IUP coach Joe Lombardi is a lot of things.
He’s the leader of one of the pre-eminent Division II men’s basketball programs in the country, a team that has reached six consecutive NCAA Tournaments.
He’s a fixture in the Indiana community and a successful fundraiser.
He’s a dedicated family man and an avid golfer.
And there’s this: “He’s one of the coolest older guys I’ve ever met,” senior guard Devonte Chance said. “He always makes people feel comfortable around him. He’s funny. He’s smooth. He’s got his own style where he’s rockin’ the suits and the slicked-back hair.”
It’s been a mostly smooth eight-year run since Lombardi was hired in April 2006 after three seasons as an assistant at Pitt under Jamie Dixon. Lombardi, 55, holds a career record of 173-70 and led the Crimson Hawks to the D-II championship game in 2010.
“He wasn’t going to leave unless he got a great job,” Dixon said of Lombardi, a Sharon native whose wife, Janet, grew up in Indiana. “He’s in the right place for him. His family is happy. It’s the appropriate fit. He’s a great representative of the town. He takes great pride in that.”
IUP is one of three D-II teams to finish in the top 25 each of the past four seasons. Expectations are high again as the Crimson Hawks return three starters, including Chance, a preseason All-PSAC selection. IUP is ranked in numerous preseason polls, including No. 9 by the Sporting News.
“We’re proud of that as a program,” Lombardi said. “Now that you’re given that respect, it makes it harder to go out and earn it every day. Every challenge out there becomes bigger. You’re going to get everyone’s best shot. But that’s part of the fun of competing at the highest level.”
Chance said the program is built on a family atmosphere that stresses teamwork and attention to details.
“All the little things matter, from pivoting to sweeping the ball low to communicating,” Chance said.
Coaching is only part of the equation for Lombardi. After spending 21 years as a Division I assistant when recruiting occupied much of his time year-round, Lombardi’s responsibilities are broader at IUP. One aspect in which he takes particular pride is marketing the team and drawing big crowds to Kovalchick Complex. The average attendance was 2,090 last season, more than 146 D-I teams drew. The atmosphere offers a big-time feel for IUP home games.
“In some ways, this is a mid-major Division I job in a Division II program,” said Lombardi, a Youngstown State graduate. “The size of it says mid-major. The facilities say mid-major. The campus says mid-major. The college town we’re in says mid-major.
“I really feel in my heart that this is better than a lot of Division I jobs. You have to be able to get your ego wrapped around that when you say that, but the chances of winning here are greater, and the college atmosphere is better than a lot of Division I places for students.”
Unlike in D-I, Lombardi typically gets long breaks in the offseason. Recruiting dies down after spring, and D-II teams can’t work out players during the summer. That means more time to spend with his wife and three children and to devote to his other passion.
“I always joked he became a head coach so he could golf more,” Dixon said.
Lombardi said winning a D-II national title is “on the bucket list.” Until then, he has plenty to keep him busy.
“Joe is the whole package,” IUP athletic director Frank Condino said. “Everything we want to look for in a head coach, Joe is it.”
Jeff Vella is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @JeffVella_Trib.