A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Daring To Dream

Bay Area basketball fans remember Lou Campanelli as the coach who took over the moribund Cal men's basketball program in 1986 and restored it to the kind of glory it hadn't known since the legendary Pete Newell era of the late 1950s, leading the Bears to their first NCAA tournament in 30 years.
For instance, Cal hadn't beaten UCLA for 26 straight years, but he beat the mighty Bruins his first time out. And the last time he played them, he handed them their worst home defeat ever.
But what I didn't know until now is that there was an even more fascinating chapter in his life before he came to Cal. And it's all detailed in his new memoir, Dare To Dream: How James Madison University Became Coed And Shocked The World, which he wrote with longtime local sportswriter Dave Newhouse.
Of course, it wasn't called James Madison University back then. It was Madison College, a tiny girl's school in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley.
But its president, Ronald Carrier, whom Campanelli calls "the greatest college president in history," had a better idea. He  changed "College" to "University" and doubled the student body by admitting men.
But to attract the kind of faculty and money he needed to make JMU a first-class teaching and research university, he needed something to put the school on the map. And that something was basketball.
So he took a chance on a smart, young, ambitious, fast-talking, but as yet untested coach from New Jersey named Lou Campanelli. It was a real culture shock. Carrier even had to teach him how to speak "Mountain Talk" to convince local parents to let them coach their children.
The only players who would consider James Madison were the ones nobody else wanted. But within five years Campanelli took them to three straight NCAA tournaments, knocking off powerhouses like Georgetown, Ohio State and West Virginia along the way.
But the game that really put JMU on the map was a last-minute 2-point loss to one of the greatest teams of all time, the 1982 North Carolina squad that starred James Worthy, Sam Perkins, and some guy named Jordan.
And how many of his players graduated on time with their class? All but one, and that guy came back later and got his degree, too.
"I'm prouder of that than of all the victories combined," he told me. "I told their parents, 'I can't promise you he'll play in the NBA some day, but I can promise you he'll get his degree.'"
And it worked. Within a few years, U.S. News & World Report was ranking JMU as one of the Top 10 Regional Colleges, and there it has remained ever since.
Dare To Dream can be enjoyed on many levels. One one hand, it's a thrilling David vs. Goliath story that makes "Hoosiers" look about as exciting as a TV test pattern. On the other, it's a fascinating insight for hardcore hoops buffs into how the game is really played. It's sure to become required reading for all young aspiring coaches.
Campanelli and Newhouse will appear at Barnes & Noble in Dublin at 2 p.m. on May 15 and at the Emeryville store at 7 p.m. on May 19. He may have been a great coach, but he's an even better storyteller.

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