Ex-York Basketball Coach Discusses UIC, Respect For Elmhurst
The lure of working at the college level with an old friend pulled Al Biancalana away.
On Sept. 3, Al Biancalana made official his resignation as head coach of the York High School boys basketball team after five seasons in Elmhurst.
Biancalana left York to become an assistant coach at University of Illinois-Chicago under new Flames head coach Howard Moore.
On the night of his resignation, the coach spoke over the phone about his time in Elmhurst, his future at UIC and the differences between the college and high school game.
Elmhurst Patch: You've said that before deciding to leave York for UIC you were not actively pursuing a college job. How did the opportunity come up?
Al Biancalana: Howard Moore and I worked together for four years, from 1999-2003, at Bradley University. We actually started there the same year and we became fairly close during that time and since we have become even closer. When this situation came about, UIC didn't work out their contract with (former head coach) Jimmy Collins until very late. Basically, it was about the end of July when that happened; then they went out on their coaching search. I thought Howard had good chance and we actually talked about it. It was two weeks ago we began to talk seriously about it.
Elmhurst Patch: How did you come to your decision and what were the major factors?
Biancalana: It was very difficult because I have a young family. (The York job) is a job that's conducive to raising a family. York creates an atmosphere that's extremely family friendly, and we just adored the kids that were in our program. We became close with the kids and their families. I had had opportunities to move, but nothing was intriguing enough to me. When this job came up, it was the perfect storm: I don't have to move my family; college basketball is 24/7, which I love; and I'm working for someone I believe in within a program with potential.
Elmhurst Patch: How and when did you break the news to your players at York?
Biancalana: Last weekend (Aug. 27-29) was when I finally made my decision. We called a meeting for Monday (Aug. 30) after school. I had given my letter of resignation to my principal and went ahead and met with my kids. There had been things in the paper, so they knew something was up. I told them I was offered a position and wanted to think it through for a couple days. To me, coaching is all about relationships. We were about complete honesty, collective responsibility, all those things that go to building great chemistry. It was more than just a coach-player relationship with those guys. Part of them understood that this was a great situation but yet they were sad that a change was going to be made. You don't get to coach in too many situations where you really bond with the kids. We had a comprehensive program from kindergarten to 12th grade. You create that bond and it's very difficult to walk away. It was very emotional for me. There were a lot of tears in the meeting, and some laughs.
Elmhurst Patch: What does Moore bring to the table as a head coach?
Biancalana: I think he is an up-and-coming coach. I think he's one of these guys that resonate not only with young men but also their families, the boosters, the administrators—those guys are rare. He's genuine. He has a family, so he understands the situation I'm in with young kids. l think he's got an opportunity to be really good. He's going to give me a lot of responsibility and I'm excited about that.
Elmhurst Patch: What are those responsibilities?
Biancalana: I am the top assistant. I'm going to work a lot in skill evaluation, game preparation. I'm going to have great responsibility on the practice floor. I'm going to be in charge of post players. I'll be In charge of scheduling and some other jobs off the court. I'll be a big part of recruiting, which I'm very excited about. But I won't be traveling as much as I did at Bradley. That kind of intrigued me and drew me closer to the position.
Elmhurst Patch: As you mentioned, you've been a coach in the college game before, at Bradley. What are the differences between coaching college and coaching high school?
Biancalana: In college it's much more businesslike. There's a bottom line—winning and losing. And there's some pressure with that. The relationship you build in high school is unlike anything else in a man's life. To have a hand in guiding them down the right path—it was a role that I truly enjoyed. That was exciting to me. In college it's pure basketball, 24/7.
As far as coaching goes, there's no more pure coaching than in high school. Every year brought a new challenge. Every season was its own lifetime. One year you may have really good guards. The next year it was a post player. In college it's a system you recruit to every year. The structure is completely different. I enjoyed the challenge to find the right (balance) year in, year out. I was at York for five seasons and all of them were completely different from one another.
Elmhurst Patch: What about being an assistant coach versus being a head coach?
Biancalana: What's different about being a head coach in high school, you get to schedule your day. If you have a family obligation, if there's something you have to carve out, you can. As an assistant, you're on call 24/7. Considering my relationship with Howard, though, if I need some time with my family, he'll be able to truly understand what responsibilities I have.
Elmhurst Patch: Interested in being a college head coach?
Biancalana: I love being a head coach, I love being able to impact the game. That's always one of the things that drew me to coaching basketball. One person can be incredibly impactful throughout the course of a game. I will never close any doors on that. If I was able to be blessed with the opportunity to be a head coach at the collegiate level, I'd be grateful. These opportunities pop up and you can never plan for them. You just have to deal with them as they come. We'll have to see what happens.
Elmhurst Patch: You have a lot of history in Elmhurst. You attended Elmhurst College long before you went to York. What can you say about the community you're so closely tied to?
Biancalana: I don't know exactly when and where it happened, but I have always had a love for Elmhurst. I went to college there, I had great success in football, got my degree from there. I've always been drawn to (Elmhurst). When the (York) job opened, I wasn't looking for a job in high school. Reluctantly, I went to talk about the position. As soon as I met (Principal Diana Smith) and saw her passion and the commitment she was willing to make to make our program successful, I knew it was time to come back. She was the reason I made that decision. I really believed in her. And I was never disappointed. Watching her leadership style—I learned to become a better coach just watching her on a daily basis.
Add that to the fact that Elmhurst is a working community. Lots of homes with two working parents. There's not a lot of elitism where kids didn't learn the right things from their parents. They're kids that want to work hard to be successful. To me, that's Elmhurst.
Elmhurst Patch: What do you know about who might be taking your place?
Biancalana: (York is) going to go through the process. There's a man on staff, Dominic Cannon. He's a former coach at Prospect High School. He's been our sophomore coach. I think Dominic would be a wonderful choice. I've got a little stake in this because we've worked so hard to establish something and I want to keep it going. So I'd like to see someone come in there and know what they're doing. He really resonates with the kids and the parents have respect for him.
Elmhurst Patch: What should the next head coach know before he whistles his first practice?
Biancalana: I found the York job to be one of the most difficult jobs I ever had. The league we play in, there's athleticism, size, ability. When you come up short in those areas, you have to compensate. You have to be more fundamentally sound, more cerebral. We've experienced a lot of success playing that way. The next coach has to understand that that is our best chance to win. It would have to be a sophisticated type of program to negate some of the things you face every night. We had tremendous success. In five years we beat over a dozen teams ranked in the Top 25. Every year we knocked off some teams with tremendous players and I was really proud of that. Basketball's a great team game. And we played great as a team every night we stepped onto the floor.
Any memorable Biancalana stories? How do you think York will fare without the coach in 2010-11? Let us know in the comments section below.