When you walk into the wrestling room at Huntington High School at first it seems no different than any other wrestling room on Long Island. You notice the pungent smell of the bleach they use to clean the mats. You hear the slapping of jump ropes against the padded floor. You hear the grunts of young men nearing exhaustion. You feel the sweltering heat. You see the weight by weight depth chart written on the wall. You see the photos of former wrestlers scattered about, and as long as you donít notice that 23 of the captions read ďState ChampionĒ they look like the types of photos you see in most wrestling rooms. You see the motivational poster of Doug Blubaugh pinning his opponent to win the 1960 Olympic Gold medal, and as long as you donít get close enough to see the autograph and the note, as long as you donít realize that the man leading this practice was actually competing at those 1960 Olympics, it looks like any other wrestling poster in any other wrestling room. You look around the gym and it appears no different than countless other wrestling rooms. But then you see Lou Giani, and you know that this is not any other wrestling room.
Lou Giani has coached at Huntington High School for 35 years. In 35 years he has lost a total of NINE league dual meets. (While winning 217) His overall record coming into this season stood at 413-30-1. He has coached more New York state champions (23) and more All-State wrestlers (49) than anyone in history. He has won 9 Suffolk County team championships and has coached a record 59 individual County Champions. Former wrestlers of Gianiís have won 6 college level National Championships and countless others have earned All-American honors.
In spite of his success as a coach, or perhaps because of it, Gianiís own accomplishments as a wrestler are too often overlooked. The first County Champion in Huntington High School history was Lou Giani himself, in 1953. Giani was a 10 time NYAC champion and a 10 time Senior Metropolitan Champion. He was an All-American in both Freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling; he was a 2 time YMCA National Champion. He won a Gold Medal at the 1959 Pan-Am Games. Lou Giani represented the United States at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome.
Lou Giani is a member of the Suffolk County Sports Hall of Fame and the New York State Wrestling Hall of Fame. In 2003, Lou Giani was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma as a Distinguished Member. Coach Giani recently discussed his remarkable career with Bill Faxon, exclusively for the Long Island Wrestling Association.
LIWA: How are the kids today different than the kids when you started coaching?
Giani: I donít see a difference. Kids are kids.
LIWA: How about wrestling on Long Island? How does the quality today compare to the past?
Giani: I think weíre doing great, I think Long Island wrestling is in great shape. I go to the NCAAs every year, I go all over the place, and weíre doing well. Weíve improved tremendously, we really have, and we were good to start with.
I think weíve lost kids; we donít have as many kids in the sport. I look in the paper and I see forfeits. I look at our own team, weíve got 31 kids on the roster and with injuries maybe we have 24 or 25 in the room. So the numbers are down, but the top wrestlers are better than ever.
LIWA: Whatís your biggest strength as a coach?
Giani: Liking what Iím doing.
LIWA: What do you think you do differently than other coaches?
Giani: I donít really know. I train kids the way I train kids. I teach what I did during the years I was a competitor, not necessarily as far as technique, but the way that I trained, the way I got myself in shape, got myself ready to wrestle. I still do the same things Iíve always done.
LIWA: Is there anything that you do differently? An area where even you had to change?
Giani: I am easier now than I used to be, I think you have to be easier today. Our society is not the same way that it was even 10 years ago. If we pushed the kids as hard as we did 10 years ago weíd have 5 kids on the team. We have the same goals that weíve always had, but we have to try and reach our goals in different ways. We still have to get the work done; it just might take longer to do it. What I used to get done in the first 10 days of practice, now it takes a month to get done.
LIWA: Whatís the most rewarding part?
Giani: Seeing a kid go to college is the most rewarding part. Like seeing Jack Sullivan go to the University of Pennsylvania. Seeing Dawid Rechul and Paul Widerman go to Harvard. Seeing Shawn Riley starting at Nassau Community last year. Heís not there now, but he might go back, and now heís been to college and he knows what he has to do to get back. Weíve opened a lot of doors for a lot of kids, and thatís rewarding to me.
I wish I had a coach that made me go to college right away. I didnít go to college until I was almost 40 years old. Thatís one of my big things, to try to make a kid see the light, to go to school. This is the way to go; this is the path to take.
LIWA: In 2001 you won the County Championship as a team, but you didnít have any state champs. The following year you didnít win the County Championship, but you had 3 individuals crowned as state champs. Whatís better, a County Title or 3 state champs?
Giani: It doesnít really matter to me. Winning the counties, winning the leagues, being undefeated, itís icing on the cake. Whatís important to me is having a kid in this room and getting the most out of him that I can. If all a kid is capable of is a .500 season, thatís all he has, but if I can get it out of him, if he accomplishes it, thatís great. Yeah, weíve been lucky and weíve gotten our championships, but I donít think theyíve been that important to us. Itís about getting everything out of a kid that heís capable of.
LIWA: In 2003 you were inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, along with Kevin Jackson, Nate Carr and Bucky Maughan. Tell us about that.
