Booster Blues

Courtside with a college basketball booster

By Andrew Santella
Chicago, October 1998

If you were one of the 3500 or so at a typical men's basketball game at Loyola University in the last two seasons, you might have witnessed this scene: A compact, 70-year-old man in a velour jogging suit making his way to his courtside seat before the game, beaming and waving, as one of his favorite Sinatra songs plays on the P.A. and a small contingent of Loyola students chants his name.

The man's name is Joe Gentile, but the ads for his northwest suburban car dealership call him the "Baron of Barrington" and his business cards identify him, in a nod to Sinatra, as "The Chairman of the Board."

His pre-game grand entrance owes as much to his generosity to Loyola as to his oversize personality. Gentile contributed $3.5 million, the largest of the gifts toward construction of the arena on Loyola's Rogers Park campus that opened in 1996, bearing his name. He has also contributed to St. Ignatius College Prep, whose gym is also named for him, and has led fundraising efforts for Villa Scalabrini, the Northlake home for the elderly affiliated with the Chicago archdiocese. Even at his car dealership, he is loath to let a customer get away without bestowing a wallet-size calendar or a stuffed Garfield doll.

"I like to give people a little something," Gentile says. "People love it when you give them gifts,"

They certainly loved Gentile's gift at Loyola. The Gentile Center gave Loyola a shiny new facility to show off to prospective student-athletes. Fans no longer had to squeeze into cramped bleachers at antique Alumni Gym, the Ramblers' former campus home. At the Gentile Center, season ticket holders for the first time sat in cushioned, theater-style seats. Most of all, though, the Gentile Center symbolized a men's basketball program slowly rebounding from a decade of losing. No wonder Loyola fans greeted Gentile so gleefully.

But that was before Loyola fired its men's basketball coach, Ken Burmeister, in April. In the wake of the dismissal, reports in the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times suggested that Gentile may have been behind the firing, though both he and university spokesmen denied it vehemently. (Gentile says he was "flabbergasted" when he heard of the firing.) However, he didn't hesitate to complain publicly about the low visibility of the Loyola's athletic program or to criticize the athletic department's marketing and promotions efforts. And he assured a sports-talk radio audience that he'd contacted one of Loyola's top recruits to urge him to remain committed to Loyola. Such contact between a booster and a recruit would violate NCAA rules. Even Loyola's student newspaper weighed in with an editorial wondering, "Who is Joe Gentile and why is he speaking for Loyola?"

Burmeister's dismissal, according to Loyola's athletic director, Chuck Schwarz, was part of the school's effort "to take the program to the next level." But with the peaceful obscurity of Loyola basketball shattered by public disagreement, the next level was looking like an awfully inhospitable place. And for Gentile's generosity, Loyola was paying the price of a small-scale public relations crisis.

In the local college hoops arms race developing over the last few years, DePaul, Northwestern and Illinois-Chicago have each in turn made a splash, hiring high-profile coaches and hatching ambitious plans for success. Loyola's turn came in May, when it hired Larry Farmer to replace Burmeister. Farmer was an assistant on a Rhode Island team that was one of the last eight standing in last year's NCAA tournament. He had also coached at UCLA from 1981 to 1984 and had captained their nearly unbeatable national championship teams of the early 1970s.

He comes to a basketball program that had been a lovable loser for the last decade. Loyola has avoided the embarrassments that have plagued other local basketball programs--the betting scandals, the alleged recruiting violations, the players lost to academic ineligibility. But they also nearly dropped off the college basketball radar screen, generating more losses than wins and precious little excitement, playing a relatively week schedule.

Now, Loyola appears to want to make the transition to college basketball's fast lane. "I want substantial achievement," says Loyola's president, the Rev. John J. Piderit, who attends most Loyola home games. For a model, Piderit looks to Stanford, where high academic standards have not hindered an athletic program that fields national contenders in a number of sports. "I think Larry Farmer has the appropriate vision on the level of teams we should be playing and the visibility our team should have across the country." Farmer senses urgency.

"Do I want to win the conference? Sure," he says. "Do I want to get back to the tournament? Who doesn't? Now I don't know when that's going to happen. But I've got a three-year contract, so let's assume that somewhere in those three years, the higher-ups are going to want to see me do that."

His predecessor made steady progress in his four years , but apparently not enough. Burmeister's dismissal surprised many, even in a world as notorious for low job security as college basketball. For one thing, the Ramblers finished 15-15 in 1998, posting the team's best record in ten years. For another, Burmeister had landed a pair of strong recruits, who, teamed with four returning starters, had Burmeister thinking that 1998-99 might be a breakout season for him and the Ramblers.

