One night about 10 years ago Lou Campanelli, then an assistant basketball coach at the University of Rhode Island, was sitting at a bar in Narragansett, R.I. literally crying in his beer. "Twelve years in this business and I can't even get an interview at Madison College," Campanelli said to Rhode Island Coach Tom Carmody and graduate assistant Mike Fratello between sniffles and sips. "Madison College!"
These days it's Campanelli who's making other coaches cry in their beers. Yes, he finally got that interview for the head coaching post at Madison College, now called James Madison University, in Harrisonburg, Va., and he got the job. Since then he has lifted the Dukes to national prominence. Through last season his record in six years of Division I competition at James Madison was 116-48 (.707), and his 10-year mark of 189-79 (.705) ranked him 15th among active major college coaches. At the end of last week, the Dukes were 3-1, with wins over VMI, Maine and Virginia Commonwealth (by an average margin of 13 points) and a loss to No. 1 Virginia, by 17.
Campanelli, who is in his 10th year, is known for getting the most out of limited talent. On paper, the Dukes shouldn't have beaten Georgetown, as they did 61-55 in the first round of the 1981 NCAAs, or have come within a basket of defeating eventual champion North Carolina, as they did in the second round of last year's tournament. "We're known as the guys nobody else wanted," says senior Guard Dave Dupont. "I guess there's some truth to that."
No wonder that the 44-year-old Campanelli has become the designated candidate for a lot of "big" coaching jobs as they open up. At various times in the past two years he has reportedly been headed to Georgia Tech, St. Bonaventure, UNC-Charlotte, Seton Hall, Duquesne, Boston College and Mississippi. In truth, he has been interviewed only at Tech and BC; he took himself out of consideration for the former position before a decision was made and had already decided to turn down the latter when it was offered to Gary Williams.
On the surface, Campanelli's New Jersey origins, Italian heritage and chalk-on-the-blackboard accent seem out of place at placid Madison, a former women's institution. But he feels right at home. "I kind of like it here," says Campanelli. "I've picked up some of the Southern expressions, but my friends from Jersey are all relieved that I still have my accent."
He also has his chutzpah. Ten years ago he was desperate for a head coaching job—even at Madison College—yet at the second interview in Harrisonburg he dickered with Athletic Director Dean Ehlers over salary. And won, getting $15,000 for the 1972-73 season instead of the proffered $13,000. His interviewers at Boston College were taken aback by the pointed questions—concerning team discipline, for example—he asked about their program. Consequently, the interview didn't go well, as even Campanelli admits. These days he uses that directness—as well as the considerable influence his winning percentage gives him—to lobby successfully with Madison's athletic hierarchy for such things as a coach's show on local TV. "Lou's strength is that he won't let the administration settle for second best," says John Thurston, his top assistant. "Lou doesn't want to understand everybody else's problems. That's not how he operates."
Campanelli can't help it if he has an air about him that makes him appear to be swaggering even when he's standing still. "I think a lot of people, particularly from the town, said, 'We're going to make this Northern immigrant get in line,' " says Brad Babcock, the Dukes' baseball coach. "Meanwhile, Lou was saying, 'I'm Lou Campanelli, and we're going to do it my way.' And pretty soon it was evident he knew what he was doing. So that shut a lot of people up."
But Campanelli has mellowed over the past few years. As Babcock says, "The difference now is that I can go talk to him after a loss without him throwing a book or a secretary at me."
Actually, when placed on the periodic table of Italian-American coaches—Rollie Massimino of Villanova, Lou Carnesecca of St. John's, Jim Valvano of North Carolina State, et al.—Campanelli always has been relatively inert. "Out of all of us, he was the quietest," says Massimino, Campanelli's mentor and closest friend. "I've thought of him as a very passive person, very laid back." Massimino says this even though he heard Campanelli break down and cry for two hours on the telephone after a loss in 1980 to St. Francis of Pennsylvania eliminated the Dukes from the ECAC South playoffs.
Massimino, who gave Campanelli his first job at Hillside (N.J.) High School in 1959, counseled him to take the Madison post even though, as Massimino says, "It was a very obscure position." But no more obscure than Campanelli himself. The job had already been offered and turned down twice.
Today, Campanelli has the strong support of Ehlers and school president Dr. Ronald E. Carrier. A Tennessee native and an unusually down-home sort for a college president, Carrier often accompanies Campanelli on recruiting trips and has proved to be particularly helpful on visits to the Appalachian area. "He understands that mountain talk," says Campanelli. "There are entire conversations going on between the parents, the kid and Dr. Carrier in which I don't understand a thing."
The days are over when the Dukes can be considered sleepers. Or when Campanelli can cry in his beer over a lack of recognition. He has a new 7,700-seat arena to play in and a new four-year contract that was negotiated last spring plus his own summer camp and weekly TV show. A delicatessen near the campus even named a sandwich after him: pastrami and corned beef with tomato, mayonnaise. Thousand Island dressing and melted cheddar cheese on rye. And he recalls with fondness the sunny spring day after last year's NCAA tournament when he got a spontaneous standing ovation from a few hundred students relaxing on the campus lawn.
Campanelli (right) feels one emotional coach—he, not Thurston—is enough.