Ray Giacoletti watched with pride as the Utah team he had constructed reached the 2009 NCAA tournament.
He was never given the chance to see what he could do with those Utes.
Giacoletti's lone high-profile head coaching job ended after just three seasons in 2007, as he resigned following back-to-back losing seasons. But Giacoletti saw Utah's run two years later — it included 24 wins and a Mountain West conference title — as proof that his vision for building a program could work.
He got a second chance when Drake hired him in late March to take over its middling program.
"They didn't understand a rebuilding where we're doing it with high school guys and it may take a little longer," Giacoletti said Thursday of his time in Utah. "The plan was right. It doesn't happen overnight. It takes time to do it the right way ... we were on the right path. We had character guys who were in it for the long haul."
He believes Drake will afford him the patience he needs to turn the Bulldogs into winners, even if history suggests otherwise.
Giacoletti, who spent six seasons as an assistant under Mark Few at Gonzaga following his tenure at Utah, left the security of Spokane for one of the tougher jobs in the country.
The Bulldogs have reached the NCAA tournament just once in the last 42 years. They won the Missouri Valley title in 2008, then lost AP national coach of the year Keno Davis to Providence and the Big East a few weeks later. Mark Phelps followed with five underwhelming seasons, and he was let go even though he produced two of the four winning records that Drake has notched in the last 26 years.
But Giacoletti saw Drake as a school with enough going for it to soon flourish in basketball too. Throw in a much-needed practice facility on track to open before the 2014-15 season, and he was sold on athletic director Sandy Hatfield-Clubb's vision for the program.
"I was really trying to figure out what the right fit was for who I was at this point in my career, and I kept coming back to an academic institution. One that had character, and then one where maybe the basketball program wasn't at the same level as the academics were," Giacoletti said.
Even Giacoletti knows that building a winner at Drake is probably going to take years.
The Bulldogs had their moments last season, most notably beating eventual league champions Creighton at home. But the Bulldogs were inconsistent all season, finishing 15-17 and just 7-11 in the Valley, and leading scorers Ben Simons and Chris Hines have since graduated.
Drake has often leaned on transfers in recent seasons, and the results were mixed. Giacoletti plans to focus instead on recruiting prep kids from the immediate area; Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Kansas City, with a focus on players who excel in the class room and can hopefully blossom into all-Valley types with a little seasoning.
Giacoletti saw firsthand how successful Gonzaga was with players it redshirted to develop. He's planning to take the same approach at Drake.
If you're "recruiting academic guys, you're recruiting high character guys. It's probably harder on the front end. But once you're getting them into your program, it's going to be much easier," Giacoletti said. "Our vision is to have guys here for four or five years. I think that's really how you build a program. You build a foundation, and you're able to sustain it over time," Giacoletti said.
He isn't planning to compete head-to-head for recruits with Iowa and Iowa State, both high-major programs who appear to be headed for extended stretches of success under Fred Hoiberg and Fran McCaffery. But Giacoletti is now the head coach of the home team in Iowa's state capital and largest city, which he sees as a major selling point.
"The community is amazing here in Des Moines. It's prosperous. It's family friendly. Businesses are thriving. There's a niche for Drake basketball in this community," Giacoletti said.
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