Editor’s note: “The Hometown Kid” originally ran on Center Field on Nov. 6, 2019. As part of the week leading up to Brian Giorgis’s final home game at McCann, Center Field is re-publishing the profile of the legendary head coach.
Portions of the story have been edited and updated for accuracy.
Brian Giorgis relaxed in a lawn chair at Marist College’s Gartland Athletic Field on top of a steep plateau that gives a birds-eye view of the softball field. The Hudson River acted as the backdrop while the Marist softball team played in the MAAC tournament on a gloomy and spring morning.
He saw the softball team play the day before and he would go to the second game they played later that day, and presumably, he saw them play the following day in their championship game.
He is there partially to support two-sport athlete Claire Oberdorf, who is the Red Foxes’ third baseman and a walk-on guard for his basketball team. Giorgis and head softball coach Joe Ausanio are friends, but more so, he just wants to watch the game.
He wanted to see Marist’s freshman-at-the-time ace pitcher Calista Phippen, whose earned run average ranked among the top in Division I softball. “She’s a hometown kid,” Giorgis pointed out about the pitcher from the Hudson Valley; an area in which Giorgis has coached and taught for 42 years.
Throughout the interview, he coached the game from the bleachers, giving advice like he was talking to a player in the game. He coached softball back in his high school teaching days before he accepted a job at Marist to be the head coach for the women’s basketball team.
He says with pride that his softball team had won the state championship in 1990. That was one of the six sports that he coached when he taught during his tenure at Our Lady of Lourdes High School. According to him, he was better at some sports than others.
“I actually knew nothing about tennis,” Giorgis said. “You hit the net? [I would say] ‘hit it higher.’”
Giorgis wore Marist apparel from his red sweatpants to a Marist baseball cap. He was attentive to the game while he answered questions — he can multitask. He only stopped the interview once because of the game, when Oberdorf got a hit that drove in a run — he had to join in on the home-crowd cheer.
The apathy of the student body toward their school sports teams drives the coach crazy.
“That’s an article by itself,” Giorgis said.
He pointed to the Marist men’s lacrosse team in their home NCAA Tournament game that previous Wednesday.
“It was packed and it was great,” Giorgis said, vehemently disappointed. “Then at halftime, everybody starts leaving. I get that it is the week before finals, but come on, support us.”
This is not the first time he has mentioned the lack of school spirit at Marist. In a press conference earlier this year, he talked about a dream of his where there was a crazy fan section for his games; he would instruct things for the leader of the section to start chanting when opposing players got the ball. But kids today do not consume sports the same way they used to, or at least not the way Giorgis does.
Giorgis’s love for sports is clear when talking to him, but it is unmistakable when seeing his house or office. In 1994, he was encouraged by a colleague, Bill Dankey, to pick up a hobby: baseball card collecting.
“Then four years later, he apologized because I get into things.” Giorgis said, “When I get into something, I get a little OCD.” Now, there is not a spot in his house, or his office, that is not covered with a framed autographed poster or some form of sports memorabilia.
In his office, he has a pair of framed news articles from the time he caught two foul balls, both clean catches during a game at Yankee Stadium in 2018. When he caught the second ball, he texted Marist Sports Information Director Harrison Baker about it. Baker then Tweeted a photo of the coach with the two balls. The coach then was interviewed by the Associated Press about it and it got picked up by multiple media outlets.
Surprisingly, Giorgis somehow found it in him to let go of one of the balls, giving it to a kid sitting in his section. He said it wasn’t hard because the kid was wearing a Cleveland jersey, which is also Giorgis’ favorite team. Deciding on which ball to give the kid was also an easy choice for him. One of the foul balls was hit by Edwin Encarnacion, a three-time all-star. The other was hit by Roberto Perez, a backup catcher with a career batting average of .208; the kid got Perez’s ball.
Giorgis’s intention was to stay a high school teacher and coach for his small catholic high school. He was content with his life and was not looking to advance his coaching career.
It took the perfect situation for him to leave it.
He had three high school players at Marist at the time when the school had a coaching vacancy. Knowing so many of the players on the team made the possibility more appealing to him. He had also taught Marist president Dennis Murray’s two kids and Marist athletic director Tim Murray’s wife. So the right two people were familiar with Giorgis’ coaching dominance, where he had a career 451-44 (.911 winning percentage) record with the girls’ basketball team. “They asked me to apply, so I did.”
