Mike Iuzzolino’s journey from playing in the NBA to coaching at RMU

Mike+Iuzzolino+has+had+a+life+that+has+revolved+around+basketball+and+joined+Tyler+Gallo+for+an+interview.+Photo+Credit%3A+Sam+Anthony

Mike Iuzzolino has had a life that has revolved around basketball and joined Tyler Gallo for an interview. Photo Credit: Sam Anthony

By Tyler Gallo, Copy Editor

In his lifetime, Mike Iuzzolino has worn many hats, such as NEC Player of the Year, NBA player, an NBA Jam playable character, and NEC Hall of Famer; but the hat he is currently wearing, assistant coach, has brought him to Robert Morris as a member of Andy Toole’s coaching staff. Earlier this week, I sat down with him to discuss his life in basketball.

Mike grew up in Altoona and got started with basketball in second grade. The reason he stayed with it was because of winning, which Iuzzolino enjoys more than anything else.

“I enjoyed the competition, I enjoyed trying to win basketball games,” Iuzzolino said. “I was excited about it. It’s one of those sports where you get a ball and a hoop and you can spend all day there and work on your game by yourself. You don’t really need anybody else helping you if you want to get better.”

Iuzzolino played his high school career at Altoona High School and got started in college at Penn State. After two years at Penn State, where he struggled, Iuzzolino transferred to Saint Francis University and instantly blossomed in Loretto as a premier offensive threat. While his game didn’t change when he transferred schools, Mike believes it was the change in systems that really helped him out.

“I think it just better fit my style of play to be successful at the time,” Iuzzolino said. “I was more of an up-tempo, pick-and-roll type of guy, and that’s how they played at SFU, trying to score lots of points.”

Iuzzolino’s 1991 season was what really put him on the map. He averaged 24.1 points per game, a Red Flash record, and was named NEC Player of the Year for his efforts, becoming the only player in the country to average more than 20 points per game that season. Saint Francis racked up 24 wins and an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. He credits his coaches and teammates and having a desire to get the Red Flash to the NCAA Tournament for the first time as the driving forces behind him winning that accolade.

“SFU had never gone to the NCAA Tournament, and that was a big goal of mine to get to the tournament,” Iuzzolino said. “I was fortunate to play for a lot of good coaches, three of them are now head coaches, and I got to play with the all-time leading scorer in Joe Anderson, so there were a lot of people there who made the game easier.”

The 1991 season fueled his nomination for the NEC Hall of Fame, which he was inducted to in 2017 after scoring 1,346 points in just two years in Loretto. While the individual awards were nice, Iuzzolino believes his teammates played a huge part in the season as well.

“I have always been humbled by winning individual awards because I think they are the product of your winning and the product of your teammates,” Iuzzolino said. “I feel good for those guys even though they didn’t get the credit.”

Iuzzolino’s efforts were rewarded by being drafted in the second round (35th overall) by the Dallas Mavericks that same season. While the draft experience was nice, he used being drafted as fuel to work even harder, stating that he was back in the gym the next morning. He told me that he always lived by the quote “Be where your feet are”, and it rang true on draft day.

“Being drafted fueled me to work harder because I didn’t want to fail,” said Iuzzolino. “Getting drafted is one thing, but actually making the team is another.”

Iuzzolino played two seasons in the NBA, and a quote from an NBA veteran stuck in his mind while he was playing.

“I got advice from Derek Harper, who had been in the league for ten years, he said ‘If you’re meant to be here, you’ll be here. If not, you won’t be here.’ I lived by that every day,” he said.” People will say that I played against [Michael] Jordan and Shaq, but once you start playing, it’s all about competing and trying to win games.”

Iuzzolino mentioned that playing in the NBA against guys like Jordan and Shaq were what made it competitive, but there was never any guy who stood out as the toughest one he had to face.

“In the West, we had [John] Stockton, Kevin Johnson, Gary Payton, and Tim Hardaway. Every night you were faced with really good competition,” Iuzzolino said. “What it depended on was if that guy was on [his game] that night because you had guys that would score 30-40 points every game.”

An interesting fact about Mike Iuzzolino’s career was that he was actually featured alongside Derek Harper as a playable character in 1993’s NBA Jam, where using your first few quarters to play with one of the teams almost always started with a matchup against Iuzzolino and Harper. Mike did not find out he was in the game until almost ten years later.

“The year before I was in [the game], there was no licensing, so they never told me. One day [eight or nine years later], I walked into a Chuck E. Cheese’s with my son, and he wanted to play [NBA Jam], and he started scrolling through it and said ‘Dad, you’re on this game,” Iuzzolino said.

