Newsday: Jack Agostino

March 12, 2004

Newsday logo

Title: Coach, confidant & pal; Agostino may not be top tactical guy around, but caring personality and his ability to relate to kids make him No. 1
Publication: Newsday – Long Island, N.Y.
Date: Mar 12, 2004
Start Page: A.78
Section: SPORTS
Text Word Count: 1403

It is the day before a playoff game and Jack Agostino is pacing the gym with precision, pushing a wide brush along the grainy wooden floor as he goes. Watching over this ritual are championship banners that hang proudly from institutional white walls.

Sometimes Agostino, Amityville’s boys basketball coach, enlists a player to do the chore. More often than not, the coach sweeps the court in the quiet time before each practice. A clean gym is the foundation to a productive workout. And Agostino believes games are won – he’s lost infrequently – at these afternoon sweat sessions.

“Really, the work is done at practice,” Agostino said. “You don’t have to over-coach. If you prepare them, they’ll perform.”

Janitor is just one of the roles Agostino plays. He is a trainer, scout, teacher, disciplinarian, counselor and mentor to the teenagers who fill the Amityville gym.

After 17 seasons at the helm, Agostino is more than just the coach of Suffolk’s most successful basketball program. He is the caretaker of a dynasty that won its first Suffolk title in 1932 and was a perennial league champion long before he arrived.

Town of winners

The Warriors (19-4) continue their quest for an unprecedented fifth straight state championship at 7:30 tonight at SUNY-Old Westbury. After dominating the Class B ranks the previous four seasons, Amityville will play Nassau champion South Side in the Class A Southeast Regional final/Long Island championship. And while Amityville has climbed to great heights during this terrific run, winning basketball is nothing new for this South Shore town.

“We breed athletes,” said Detroit Pistons guard Mike James, a 1993 graduate. “Growing up in Amityville, we basically called it the suburban ghetto. You don’t have many options. You either play sports or you get in trouble.”

The kids who grew up on the courts at Bowden Mack Park in North Amityville know the game. What this basketball- rich town needed was something more than a brilliant tactician.

Enter Agostino. Before he began coaching, he taught special education students – and still does. It’s a job that demands patience and understanding. Those interpersonal skills serve him well at the end of the bench.

“Anything I can’t talk to my parents about, I can go to him,” Connecticut-bound guard A.J. Price said. “He’s like a second father.”

So much so that the phone calls come at all hours. Agostino, 41, and Debbie, his wife of 18 years, live in Centereach and have four children.

Joseph, 13, Jenna, 10, Julia, 7, and Jonathan, 4, each plays basketball. But the Agostinos have an extended family that dates to the 1987-88 season. That is when coach Fred Williams died unexpectedly on the eve of the season and the school turned to an unproven junior varsity football coach to fill the void after others turned the job down.

Lifetime relationships

“The relationship he takes on with his players – I joke that I have eight kids,” Debbie Agostino said. “They’re always calling. Mike James still calls. I think most people come home and that’s where the job ends. I have Jason Fraser calling at 11:30 at night.

“He’s so good to these kids. He’s always there if they need help. Sometimes you wonder, do people really appreciate what he does? They really have no clue what he does with these kids. It’s about relationships.”

Perhaps that’s because the coach is a bit of a chameleon. The exterior Agostino presents is of a man who enjoys the trappings of success. His blazers have “Suffolk Coach of the Year” inscribed over the breast pocket. The program has a contract with Nike that nets free warmups and shoes. The clippings of big games fill the walls of his modest office, fighting for space among catchphrases such as “Tradition Never Graduates.” Rick Pitino and Mike Jarvis have been regulars on the other side of his desk in recent seasons.

But that exterior is all just show. The real Agostino, a former three-sport athlete at Centereach who moved on to play basketball at St. Joseph’s (L.I.), readily admits he is not Long Island’s best game coach. So he’s a regular at clinics. And he’s constantly adding tricks of the trade he’s gleaned at the Five Star or adidas camps to his repertoire.

“The good thing about Jack Agostino is, despite his success, he’s worked to become a better X’s-and-O’s coach,” Long Island basketball historian George Davila said. “He’s not the greatest tactician and he knows it. But he tries to improve himself. I see him working to get better.”
Not that there’s all that much room for improvement. Agostino owns a 315-77 record, good for a .803 winning percentage. His teams have won 14 league, nine Suffolk, six Long Island, four state public schools and two state Federation championships. The Warriors have been unstoppable in their own county, ticking off 76 wins in a row against Suffolk schools.

Creating a family

The side of Agostino players see is one who tries to make practice an enjoyable experience rather than some burdensome task. He is an inviting figure who connects with promising third-graders, grooming them to be part of the program in a very few years. Mostly, he brings a level of patience and understanding to inspire players, some of whom don’t have many adult influences.

“He brings unity,” said Al Lorenzano, a volunteer assistant coach who grew up in town. “When one kid goes through something, the whole team does. It’s a family. He bonds with the kids. The kids respect Jack. He brings out the best in the kids.”

Just look at two gems whom he molded into NCAA Division I players. Point guard Tristan Smith and the 6-10 Fraser grew up not far from each other in North Amityville. Their families didn’t have much. But when it came to basketball, there was nothing they didn’t have.

Agostino shepherded them athletically and academically and was a key figure in the recruiting process. Each won state titles and earned Suffolk player of the year awards. Smith moved on to St. John’s before transferring at the end of last season to St. Francis (N.Y.). Fraser became a McDonald’s All-American in 2002 and toyed with jumping straight to the NBA before deciding to attend Villanova.
Agostino had their futures mapped out at an early age.

“Coach Agostino does a good job of getting them young,” said former All-Long Island pick Oliver Hinckson, now a teacher in Orlando. “He lets kids from elementary school see the team. I remember Jason and Tristan coming to games. They saw that and they understood. That’s why Amityville is so good. The players understand what it takes.”

Maybe Amityville’s assembly line of Division I prospects will dry up someday. Maybe players will grow tired of putting in the extra hours needed to be a winner. But so long as Agostino remains coach, inspiration is only a quick sweep of the gym away.

“I always tell them, ‘It’s a privilege to play,'” Agostino said. ‘”That basketball is going to bounce with or without you.'”