But when he got the offer, he still didn’t jump at the opportunity right away.
“I’ll never forget I had a nun named Sister Louise, who was second in command,” he remembered. “She looked at my contract from Marist and said, ‘oh you got to take this, and if it doesn’t work out we will take you back. You’ve done everything you could have ever wanted here.’” That reassurance was what the coach needed to start the next chapter in his life. “I remember telling my players that I was leaving and just bawling like a baby.”
“It wasn’t about a new challenge, it was about coaching some of my kids, and seeing if I could do it.” Giorgis honestly had no idea if he could. “I just wanted to do it my way and showed that I cared, to be firm, but not be crazy. I have always been the type of person where I don’t like to be reactionary. If a player makes a mistake or misses a shot, boom, you take them out. I don’t want kids looking over their shoulder.”
Giorgis’s winning ways translated from high school to college — he won the MAAC tournament in his second season at Marist.
He is quick to credit the luck of finding his assistant, Megan Gebbia, to his success. Before his second season as Marist coach, Giorgis decided to go on a recruiting trip to watch the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) tournament. He says that tournament was the only one he had ever been to since. Giorgis, who says he is notoriously early to everything, was three hours early for his flight and saw Gebbia at his gate.
He recognized her because she recruited one of his high school players to come to the University of Maryland, Baltimore Country (UMBC). He mentioned that he was looking for an assistant and she expressed interest.
“She came in and she was my right-hand person for 10 years. Nine out of the 10 championships,” Giorgis said. “If I didn’t happen to turn around at that time who knows? Or get there that early, because her flight was early.”
Giorgis was eager to talk about how his assistants were able to support him through the team’s dynastic run. “You have to have people that buy into what you do, and Meg always wanted to learn motion and she was a believer in it. I’m a very big person of faith and I believe that God works in strange ways… that was one of the ways.”
Gebbia is now the head coach at Wake Forest University, one of his many assistants that have gone to head coaching jobs at Division I schools.
“The amount of people that have worked under him and then gone on to continue is a testament to how much he knows because he molds his assistants, and puts them in positions to be successful when they leave Marist,” said Elyse Schlump, the former director of basketball operations at Marist.
Like many former Marist assistants, Schlump now has a program of her own as she took the head job at Concordia University in Ann Arbor Michigan in the summer of 2022.
Over a 10-season span — from 2005 to 2014 — Marist was untouchable in the MAAC. It was a yearly shoo-in for the NCAA Tournament. The Red Foxes had won nine-straight conference titles, winning both the regular season and tournament titles in those years. The team had three undefeated seasons in conference play and two seasons where they had only one loss.
His teams also did damage in the NCAA tournament, winning five games in that span of six years. Most notably, in 2007 his team made it to the Sweet 16. It was the first MAAC basketball team in history to make it to that level. The team pulled back-to-back upsets against fourth-seeded Ohio State and fifth-seeded Middle Tennessee.
During the run, one of Giorgis’ coaching decisions helped Marist become the Cinderella story of 2007.
“He just decided not to guard their point guard, who was not much of an offensive threat,” Doughty recalled about the Ohio State game, “And double team their All-American [Jessica Davenport].”
The strategy worked as the Red Foxes limited Davenport to just 13 points for the game. In the following game against Middle Tennessee, they faced one of the best defenses in the country, known for their relentless press. Giorgis crafted a press break that ultimately forced the defense to stop pressing by the second half. “It was pass-pass-pass layup, pass-pass-pass layup,” Doughty said. “We were up 17 points in the second half, he made it look easy when I know it wasn’t.”
That March was a program-altering month.
“I was sitting in my office and they would bring in one reporter after another: Boston Globe, New York Times, New York Daily News, Washington Post, ESPN, to get a feature on us,” Giorgis remembers about the week in between their next game against Tennessee. “That was really wild.”
Giorgis is a lover of the X’s-and-O’s of the game. He loves specific basketball questions, that is when he is at his more comfortable place. He doesn’t watch much NBA; he cites James Harden iso-ball play as a reason why. He’s a purest.