Mike Iuzzolino as one of the playable characters in NBA JAM

Iuzzolino averaged 9.0 points-per-game and shot around 46-percent from the field in his two seasons in the NBA, and was fourth in three-point percentage in 1991-92. He played two seasons in the Continental Basketball Assosciation before heading overseas, where he found it somewhat difficult socially.

“There are adjustments to make socially, being away from family and friends,” Iuzzolino said. “Back then, there wasn’t FaceTime, so the only way my parents knew how I was doing was on a phone call.”

Iuzzolino’s longest stint on an overseas team was with Scaligera Verona, a team in the Italian Serie A2, where he spent four years. Mike considers Verona his second home, and a fanbase that took him under his wing was something he will never forget. Some recognizable names were getting their start in pro ball when Mike was in Italy.

“When I was playing, guys like [Manu] Ginobili, [Luis] Scola, [Andrés] Nocioni, and the Gasols [Pau and Marc] were all 18-19 years old and playing pro ball,” Iuzzolino said.

Verona would retire his no. 8 jersey a few years ago, which was an emotional experience for Iuzzolino.

“They put on a three-day event for me that I was not ready for,” Iuzzolino said. “All my teammates came back for that game. It was a very humbling moment, and it was cool to make Verona a part of it. I’m not the most emotional guy, but I was emotional on that night.”

Iuzzolino found the transition to coaching tough after his career was over, but was able to find a job as the assistant coach for Duquesne women’s basketball, a position he held from 2005-2007.

“I’ve always felt like I had a lot to offer to the game of basketball, and I had been overseas for ten years, so I wanted to give back,” he said. “Finding a men’s position was tough, but I was able to get into the women’s game at Duquesne to try and learn how to coach.”

Iuzzolino had a one-year stint at George Mason and then spent the next four at Saint Vincent in the same role, but it was spending time as the director of basketball operations at Canisius and New Mexico that really helped him learn more about the game and prepare him to be a head coach.

“Learning all the behind-the-scenes aspects, like budgeting, academics, and other things, prepared me to step into that larger role and it was a great experience,”

He has been able to pass his knowledge onto his son, who is now entering the college recruiting phase of his basketball career. His biggest advice for him was to enjoy the process.

“I have told him to make sure he enjoys the journey of getting recruited,” Iuzzolino said. “A lot of guys get to this point and don’t improve, since everyone is good and [coaches] take the best players from every team. If you do the right things, it’ll work out in the end.”

Mike’s most recent stop brought him to Robert Morris as an assistant coach, where he has been since 2016. Joining Andy Toole’s staff has been a great experience for him.

“Andy is one of the most driven people I have worked with, and we complement each other well. He’s a true professional inside and outside of basketball,” Iuzzolino said. “He knows that sometimes there are more important things than basketball, and you can’t ask to work for a better person than Andy Toole.”

Photo Credit: Tim Kelley

The team has made great strides in the last few seasons, all culminating in the NEC Championship victory last season, a scintillating 77-67 victory which came against Mike’s alma mater Saint Francis. Mike told me that it was his favorite moment thus far at RMU, he believes it was the product of the building process over the last few seasons.

“I like to win, and that has not changed from my playing days. It doesn’t matter if I’m coaching the blue or white team in practice, I want to win that game,” he said. “The last few years were a bit of a rebuilding period, but to have that all culminate in that game last year, it was almost like a perfect storm. It came down to how well our guys played.”

While the pandemic cut the tournament run short for Robert Morris, Mike was happy that they are back and ready to get in business again despite the challenges the team may face.

“Games have been canceled, and there is a lot of adjustments you have to make. You feel like getting back on the court is like getting back to normal, and we’re thankful RMU let us come back in July,” said Iuzzolino. “COVID has been really hard on a lot of people involved at Robert Morris, like employees who have been furloughed, or student-athletes who devote their lives to playing games only for seasons to get taken away.”

The team will get a head start on conditioning themselves for the upcoming move to the Horizon League, and Mike is looking forward to the season.

“Being in a conference for so long, you know what teams are going to come at you with every year,” Iuzzolino said. “This year, it is going to be interesting with all the new levels of competitions, arenas, and play styles. As for what I am looking forward to, there really isn’t one big thing.”

I asked Iuzzolino if he had anything else to shout out before we closed out the interview, and he laughed and said he did not, but also offered his hope that fans could return soon.

“We would love to have everybody come out and support us, because they are such a big part of it, and they were one of the x-factors that helped us win that championship game,” Iuzzolino said.

I offered him his 1992-93 Ultra basketball card after the interview to sign, and he happily did. RMU Basketball will resume practices this week and ramp play back up in December in a brand-new conference; and Mike Iuzzolino is ready to get back to work. He has had a life in basketball that has had many stops, and the most recent one has been Robert Morris.