Andy Russo’s ‘charmed life’ took off at a seafood buffet in El Paso

It is often a thin line between where life could take you and where life does take you. One phone call, one decision, one accidental meeting can completely change the course of your life.

Andy Russo was a teacher at Maine East High School and freshman basketball coach in the Chicago area and was living, as he describes it now, “a charmed life.” He had every reason to keep living that life but for some reason, fate stepped in his way.

Why would he leave a dying mother and a job he loved to go to UTEP as a graduate assistant basketball coach for $100 a month? But he did.

Why would he go to Panola Junior College, a place he could have never found on a map, to become a head coach?

Why would he have his eyes on a job at Centenary, only to suddenly find out that he needed to apply for the head basketball coach at Louisiana Tech instead?

All of that by the time he was 30 years old.

Five years later, he was the young basketball coach who every major school with a vacancy was wanting after taking the Bulldogs to the greatest post-season success it has ever had before or since.

And then he was gone.

But even though it’s been four decades since Russo led the Bulldogs to those unprecedented heights, he never really left Ruston.

Yes, he went to the University of Washington for four years, then coached in Italy and returned to coach at two colleges in Florida for 12 years.

Through all of those experiences, hardly a day goes by when he doesn’t think about his time at Louisiana Tech. Tonight, Russo will be inducted into the school’s Athletics Hall of Fame in a pretty shining example of “what took you so long?”

“Winning is great and all of that, but it’s not necessarily the wins and losses you remember,” Russo says. “It’s the experiences you have in life with the people you get to know, whether it’s players, coaches or community. That’s what I think about.”

Maybe it’s because basketball success hasn’t come easy to Tech lately – the Bulldogs haven’t won a conference title since 1991 and haven’t won a NCAA tournament game since 1989 – but anybody who was around to see what Russo’s teams accomplished in his six years can attest to how special that time was.

After four solid years (67 wins), the Bulldogs burst on the scene in 1983-84 with a 26-7 team that won an NCAA Tournament game for the first time in school history, and then went to the Sweet 16 the next year after being ranked in the Top 10 for most of the season.

All because he took a chance.

Ten years before he was at the top, he was a freshman coach and “figured it was going to be a long time before I got a head coaching job.”

Hello, fate.

Russo’s sister married an El Paso native, so he took a trip to visit her. They were at a country club one night when in walked Don Haskins, legendary coach at Texas-El Paso, for the Friday night seafood buffet. The father-in-law of Russo’s sister knew Haskins and introduced him.

“I’d really like to come down and coach,” Russo told Haskins, who offered him the graduate assistant job on the spot.

And a few months later, he made the move, even as his mother was being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. “That was very, very sad,” Russo said.

“The thing that really turned it around for me was working with Don Haskins,” he said. “I learned more from him in five minutes than I knew about basketball up until that time.”

Still, it makes you wonder where life would have taken Russo had Haskins not been such a fan of the Friday night seafood buffet.

After a year at UTEP and three more at Panola JC, he set his sights on the Centenary job when a coaching friend asked Russo if he had applied for the Tech opening. “Is that a good job?” Russo asked.

A few more calls from coaching friends who knew somebody who knew somebody and Russo was one of three finalists. The other two candidates? The non-household names of SMU assistant Danny Underwood and Southwestern Louisiana (now UL-L) assistant Dave Farrar.

“You always look back on decisions you make,” Russo says. “Five minutes after I took the Washington job, Arkansas called. Going to Washington wasn’t a mistake, but staying there was. I don’t know … had I not taken the Washington job, I wouldn’t have had the chance to coach in Italy. You make decisions for the right seasons and you do the best you can.”

These days Russo, the youngest-ever-looking 75-year-old ever, runs basketball camps in Boca Raton, Fla., and even does a little refereeing as well. Basketball is still in his blood, so many stops away from once being a freshman coach who wondered if he’d ever be a head coach.

And when he thinks about his time at Louisiana Tech, it’s not about going to a Sweet 16 or being ranked among the nation’s best.

“I get a warm feeling about the relationships I had there,” he says. “I value that, and I probably never knew that until I moved to Italy (to coach for two years). Even with the success we had, life is all about relationships.” 

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