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Tim O’Toole’s Journey to Pitt Revolved Around Grit

Tim O’Toole’s Journey to Pitt Revolved Around Grit

If there was one thing that Jeff Capel focused on when he was hiring his assistants at Pitt, it was previous coaching experience. Associate head coach Tim O’Toole has plenty of that, and will look to use it to his advantage when leading the Panthers against Louisville.

On Monday afternoon, Pitt announced that O’Toole will handle head coaching duties in its upcoming game against Louisville on Tuesday at the Petersen Events Center. 

This announcement came just days after Capel tested positive for COVID-19, becoming the first member of the program to test positive during this season. 

O’Toole has been on the sidelines coaching since 1988, when he was a graduate assistant at Fordham under head coach Tom Penders. However, he has been involved in the game for much longer than that. 

A native of White Plains, New York, O’Toole was always around the game of basketball growing up. His father Tom worked as a stockbroker as well as a basketball coach in New York. In an interview with The New York Times’ Dave Ruden in 1998, O’Toole spoke of his father’s love for the game. 

”My Dad was one of those junkies who went to every high school, C.Y.O. and area All-Star game,” he said. ”He would take my brothers and sisters to every game. If we got restless, he would give us a tennis ball to play with under the bleachers. I guess you can say this has been in my blood for a long time.”

O’Toole went on to play for Fairfield University, where he averaged 8.8 points per game for his career. Listed as a 6-foot-3 forward, he was a very scrappy player who had to earn everything on the court. In both 1983 and 1984, O’Toole was named the Patrick Burke award winner for Fairfield, which is the award given to the player who shows the most hustle on the floor. When O’Toole came to mind, there was one word that best described him as a player: grit. 

In that same article in The New York Times, Ruden said, “as a player for Fairfield from 1982 to 1987 (he was a medical red-shirt his senior year), O’Toole was noted more for his grit than his grace,” adding, “he may hold the school record for floor burns.”

Since his playing days at Fairfield, O’Toole has steadily fought his way up the coaching ladder. After his stint as a graduate assistant at Fordham, he went on to become an assistant coach at Army, Iona, Syracuse, Duke, Seton Hall, Stanford, and California. At Duke, he shared the sidelines with the legendary Mike Krzyzewski and coached Capel in his playing days. 

Between his assistant coaching positions at Seton Hall and Stanford, O’Toole went back to his alma mater and became the man-in-charge. 

06 January 2004: Fairfield Head Coach Tim O’Toole is very expressive on the sidelines during the first half. The Duke Blue Devils defeated the Fairfield Stags, 99-58, at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, NC.
Mandatory Credit: Thad Parsons/Icon SMI

From 1998-2006, he served as the head coach at Fairfield, leading the Stags back to MAAC prominence. In 2003-04, O’Toole was named the conference’s Coach of the Year, an honor also won by household coaching names Ed Cooley, Kevin Willard, Fran McCaffery, and John Beilein, among others. Fairfield finished that season with a 19-11 record including 12-6 in conference play.

In 2018, Capel brought in O’Toole to be his associate head coach at Pitt. After the hire, Capel spoke on what O’Toole would bring to the program. 

“Tim is one of the most energetic and unique coaches in the country,” he said. ”I have always been impressed with his passion for the game and his ability to develop players. Tim has a great deal of coaching experience and is an integral part of building our program. I am excited about having him on our team.”

At Pitt, the energetic, enthusiastic, and inspiring O’Toole has played a massive role in the improvement of front court play for the Panthers. This year, he has focused especially on the development of John Hugley, Abdoul-Karim Coulibaly, and Terrell Brown, three bigs who have been key factors for Pitt early on this season. 

In a pre-season “Pitt Uncut” video made by the basketball social media staff, O’Toole was shown teaching Hugley about that same grit that made him such an impactful player back in his days at Fairfield. 

“Alright, practice starts today,” he says. “This is your journey, this is where you started. You’ve been thinking about this moment all your life since you’ve been this big.”

After this, he then tells Hugley one of his favorite quotes, coming from former Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi. 

“As we march through the season, there’s going to be highs and lows. The most important thing for you to remember is that Lombardi [quote] right there,” he says, pointing to his office wall. 

The quote reads, “The virtue of all achievement is victory over me.”

“When I’m tired, when I’m hurting, when I don’t want to do this, when I don’t want to show up,” O’Toole continues. “That’s when I’m like, You know what? I’ve got a little more in the tank. I am going to persevere because you know what my middle name is? Grit. G-R-I-T. And like you always do, you rise to the top.”

O’Toole goes on to ask Hugley to finish the quote he told him just seconds earlier. 

“But the only way you keep doing that is… Virtue of all achievement is victory over…?”

The young freshman Hugley looks at him and tells O’Toole what he wants to hear. 

“Me,” Hugley says. 

O’Toole ends his lesson with another fill-in-the-blank for Hugley. 

“Once you know that victory, you will never know..?”

“Defeat,” Hugley responds. 

“You’re damn right,” says O’Toole. Lesson taught. 

Through six games, O’Toole’s big men have performed well, with Hugley, Brown, and Coulibaly averaging a combined 10.6 points and 10.9 rebounds per game. Size-wise, the Panthers’ big men will match up fairly evenly with the Cardinals’. Louisville center Malik Williams is currently out with a foot injury, leaving Chris Mack’s squad with only two players over 6-foot-8. However, those two players, Aidan Igheion and Gabe Wiznitzer, have only averaged a combined 14.8 minutes and 2.9 rebounds per game through their first five games this year. 

On top of O’Toole’s impressive coaching resumé, Pitt assistant coach Milan Brown also possesses lots of previous coaching experience, with stints as an assistant at Old Dominion, Mount Saint Marys, William and Mary and as head coach at Holy Cross. There, he led the Crusaders to a 40-38 record in Patriot League play across five seasons. 

Assistant Jason Capel, younger brother of head coach Jeff, also has some head coaching experience under his belt. From 2010-14, Capel led the Appalachian State Mountaineers to a 32-35 record in Southern Conference play, including a second place finish in the conference in the 2012-13 season.

The trio will look to continue Pitt’s five game winning streak against Louisville Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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