Is Rebekah Hand the best shooter that you have ever coached? “No.” He talks about a player he coached in high school. “She’s not even the best shooter that I’ve coached at Marist,” he then adds. He can’t help but answer honestly with this genre of question. He cares too much about these things to give a cautious answer.
Then, almost as if his basketball brain turned off and his player-coach relationship brain turned on, he then adds that when Hand shoots an open three, he is surprised if she misses it. And that she is certainly the best free-throw shooter he’s ever coached.
Most coaches would have responded to a question like that “she’s definitely up there.” and then talk about how great Hand is. This coach answers the question with the same precision as Hand’s free throw shooting that led Division I basketball last season.
Giorgis expects his players to have close to the same knowledge about the opposing team that he does. “You have to know every single player on the opposing team and what their tendencies are,” Marist senior Grace Vander Weide said. “If they like going left, and you get beat left, you are in trouble. Each game is a [mental] test.”
“He is all about teaching, our team understanding why we do a certain thing, a certain way, detail-oriented,” Schlump said. “He uses a lot of positive reinforcement. But it all boils down to him being a teacher and a tactician. How he approaches every element of how he is coaching on the floor.”
As with all sports dynasties, Marist’s domination of the MAAC eventually ended. In 2013, Quinnipiac moved from the Northeastern Conference to the MAAC, and things quickly became more difficult for the Red Foxes.
“We’ve lost to other teams,” Giorgis pointed out about Quinnipiac coming into the conference.
Since the Bobcats moved into the conference, it has seemed that no team in the MAAC can topple Quinnipiac.
The Bobcats had captured four out of the last five MAAC titles— going undefeated in the conference three of those championship years. Quinnipiac’s rise has come at the expense of the Marist reign, with the Red Foxes’ being the runner-up to Quinnipiac in the MAAC tournament three times since their nine-title streak was broken in 2015.
Giorgis’s office walls are filled with memories that his teams have accomplished. Much like his home, there are also signed posters of his favorite childhood athletes, a gold medal from when he was an assistant coach at the world university games, framed newspaper clippings about his basketball team, and a collection of team photos from his 18 seasons coaching at Marist.
When asked at the softball game how close he ever was to leaving his job, he gave essentially the same answer he had given in his other profile stories in ESPN, The New York Times, and the New York Daily News.
“The grass is not always greener on the other side,” Giorgis said.
Seeing him work in his office, though, for just a few minutes, made it click. The proof that this is all he needs is on his walls. He has a spacious two-room office. Consumed with a large whiteboard already drawn up with names and plays for the next season.
He never envisioned any of this when he became a school teacher at a small catholic high school. He never sought to become a local celebrity, leading a mid-major program to heights that were never before achieved at this school. It all kind of just happened to him. He just loved to coach, has an impeccable work ethic, and has a unique eye for the game. He is far from complacent, but he is comfortable.
College basketball coaching is a profession where coaches will leave their job, often coldly, for the slightest of upgrades, but Giorgis describes himself as a creature of habit. He collects sports memorabilia, drinks Diet Coke every day— only from McDonald’s; he says that he claims to taste the difference—and thinks of ways that his team can win the MAAC and shock the world again.
“A lot of people at the time took it for granted… it’s not hard to do,” Giorgis said. “It was really special what we did winning nine in a row and 10 in 11 years.” He does not take winning the MAAC lightly, even when it seemed to not even be a challenge for him.
“Some see coaching at a higher level as a challenge, but from his perspective, he sees continued success here as a challenge,” Doughty said, “What he has done is not done at mid-majors. Some mid-majors have one championship, here and there. To sustain being on top of the conference has been the challenge. That’s why he sees this job as something that can keep challenging him.”
While giving a tour of his office, he shows a newspaper clipping and says the team was ranked 21st in the nation at the time. It actually said 22nd on the paper. When somebody jokingly corrected him, he shrugged and said, “I guess that shows how much I pay attention to these things.” He then takes a call. He is trying to schedule a seemingly tough non-conference game for next season.
He wants his team challenged; he is trying to get his next newspaper clipping.
Edited by Jonathan Kinane and Andrew Hard
Photo from Kira Crutcher