, and I asked Joe, “Do you think you can go back in and just throw a pass?” He said, “Yeah Coach I can do that.”

So just inside half court, I drew up an unbelievable ‘big box’ play with some ‘misdirects’. One of our non-scorers was Darnell Bones – a tremendous rebounder on that team and the least likely scorer out of the five starters. I ran a middle misdirect where they thought my guard was going to get the ball, but my guard basically threw a screen while my two big guys cleared out underneath. I had Joe Etopio throw a baseball pass from half court right to the rim to Darnell Bones.

To this day I can see this because there was no three-point shot at the time and I knew that if we got the ball in the backcourt they would foul us, and I didn’t want that the way we were shooting one and ones. I decided to get the three-point lead and the game would be over. With about 15 seconds to go, Joe threw a beautiful pass, the lane was totally cleared out – Rodney threw a beautiful screen on Bones who curls around, catches the ball and goes up.

Back in the day the expansions came off the floor – they’re not bolted to the ceilings the way we do it high school – they’re a little ‘loosey-goosey’. Darnell goes up and who knows why to this day – he was a strong kid at 6’2” – but instead of just laying the ball up, he slaps the backboard and the ball rolls arooound the rim and comes out. One of South Park’s many big guys – they had a big team, threw a full court pass down the left side, and this kid from South Park, their best player catches the ball on the left corner, fires it up on the buzzer and it freaking banks in and we lost by one! That should’ve been the first team to go.

On when the program became successful and point guard Tim Winn

Little by little each year, the persona of the team changed – everything was built around all of our point guards, and it culminated in the last two with Timmy Winn – he’s one of the kids we brought up as a seventh grader, an eighth grader, and then halfway through his ninth-grade season he was on the Varsity team. We went to Glens Falls all four years he played Varsity ball – I don’t know if anybody has ever done that. He played in Glens Falls four years in a row, and he was the MVP of the state tournament his junior and senior years.

He was a tremendous ‘lock down’ defender, and a scorer. His scoring was overshadowed by his defense, and he had a phenomenal career at St. Bonaventure. People think that he went to a little school – St. Bonaventure was a big-time basketball school. He was recruited by a lot of big schools. Bobby Cremins from Georgia Tech at the time which I called ‘Point Guard U’, they wanted him badly and that’s where I wanted him to go because I thought it would give him a better opportunity to play at the next level. He opted to go to St. Bonaventure because of Rob Lanier who played back in the day in Buffalo – Bob Lanier’s cousin – he’s the top assistant for Rick Barnes at Tennessee now.

He used to be with him at Texas, and I think Rob might’ve had a little coaching stint at Siena, but Timmy fell in love with him after he recruited him for Jim Barron who ended up going to Rhode Island. Timmy just like the proximity and being close to home – people could come and see him play in the “Atlantic 10 Conference” which is a good league, and Tim is now in their St. Bonaventure Hall of Fame. He played overseas, and in the old Continental Basketball Association and now he’s in Charlotte with a nice job at Wells-Fargo he’s got a nice family and is doing well.

As a matter of fact, I got inducted in my sixth Hall of Fame last December. I never even knew that Section VI had started a Hall of Fame, but somebody contacted me and said, “You know you’ve been nominated for the Section VI Hall of Fame.” I said, “What the hell are you talking about?” The person replied, “Oh about two to three years ago, they started a sports Hall of Fame and you’re going to be inducted on December 8, 2017.”

I couldn’t believe it, but Timmy drove up that morning from Charlotte to be there. Several of my former players showed up. The last year before the school closed, Dewitt Doss who starred at Canisius – a former gym teacher and now the Athletic Director in the Baltimore Public School System now – he also drove up from Baltimore to be there.

If I had my choice, I’d say give me a great point guard over a big man any day of the week at the high school level and you’ll win. That’s your coach on the floor. Point guards just step up and do the job! I saw in your article with Jason Rowe that we played Buffalo Traditional, but Timmy came up with a severely sprained ankle, and we still gave Traditional a heck of a game because of Jody Crymes and Terry Rich. I think they ended up beating us by three. At that time, those two kids were by far the two premier point guards in the area – Tim and Jason.

