Catching up with Assistant Coach Tom Abatemarco

AndyBy Andy Hui

He is affectionately known as Coach T.  Head Coach Max Good calls him the Alphabet Man because his last name includes so many letters of the English alphabet.  Whatever nickname or moniker you place on him, LMU assistant coach Tom Abatemarco is no minor figure in college basketball.  In a professional coaching career that has spanned more than 40 years, Coach T is certainly one of only a few that can truly say, “Been there, done that.”

Abatemarco has had stints as a college head coach at Sacramento State, Lamar and Drake. He served as an assistant to coaching legends Lefty Driesell (Maryland), Lou Carnesecca (St. John’s), Rick Majerus (Utah), and Jim Valvano (North Carolina State).  Abatemarco also has had stops as an assistant coach at Dowling College (his alma mater), the New York Institute of Technology, Rutgers, Iona, Davidson, Virginia Tech, and Colorado.  At the pro level, he’s coached the WNBA’s Sacramento Monarchs and the Reno Bighorns of the NBA D-League.  Abatemarco has held several roles with the NBA’s Sacramento Kings including player development coach, scout, and broadcaster.

Coach T was on Valvano’s staff when the 1983 North Carolina State team won the national championship against the University of Houston, which had future NBA Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler.  The 1983 team was featured as part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series.

In his first year at LMU, Coach T has certainly made an immediate impact not only on the coaching staff and players, but also on the recruiting trail.  Abatemarco is known for his work ethic – arriving early to the office and staying late.  He often travels to nondescript gyms far and wide, where distant dreams abound but only a few become reality.  Abatemarco has an uncanny ability to spot talent before others take note, and he possesses a good-natured, caring personality that is essential to making a lasting impression and connecting with players.

9043591I caught up with Coach T and asked about Coach Valvano, the 1983 national championship, how his experiences over the last 40 years have shaped his career, and other things in between.

AH:  How long have you known Max Good and how did he convince you to come to LMU?

Coach T:  Everybody knows Max.  I’ve known Max for over 30 years for the great job he did at Maine Central Institute.  I recruited his prep school players and followed them at various tournaments.  When I was at Colorado, I saw Max a lot because I mostly recruited California.  Max and I go back a very, very long time and I have great respect for him.  He’s done a great job here at LMU and he is an excellent basketball tactician.

My role as an assistant coach changed at Colorado.  However, in my heart, I’m a recruiter. Max had an opening here and we talked about it.  With the kids that were coming in, I felt this was a good place for me.  When I met Myke Scholl, we hit it off right away and I knew the staff would have great chemistry.

AH:  What’s been the biggest surprise to you about LMU — basketball or otherwise?

Coach T:  My biggest surprise about LMU is the beauty of the whole place.  When we bring a local recruit on campus, they are shocked at the campus’ beauty.  Many of them had previously been to LMU for special events or to attend games.  However, that was the extent of their visit and impression of the school.  When we walk them around during their visit, they see other parts of the entire campus for the first time and they are usually blown away.  Everyone knows that LMU has a great tradition.  I think this place is a sleeping giant.  LMU’s location, academics, and the fact that we’ve won here in the past all point in the right direction.

AH:  Around this time of year, ESPN presents the annual Jimmy V Men’s Basketball Classic in support of The V Foundation for Cancer Research.  How important is the foundation to you?

Coach T:  I have to give credit to one particular person for carrying that torch and that is Dick Vitale.  Of course Coach V’s family is very important in the organization and I certainly do not to take anything away from them by recognizing Vitale.  Dick organizes an annual event in Sarasota, Florida that attracts more than 1,500 people a year.  You name any college coach in America and not just basketball, but at some point in their careers, they’ve attended the event.  All proceeds go to cancer research and they have raised millions of dollars over the years.  Dick has really carried the flag with ESPN.  This organization is important to me as I know the pain and suffering endured by families with loved ones stricken by cancer.  I lost my mother and some very close friends to cancer.

Here a link to this year’s event:  

AH:  At what point in the 1983 season, in which NC State won both the ACC and NCAA Tournament, did you know that that team was the “Team of Destiny?”