Giani: It was super, it was unbelievable. It was something that I never thought I would get. It was something that I didnít really think about in the beginning, but as the years went by and I saw all of the people that were getting in, I started to get excited about the possibility. It was really special.
LIWA: You were on the Olympic team with Gray Simons and Doug Blubaugh, both of whom went on to become successful college coaches. For all of your success at the high school level, did you ever consider making the move to college?
Giani: I did think about it a while back. It was the year I had 8 County Champions. Syracuse had talked to me about going up there. I probably could have dragged all of those kids with me. I thought about it and thought about it, and I realized that I just wasnít that interested in doing it.
I like coaching high school kids; I didnít want to have to recruit kids. I didnít want to have to go into homes and sell my program. Iíd rather just say, whoever I have in the room, thatís who Iím going to coach.
LIWA: One of the more talked about Suffolk County finals was in 1986 when your wrestler, Drew Jackson, beat Derek Brophy, who would win Junior Nationals that summer and go on to a successful career at Lehigh. What do you remember about that match?
Giani: What I remember most is that whole group of kids. Jackson, McNeil, Hawkrigg, they were just such a tough group of kids, how could I forget them? That was a super intense group.
LIWA: You mentioned Dawid Rechul earlier. He had a great college career, he was an NCAA Division I All-American at Harvard and went on to a lot of success in freestyle. But in high school, going into the state tourney his senior year, he was a prohibitive underdog against Dan Stine who was ranked among the top wrestlers in the nation. Rechul beat Stine in the semifinals and went on to win the state championship. What are your memories of Rechul and that season?
Giani: A hard trainer, a hard worker. But you know what? Theyíre all hard workers, at least all of our champions. We never had a state champion that didnít work extremely hard in this room. The thing about Dawid is that he was such a bright kid; you could really work with him.
We had gone out a few months before the states to watch Stine when Queensbury wrestled Blair Academy. We took film of Stine, and we came back and broke it down, it actually took me a while to figure out exactly what we wanted to do. But Rechul was so bright, he understood what we wanted him to do to crack that kid, and he executed it.
LIWA: Pat Flynn might have been the most prolific wrestler in Huntington history, at least as far as high school. He won 2 state titles and made 3 state finals. He started out great at Hofstra, beating Nick Simmons (currently ranked #4 in the NCAA) as a true freshman, but things went south soon after. What made Flynn so successful, and what are your thoughts on his college career?
Giani: He was so talented; he was just flat out tough. He was a great kid to coach. He is up at Brockport now and doing well after a stop at Nassau where he also did well. As far as his time at Hofstra, some people dropped the ball. What I can tell you is that when Flynn was here, he always went to class. He was never suspended, not once. He never got a single referral in three years.
LIWA: Steve Palacios was in one nail biter after another for you. Overtime in the county finals with McCoy, the matches against Manarte and Sebastopoli, Overtime in the state finals. He was always in these grueling matches, but he always won. How about coaching a guy that always has you on the seat of your pants?
Giani: He was an intense, tough kid. But he didnít give me any grey hairs; I always thought he was going to win. It was the same with Paul Widerman. I remember he was so nervous before the states, and I just told him, ďDonítí worry about it, youíre going to win easy.Ē I figured that we did everything right, so weíd really have to screw up to lose.
LIWA: What about when youíre not as confident that theyíre going to win? One of the few, if not only, Huntington wrestlers to get pinned in the county finals was Greg Depasquale when he faced Jesse Jantzen. What do you tell a kid when you know that winning is a very long shot?
Giani: Let me tell you something, Depasquale was in that weight because we knew that he could get a Second Place. He knew it. We felt, and he felt, that he probably couldnít win the whole thing anyway, so go Jesse Jantzenís weight where you have the best chance of making the finals. Depasquale had already achieved his and our goal before he stepped on the mat against Jantzen. So just go out and wrestle.
LIWA: How did things change for the program once you started having wrestlers succeed at the next level? Willie and Charles Gadson both took Third in the NCAA Tourney for Iowa State back in the mid 1970s and more Huntington wrestlers followed. Did the success of the Huntington alumni have an impact on your program at the high school level?
Giani: You know what; Iíve never had more than 35 kids in this room. Most kids donít want to work as hard as I want them to work. Having those guys succeed in college helped, but it didnít get us any more guys in the room. The kids in this room worked hard, they were motivated because of what the Gadsons were doing.
LIWA: You mention not having a lot of bodies in the room, Huntington is a small school by Long Island standards. Do you ever think about what you could have done with a student body the size of Sachem or Longwood?
Giani: I donít like comparing myself to other people. They have good coaches at both of those schools, and I never wanted to be anywhere other than Huntington. I wanted to give back to the school and the town that supported me all through my career, that really helped me when I made the Olympics.