On Coaching and Teaching

There’s so much talent down here in Florida and I watch it and there’s no shot clock, but you can put in a 10 second shot clock the way that some of these teams play. It’s like being at the YMCA, it’s crazy – there’s hardly any real coaching going on – they just let them do what they want to do. I never allowed that. We did drills every day in practice – drill, drill, drill and drill again.

Whatever offenses or defenses we ran, we did it again, again, again and again until it became second nature. It was homework and I’d tell the kids, ‘This is what you need for tomorrow. This is your homework.’ I always used to say, ‘This is my classroom – the classroom after the classroom!’

I teared up at one of the hall of fames I got into – it might’ve been the Niagara Falls Sports Hall of Fame – one of my buddies who has since passed away, he was my presenter and the last thing he said before he called me up for my award was, ‘People probably don’t know this, but Coach Monti is a better classroom teacher than he is a basketball coach.’ That really resonated with me – it gave me goosebumps honest to God.

That’s probably why I never went to coach at college where I had some other coaching opportunities – nothing to blow your socks off, but I enjoyed the class room as much as I did the court from a teaching standpoint and that’s why I’m still doing it 50 years later – because I really enjoy sharing what I’ve learned and what I’ve been taught with these young coaches and these young players – teaching them the right way to play the game.

A special thank you is extended to Coach Pat Monti for taking the time out to discuss his story and the LaSalle basketball program. I’d also like to thank Coach Monti’s Wife Kathleen for proofreading this three-part series and polishing it up for us. In case you’ve missed them, see parts one and two of my interview with Coach Monti. Also see my interviews with legendary LaSalle point guard Tim Winn, legendary Buffalo Traditional point guard Jason Rowe, some of my personal basketball stories surrounding my book project, and a piece I wrote up regarding former college and professional basketball player Chris Herren who now tours and speaks about substance abuse and wellness for teens:

Tim Winn discusses playing point guard in the LaSalle basketball dynasty and beyond part one
Tim Winn discusses playing point guard in the LaSalle basketball dynasty and beyond part two
Jason Rowe discusses Buffalo Traditional Basketball, the Yale Cup, and State Tournaments
Buffalo Traditional’s Jason Rowe discusses his college and professional basketball careers and coaching
Lasting lessons basketball taught me: Reflections on basketball camp
Chris Herren discusses his journey, drug addiction, substance abuse and wellness

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Author: anwaryusef

Anwar Y. Dunbar is a Regulatory Scientist. Being a naturally curious person, he is also a student of all things. He earned his Ph.D. in Pharmacology from the University of Michigan and his Bachelor’s Degree in General Biology from Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU). Prior to starting the Big Words Blog Site, Anwar published and contributed to numerous research articles in competitive scientific journals reporting on his research from graduate school and postdoctoral years. After falling in love with writing, he contributed to the now defunct Examiner.com, and the Edvocate where he regularly wrote about: Education-related stories/topics, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), Financial Literacy; as well as conducted interviews with notable individuals such as actor and author Hill Harper. Having many influences, one of his most notable heroes is author, intellectual and speaker, Malcolm Gladwell, author of books including Outliers and David and Goliath. Anwar has his hands in many, many activities. In addition to writing, Anwar actively mentors youth, works to spread awareness of STEM careers, serves on the Board of Directors of the Friends of the David M. Brown Arlington Planetarium, serves as Treasurer for the JCSU Washington, DC Alumni Chapter, and is active in the Dave Ramsey Financial Peace Ministry at the Alfred Street Baptist Church. He also tutors in the subjects of biology, chemistry and physics. Along with his multi-talented older brother Amahl Dunbar (designer of the Big Words logos, inventor and a plethora of other things), Anwar is a “Fanboy” and really enjoys Science-Fiction and Superhero movies including but not restricted to Captain America Civil War, Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Prometheus. He is a proud native of Buffalo, NY.

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