But Burmeister's Ramblers were never able to muster the kind of achievement that might have saved his job. They managed no attention-getting upsets. And in the Midwestern Collegiate Conference postseason tournament, Loyola's surest path to a lucrative NCAA tournament bid, the Ramblers were unable to win a single game in Burmeister's tenure. (Burmeister did not return phone calls seeking comment.)

Meanwhile, across town, Loyola's league rival, Illinois-Chicago, qualified for the NCAA tournament in just its second season under former Illinois assistant Jimmy Collins, stealing the local spotlight.

Gentile says he believed Burmeister would be given another year to produce results at Loyola. Still, in the days following Burmeister's dismissal, Gentile publicly volunteered candidates to fill the job, including former DePaul coach Joey Meyer, who later said he was not interested. Loyola also had to scramble to deny reports in the Chicago Sun-Times that Gentile had contacted Burmeister's top recruit, Fenwick's Chris Williams. Williams will study and play basketball at Loyola this fall.

Nothing seemed to bother Gentile more, however, than the editorial in Loyola's student newspaper that questioned his role in Loyola's athletic program. "I've become the villain, the hatchet man," he complained, dismayed and brandishing a copy of the paper days after it came out. "And I don't see anybody at the university defending me." But, in fact, Gentile himself continued to unload on an athletic department that he said was poorly run. "Loyola could be a bell cow in college basketball," he said. "If the program were run by the right people."

"Joe's a great booster, but I don't think he understands the constraints we work under," Schwarz replied.

Gentile grew up on Chicago's west side and went from Our Lady Help of Christians school to St. Ignatius to Loyola. He played football at St. Ignatius, but his playing days ended there. "I knew that, at 5-7 and 150 pounds, I didn't have a future in football," he says. He has remained involved with the school and he was friends with former St. Ignatius president, the Rev. Donald Rowe. "We planned the future of St. Ignatius in the back of my old Buick dealership in River Forest, in the 80s," Gentile remembers. Rowe resigned last spring, one day before the school's faculty were to take a vote of no confidence. One of the faculty's complaints was that Rowe had made too many concessions to wealthy alumni.

The walls of Gentile's dealership in Barrington are covered with his extensive collection of sports memorabilia and framed photos: Gentile with Ray Meyer, Gentile throwing out the first ball at Wrigley Field and Gentile with Frank Sinatra, a photo that is labeled "The Chairmen of the Board."

Piderit is philosophical about Gentile's public musings at Loyola's expense. "I think criticism makes us better," he says. But Piderit insists that Gentile has no special influence with Loyola. "He has suggestions and he presents them forcefully," says Piderit. "But he knows he doesn't always get his way."

If Gentile had his way, the Ramblers would be playing, and winning, in front of full houses at the gym that bears his name. "My intentions are good," says Gentile. "I want to see us build the prominence of the basketball program and I want to see our kids get great educations." But Farmer knows that enthusiastic boosters can sometimes create headaches. "There are so many NCAA rules and even people with the best intentions have to be aware of them," Farmer says. "An innocent gesture can wreck a program."

As Loyola showed off its pedigreed new coach to the media, one of Farmer's first stops was on Gentile's morning radio show, on WJJG, the west suburban radio station that he owns and whose call letters match his initials. ("It's Joseph John Gentile, get it?" he explains. "How many people do you know with a radio station named for them. It's a real Horatio Alger story.")

Gentile hosts the show, often in robe and pajamas, from a studio he built down the hall from his apartment in Villa Gentile, the 20-unit complex he owns in Berkeley. Gentile insists that he had no input in selecting Farmer, but once Farmer was hired, Gentile quickly got behind Loyola's choice. He invited Farmer and his wife to dinner and gave the coach his home phone number over the air.

Gentile remembers the night in 1963 when Loyola won its only national basketball title. "It was a three-cigar night, one of the most exciting nights in my life," he says. "I'll never forget it."

In the intervening thirty-five years, though, a lot has changed. Even as television has helped make the NCAA tournament a national spectacle, the college game struggled to find its footing in Chicago. Sometime in the late 1980s, Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls took over Chicago sports, forcing college basketball to the shadows. Now, with Jordan's career and the Bulls' dynasty apparently nearing their end, Chicago's college basketball programs seems poised to make their bid Sfor attention.

"College basketball in Chicago can come back and Loyola can be a part of it," says Gentile. "We've got the facility, we've got the support, now we need some attention. And we're sure getting it now."