If I was going to be anywhere other than Huntington, I would have been upstate. I like upstate, I like the rural areas. I think upstate is great for wrestling, you have these tough farm kids, and you have these communities that are into wrestling. I believe that Norwich High School can be developed into a super team. Bainbridge-Guilford is a good program, that kid that took over BGA has done a great job; he showed that you can do it there. Unadilla Valley is a good program and a nice area. Section IV is just humming, I canít believe how much work theyíve done up there. But I never wanted to be anywhere other than Huntington.
LIWA: Youíve had a lot of your former wrestlers become very successful coaches, Mike Picozzi at Longwood being the most prominent example but there are many others across the state. Is this something you take pride in?
Giani: Oh yeah, absolutely. Seeing a kid of mine go out and coach is like winning a medal.
LIWA: Whoís the best wrestler you ever coached?
Giani: I canít pick, itís impossible.
LIWA: How about the best wrestler you coached against?
Giani: Again, the kid that stands out to me is Stine, the guy that wrestled Rechul. Stine was a tough wrestler. The kid that my assistant Kieran Mock beat in the state finals was a heck of a wrestler. He had this dump that was tremendous. My son was my assistant at the time, and we scouted the kid and we worked on stopping that dump for a month.
LIWA: For all of your County and State titles, you had a 10 year span from the late 80s to the late 90s where Huntington didnít win the County Championship, and you ďonlyĒ had 2 state champs in a decade, low by the lofty standard that you reached before and after. Was it that the County, particularly the League I schools, were so good or did you not have the wrestlers?
Giani: I donít think we had the guys here. Itís similar to this season. We graduated all of our personnel and then we lost 2 fairly good kids that could put us in the mix. I look it at the same way for some of those years, there were a lot of good teams and we werenít always competitive, youíre not always going to have the personnel.
LIWA: Who are the other coaches on the Island, that when one of your kids are facing one of their kids, that you know itís going to be tough? That you know the other kid is going to be ready?
Giani: That itís going to be a battle? Islip is like that with Patrovich. Picozziís teams are always like that. Jack Mahoneyís teams were like that. Kelskey when he was at Patchogue. Joe Campo when he was around, Jack Stanbro at Lindenhurst.
LIWA: You obviously come from a very strong freestyle background, having wrestled in the Olympics. But it doesnít appear that a lot of Huntington wrestlers are doing freestyle in the off-season. Is freestyle something you stress?
Giani: I donít stress it that much. I like the idea of them learning freestyle, basically just because of the hips. You use your hips a lot in freestyle, and wrestling is hips. We do some freestyle, but we get off it pretty quickly and go back to folkstyle. The kids went on their own to probably 3 or 4 freestyle events last summer.
LIWA: The Long Island Challenge was held recently, many of the top programs on the Island were involved, Huntington was not. Itís been a long standing Huntington philosophy not to face the other top Long Island teams during the regular season. Can you explain why?
Giani: My philosophy is that there are only so many times that you can beat an opponent thatís pretty close in ability to you. Sooner or later heís going to get you. If a guy has a shot at you, the more he faces you the more of a shot he has.
LIWA: Couldnít that also happen when you go upstate? Jack Sullivan, for example, had beaten Jon Jones a few times before losing in last yearís state final.
Giani: We shouldnít have gone there; we shouldnít have wrestled Jones during the year. That was a mistake.
I thought that Sullivan was so much better than him that it wasnít going to matter. That was a mistake, we shouldnít have done that. I do think that Sullivan wrestled well enough in the state finals to win, that if a call or two goes his way he would have won that match.
LIWA: Is it hard to see a kid like Sullivan come so close to state title but just come up short?
Giani: I feel terrible about that. I still do. If he lost to Jones decisively I could live with it. But it was so close, and like I said, a couple of important calls didnít go our way. Itís tough to deal with.
LIWA: New York recently moved away from a single State Champion to a Two Division system. As someone who has coached more state champs than anyone else, what are your thoughts on the new system?
Giani: Why did we have to fix something that wasnít broken? It was a special tournament; there are only 3 others like it in the country. We tried to fix something that wasnít broken, and it was a mistake. If you want to do something, put more kids in the tournament. Make the tournament bigger and better. Why break it up?
I think youíre going to have college coaches not looking at much anymore. I think the original thought was to get more kids involved, and thatís a good idea. But they screwed it up. And I donít think theyíre going back, now all of those small upstate schools like getting their medals. I think weíre stuck with it.
What we need is to get more kids in, and to spruce up the tournament. We need to liven it up. Getting it to Albany and out of that little War Memorial was a good move. I think the Nassau Coliseum will be great, but I donít think it will ever happen again after this year, those upstaters arenít going to want to cross all of those bridges.
LIWA: After all of these years, after all of these accomplishments, do you still enjoy it?
Giani: I do, I really do. As much as ever. Thereís so much more to do, outside of coaching, more paperwork, and that part of it I donít like. But coaching kids, working with kids, making a difference, opening doors, thatís still fun to me.
Thatís who I am.