Coach T:  We had a veteran team with two great guards in Dereck Whittenburg and Sidney Lowe.  We didn’t have any superstars but that group of guys had great chemistry.  We only went 7 or 8 deep on the team and they all had a great love for Jimmy (Coach Valvano).  We knew we would be good, but Final Four and national championship caliber good?  No, we didn’t see that.  Jimmy did a great job developing the strategy of fouling at the end of games and the kids did a great job of coming together.  When we got sent out West in the NCAA tournament and beat teams in close games, we started to believe.  When we got to the Final Four, we faced Georgia in an ugly game by all accounts but survived.  I remember scouting the Louisville/Houston semi-final game, and it was a dunkfest.  I had doubts as to how we were going to beat Houston, but Jimmy put together a great game plan.  We caught fire at the right time.  Our staff meetings were a lot of fun and Jimmy kept all of us involved.

AH:  Coach Valvano is fondly remembered for running around the court looking for someone to hug after Lorenzo Charles slammed home Dereck Whittenburg’s air ball to win the national title as time expired.  Do you remember what you did at that moment?

Coach T:  As soon as the shot went in and time expired, I ran.  I ended up running with Thurl Bailey and Terry Gannon.  It was an unbelievable moment to win a game that way.  Both of my parents, who have since passed, were at the game and they both came down onto the court.  That was a special moment for me.

AH:  You are featured prominently in ESPN’s 30 for 30 episode on the 1983 NC State national basketball championship run sporting a full, well-groomed mustache.  How long has it been since you’ve had a mustache and does it have a chance of making a comeback?

Coach T:  I did have a long hair mustache.  I shaved it off when I became head coach at Lamar.  At NC State, Jimmy wouldn’t let me shave it off because people would say that we looked alike – two Italian guys with big noses – and he hated that.  We really didn’t but after hearing comments like that, he thought the mustache helped tell us apart.  The mustache is never coming back.NCState

AH: Of the legendary coaches you’ve worked for, who stands out as making the most impact on your career and in your life?

Coach T:  I’ve moved a lot in my career and people get on that because they don’t understand.  Every time I moved to another job, it was for a good reason.  I’ve been very blessed to work for four giants in the business.  From each of them, I’ve taken away something.  From Carnesseca, I learned about practice plans, man-to-man defense, and how to teach; from Valvano I learned game coaching as this was his forte; Driesell was such a hard worker and great recruiter; and Majerus was an unbelievable tactician who spent 4-5 hours a day planning for opponents.  But besides these giants, there are others who had a big influence on my life.  I still talk daily to John Kochan, who worked with me at Maryland and was the head coach at Division II Millersville University.  And Rick Barnes, who coached at Providence College, is also another one of the giants of the business who has influenced my life both personally and spiritually.

abatemarco_300_070711AH:  After being in the business for more than 40 years, how has college coaching changed?

Coach T:  The business has changed a lot.  When I first started, there were really no restrictions on recruiting and you could go out and recruit at any time.  There weren’t any AAU programs around so if you wanted to see a recruit over the summer, you could see him every day if you wanted.  I used to go to summer league games and a couple of evaluation camps.  You mainly dealt with the recruit’s high school coach.  Nowadays, it’s a different deal and AAU coaches play a major role.  In California, there are so many really good AAU programs.  California basketball has gotten better and better because kids are playing year round as a result of the availability of AAU opportunities.  What hasn’t changed is recruiting.  As a coach, you still have to find out who is helping to make those important decisions.  For example, is it the parents, the high school coach, or the AAU coach?

AH:  Do you ever tire of your chosen career?  Have you thought about doing something else?

Coach T:  No to both questions.  I want to win the national championship somewhere again.  I don’t know if I’ll get the opportunity.  I love to work and I enjoy what I do.

I have great energy.  If I’m in town, I try to work out twice a day.  After that, I love going to see high school games, recruiting, watching film, and going to practice.  People label me as a “recruiter” but I see myself as a well-rounded assistant coach.  So as long I’m healthy and I feel good, there’s no reason not to work.

With respect to college basketball staffs today, I think the biggest mistake is not having staff chemistry.  Our current staff has really good chemistry from Max to Myke, Senque (Carey) and Alex (Schilter).  We all get along well with each other.  There are no egos and we hash things out together.

AH:  How do you see your job at LMU?

Coach T:  The job of an assistant coach is to make a head coach great.  You work for him, but you can’t be a “yes” man.  I tell Coach Good what I think every day, then I shut up.  While you may not always agree with what a head coach does, you have to give your support.  This is no different than in any professional relationship in any walk of life.  My job is to help Coach Good win and the biggest thing I can do is to find him players.  I’ve been lucky enough and I have a knack for that.  When I am unable to do that, I’ll stop coaching.  The bottom line to a successful program is that your players graduate and do well in school, you have discipline, and you win games.

