Words and numbers can describe and tell the story of the incredible success coach Gene Pingatore has had in his five-decade career.
But words can’t express how Pingatore went about it –– as a coach, as a leader and mentor and the impact he had on young kids, the St. Joseph community and high school basketball in Illinois.
The famed St. Joseph coach passed away Wednesday at the age of 83, just a few days after coaching the Chargers in the Riverside-Brookfield Shootout last weekend. Remarkably, he was set to begin his 51st season as head coach at the private school in Westchester,
Legendary can sometimes be thrown around a little loosely. There is no one who would ever question the word legendary and the name Pingatore being used together.
The state’s all-time winningest coach, Pingatore eclipsed 1,000 career wins in 2017 and finishes an illustrious 50-year career with a record of 1035-383. He won a pair of state championships, took six different teams to the state finals, won 13 sectional championships and averaged an incredible 21 wins a year over those five decades.
In addition, Pingatore was featured prominently in the highly-acclaimed documentary “Hoop Dreams” and coached iconic basketball star Isiah Thomas.
When Pingatore won a state championship in 1999 –– after 30 seasons and 624 wins without a title –– it was like adding the best chapter to an already best-selling book. Pingatore had finished second in 1978, third in 1987 and fourth in 1984. But the 1999 state championship was all that was left in what is now an unmatched high school basketball coaching résumé.
I asked him at that time, just as he was turning 63, if that would do it for him in coaching? Would he call it quits and consider stepping down after winning that elusive state championship?
“If I was in this just for the winning, just for attaining a certain level of success, yeah, maybe I would consider it,” Pingatore said then of the possibility of stepping down. “But I’m in this to help kids, as I hope and think all coaches are. I want to continue helping kids prepare for life. As long as I’m enjoying it and I feel as if I’m helping these kids in some way, I’ll keep coaching.”
Brandon Watkins, a star guard on that state championship team and current assistant coach at Northern Illinois, has watched Pingatore live by those words. Watkins played under Pingatore, coached under him and has maintained a close relationship with him through his own playing and coaching career. Watkins considers Pingatore family.
“He was a father-figure to me and a great human being,” says Watkins. “He deeply cared about every single one of those kids that came through those doors at St. Joe’s. And he cared about kids when they went home and always made sure they were taken care of.
“He had the biggest heart and went above and beyond for kids and his players. I saw that drive and will he had to help kids and that inspired me in my career.”
Akeem Miskdeen, who played at St. Joseph from 2001-2004, says “Ping is the reason I’m a coach.” Miskdeen is an up-and-coming Division I assistant at Florida Atlantic. He hugged his former coach this past weekend at Riverside-Brookfield as he was there evaluating high school players and watching the Chargers.
“He would give the shirt off his back to help you,” says Miskdeen. “He knew what was going on in the lives of every player. He showed concern for you and your family. He was one of a kind.”
When Pingatore won that state title in 1999, no one could have imagined he would continue for another 20 years. He even added another state championship just four years ago. As the record numbers piled up they started to look like typographical errors in the coaching profession.
But there was a consistency with Pingatore as a coach, both in the success and in how he did it. Discipline was imperative. Miskdeen saw that discipline since he was a 13-year-old kid entering St. Joe’s and saw it right up to this past weekend. But the key to success went beyond discipline, says Miskdeen, who calls Pingatore a “perfectionist in everything he did.”
Miskdeen thinks back to his playing days at St. Joseph and remembers having to set up for bingo night after each Wednesday practice. He and his teammates soon realized even that had to be done a certain way under Pingatore’s watchful eye.
“Coach Ping took that bingo set up as seriously as he did basketball,” recalls Miskdeen. “Every single thing had to be set up perfectly. He wanted everything done the right way. That perfection gave you discipline.”
There was a demand for total effort and commitment from his players. He preached the coaching clichés of “hard work, dedication and accepting roles” but there was follow through.
“As a coach, you have to convince every player from 1 to 15, to accept their role,” Pingatore would often say when talking about his teams and success.
Perhaps there was no better example of that then the first state championship team he coached in 1999. There were plenty of other more talented St. Joseph teams in his first 30 years of coaching that didn’t win a state title. That 1998-1999 team wasn’t even picked to win the East Suburban Catholic Conference that season.
Following the state championship run, I remember Pingatore singling out not the stars of that team –– Watkins, Jabari Mattox and Jon Brown –– but two players off the bench, Keith Perry and Damien McIntosh. They were two seniors probably good enough to start on many others teams, yet accepted the fact they would be coming off the bench for Pingatore.
“If those two kids didn’t accept their roles, who knows if we are even playing in Peoria,” Pingatore pointed out at the time. “They could have been major distractions in practice every day for us, but they accepted their roles.”
Added Watkins, “He really made every player believe their roles were important and made them believe that without them the bus wouldn’t go.”
That right there is quintessential “Ping,” highlighting the little things that made such a big impact. He was the master coaching psychologist, constantly pushing the right buttons. But he also was a purest and kept things simplistic as a coach.
“He was simple in what he did as a coach, but his team executed it and were as fundamentally sound as anyone, year in and year out,” says St. Patrick coach Mike Bailey, who coached against Pingatore for years in the East Suburban Catholic Conference.
When St. Joseph made the move to the Chicago Catholic League in 2011 after playing in the ESCC for decades, there was an instant appeal with the addition of a coaching legend and his renowned program.
“When we added St. Joe’s and coach Ping it immediately elevated the level of play and the respect of our league,” says Loyola Academy coach Tom Livatino. “There was always an aura around coach Ping. But he was amazingly gracious, giving, warm and loved talking about you as a person. He had very little ego, a mentor for so many and treated everyone so well.”
How Pingatore treated people, including his coaching colleagues, stood out to everyone who knew him. He would reach out and provide any help he could to young coaches. He provided a coaching gift, sharing guidance and knowledge while being easily approachable.
Today, as the head coach at DePaul Prep, Tom Kleinschmidt marvels at the continued respect and graciousness Pingatore showed throughout his career.
“What’s remarkable is that with how much success he had as a coach, he would be the one to reach out to a young coach to see if he could help you or help your program,” says Kleinschmidt, who as a star player at Gordon Tech knocked off Pingatore’s St. Joseph team in a 1990 sectional championship game. “He respected the profession of coaching so much. He mastered what he did and remained so humble.”
When Bailey took over as the Dundee-Crown coach in the 1980s, Pingatore asked if there was any way he could help Bailey. So St. Joseph, a state and national power, offered to come out to Carpentersville and play the little-known basketball team to help bring attention and prop up the program, Bailey says.
“He always took time for everyone and mentored the young coaches,” says Bailey. “He was so humble and always had time for everyone.”
The success speaks for itself. The outlandish win totals, accomplishments and records are ones that will stand the test of time. But the impact he’s had on kids and coaches alike is undeniable. Few coaches have been more influential on players, coaches and the sport itself. It’s a legacy few coaches will come close to touching.
“He was one of a kind and there will never be another one like him,” says Livatino.