John Castellani, who led Seattle University to the NCAA men’s basketball championship game in 1958 and was forced to resign a month later amid a recruiting scandal, died Tuesday in New Britain, Connecticut.
Castellani, who died of natural causes, was 94.
Castellani coached the Minneapolis Lakers for a half-season before changing careers and working as a lawyer in Wisconsin for decades.
But his two seasons at Seattle University — where he coached the great Elgin Baylor — remained one of the highlights of his life.
“Of course it is,” Castellani told The Seattle Times in 2018. “We won a lot of games. Elgin Baylor made it easy.”
Castellani was 29 and a Notre Dame assistant coach without any head-coaching experience when he was hired by Seattle University in 1956.
Castellani inherited a strong returning group, but also a transfer who was set to play his first season at Seattle U — Baylor, now regarded as one of the game’s all-time greats, and who died in March.
Seattle U finished 24-3 in Castellani’s first season, losing in the quarterfinals of the National Invitation Tournament, which was a much bigger deal in those days.
The next season captivated the city of Seattle as the Chieftains — since renamed the Redhawks — made it all the way to the NCAA title game, where they played Kentucky.
Seattle U led by 11 in the first half, but after Baylor picked up his third foul of the first half, it began stalling on offense and switched to a zone defense, which it seldom used.
The tactics didn’t work and Kentucky, with its legendary coach, Adolph Rupp, rallied, pulling away late for an 84-72 win.
“I was going against Rupp, who had maybe 600 games under his belt, and I was just a kid, 31, with two years of coaching. My inexperience showed. … I made a couple of mistakes,” Castellani recalled.
One month after the title game, Castellani was forced to resign after being caught giving two recruits improper benefits. Seattle U was put on probation and given a two-year postseason ban.
Castellani was hired as coach of the Lakers in 1959, where he was reunited with Baylor.
He was fired at midseason with the team at 11-25.
It was a much different story at Seattle U, where the team was 49-9 in two seasons and came one game short of a title.
“I was very lucky to have coached the greatest player in history,” Castellani said in 2018 of his time at Seattle U. “But we had a lot of good players. Everyone accepted their role, and that is why we were so good.”