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
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
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
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
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."