“It was good to get away and decompress a little bit,” he said.
It had to feel strange, taking off in the middle of basketball season. After all, Giacoletti, 54, had been a coach for 32 seasons, an assistant at Washington (1994-97) and Gonzaga (2007-13) and a head man at North Dakota State, Eastern Washington, Utah and Drake. But now he was a free agent, having stepped down from the head coaching position at Drake early in December.
Drake did not go well. Giacoletti left the Zags after their 2013, No. 1-ranked season, having been thrown a lifeline in ’07 by an old friend, GU coach Mark Few. Now he would take one more shot in the captain’s chair.
He knew the pitfalls. Drake is an academically demanding school in the Missouri Valley Conference, one that used to be a respected name in college basketball; it went to the 1969 Final Four. But the Bulldogs have made one NCAA tournament since 1971. One.
Drake is in Des Moines, largest city in Iowa. But a state lightly populated (3.1 million) has vibrant basketball programs at Iowa, Iowa State and Northern Iowa.
Giacoletti got off to a 15-16 start, before the dark clouds circled. Drake then went 9-22 and 7-24. The Bulldogs weren’t athletic enough.
But there was a glint of hope. Giacoletti had recruited a Polish big man, seven-foot Dominik Olejniczak -- from Przemek Karnowski’s hometown of Torun. The freshman started the final nine games and averaged 10.3 points in that stretch. If Drake was going to be revived, Olejniczak would be the key force.
And then he was gone, transferred to Mississippi, the details of which Giacoletti doesn’t want to share publicly.
Drake finished eighth in the Great Alaska Shootout in November. Then it led DePaul by 15 midway through the second half Nov. 30, and lost. Three days later, after the Bulldogs dropped an overtime decision to Fresno State to fall to 1-7, Giacoletti met with Drake athletic director Sandy Hatfield-Clubb and said he’d had enough.
“She tried to talk me out of it for two days,” Giacoletti told me recently. “You hear people say it all the time: I just felt deep down in my gut, they needed a new voice for them to take another step.
“I honestly was going to probably finish the year and then retire. As long as that was in the back of my mind, it was, ‘We need to find a way to make it the best we can be and salvage it some way.’ ”
Hatfield-Clubb turned the job over to assistant coach Jeff Rutter on an interim basis, and the Bulldogs showed a spark in January, edging up to 5-4 in the MVC. But now they’ve lost six straight and the defeat to Evansville Tuesday night was Drake’s 20th.
What might Giacoletti have done differently? Find a way, he says, to have recruited more athleticism. He would have orchestrated more Skyping sessions with Olejniczak and his parents to keep them connected.
“I didn’t get it done,” he says. “It’s on me, it isn’t on anybody else.
“In these jobs, you need to get lucky with some things. It’s not for lack of effort or work. You’ve got to get fortunate. At Washington, we got lucky with Todd MacCulloch (the seven-foot Canadian who led the Huskies to two NCAA tournaments in 1998-99). Todd MacCulloch got us over the hump. That guy got you to another place.”
Giacoletti’s routine these days includes a morning workout, breakfast, and the realization that he doesn’t want to be done with basketball. So he’s targeted two possibilities: Broadcasting and scouting.
He has spent some time job-shadowing color analysts. When we talked, he had one such appointment lined up with ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla. He has a friend in NBA scouting, who advised him, “Go to every D-League game and write a report up.”
“That’s exactly what I’ve been doing for 32 years,” Giacoletti says. “But those are pretty good jobs. Those jobs don’t just open up.”
Perhaps some of Giacoletti’s influence at Gonzaga remains. He was in charge of defense in his six seasons, and during that time the Zags defended better, and now they’re at a top-five level nationally according to KenPom.com.
Giacoletti pondered the notion of Gonzaga having been No. 1 in 2013, then turned over the entire roster -- save for a freshman Karnowski who averaged a modest 11 minutes -- to become top-ranked again.
“It’s mind-boggling,” he said.