I think LMU is a winnable place.  The campus is magnificent, and it is a great school.  Everyone here has been very nice and welcoming.  We have a world class athletic director in Dr. Husak and the administration has been supportive.  We have everything here to win but it also takes a little bit of luck.  Unfortunately, we haven’t had the luck with the injuries we’ve sustained this year.

AH:  It is said that college recruiting is, at best, a crapshoot.  What is your recruiting philosophy and are there any secrets to landing a great player?  What is the secret to discovering the diamond in the rough?

Coach T:  You’re either able to do it or you aren’t.  It is a gift – part personality and part work ethic.  Player evaluation is important and it helps to make the right decisions.  You have to find guys, get lucky and not make too many mistakes.  Everybody has missed on players and certainly I’ve missed on players myself.  I believe I have a really good feel for who can play at this level.  Just as important, you have to know who you work for and bring in the right players to suit your coach’s philosophy, playing style, and team needs.  In this year’s class, I think we struck it rich and with the guys we have sitting out, we are looking up.

Where I think coaches make mistakes in the recruiting process is judging recruits on a limited number of games or watching them play the third, fourth or fifth game in a single day of an AAU tournament.  What we did at Colorado and what we did as a staff this year at LMU was to go back and review a recruit’s full body of work over a long period of time. Some kids get injured and fall off the recruiting trail.  That doesn’t mean they aren’t good players or can’t play.  So even if guys had bad games during official summer evaluation periods, we went back and watched them in September.  And that’s where I think other coaches miss on recruits.  What’s hard about that process is many schools don’t have the luxury of going back out to see a recruit outside of the official evaluation periods due to travel commitments, schedule conflicts, limited resources, etc.

AH:  Southern California is considered by many to be hotbed of talent.  How important is recruiting in your own backyard to a college basketball program?

Coach T:  Distance kills because a player’s family really wants to be able to see their son play.  There are so many good players right here in Southern California, and we want to get the best players.  What it comes down to is evaluating those players and finding the ones who best fit your program.

AH:  Describe a typical workday in the life of Coach T.

Coach T:  I get up early in the morning and take care of myself by working out.  I get in the office early and prepare for practice and games by watching film.  At LMU, we practice in the afternoon.  Because there are so many players in this area, this presents a tremendous opportunity to recruit in the early evening by attending high school practices and games.  The only problem with all this is the Southern California traffic.  Many times, I don’t get home until about 11 p.m.

As a college basketball coach, you have very limited hours of free time.  You are always working in some capacity, whether it’s recruiting, scouting an opponent, or getting ready for practice.  Lefty Driesell said to me that the harder you work, the luckier you get.  While working hard doesn’t ensure success, it positions you to be successful.

AH:  How does the WCC compare to other basketball conferences in which you have coached?

Coach T:  It is a very good basketball conference with great coaches and players.  There is more balance this year than in previous years.  The only challenge to this year is the number of consecutive games that teams must play at home or on the road.

AH:  Is there a difference in how basketball is played on the east coast compared to the west coast?

Coach T:  In my opinion, east coast basketball is more physical and defense-oriented, and teams tend to play a more deliberate offense.  Players on the west coast are very skilled and athletic.  On the west coast, there are high concentrations of great players in both southern California and northern California.

AH:  Looking back it all the jobs that you had, which one was the most fun and why?

Coach T:  I loved being at North Carolina State and competing in the Atlantic Coast Conference.  Every night was lights, camera, action.  There are several intense rivalry games with many of the schools less than an hour’s drive apart.  Every thing in those parts is about college basketball.  There is nothing like being at a place where basketball is important.

AH:  If you were to do one thing all over again and do it differently, what would that be?

Coach T:  Looking back, I left a good job as head coach at Lamar and made a lateral move to Drake, which I thought at the time was a bigger, higher profile job.  My first year at Lamar we won 15 games, and the next year we won 20.  It was a mistake to leave Lamar at that point.  I had my entire team coming back after we had just won 20 games.  That move hurt my career as a head coach.

AH:  It’s been unseasonably warm over the last two months.  Have you and your wife Maura lived in a place that’s warmer this time of year?

Coach T:  Well, I’ve lived in Sacramento but the weather is not like it is here in southern California.  This area –Westchester / Marina del Rey– is a magnificent place to live.  We really enjoy its diversity and there are so many things to do.

Editor Note: 

Coach Abatemarco has already had a significant impact in recruiting for LMU. He was instrumental in landing 6’5” wing Elijah Stewart, who was last week named a top 100 recruit in the nation by ESPN. 



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