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Mike Giannone guides Pilots to state title in his second season after rocky start

By: Tom Markowski, November 24, 2017, 6:00 pm

Detroit – There were times when Mike Giannone had second thoughts about taking over as the coach at Warren De La Salle.

Last season De La Salle finished 4-5 and there were many second thoughts. That self-doubt hit a high point this season after the Pilots lost to Lowell in the opener, 36-6.

That was the low point in Giannone’s brief tenure at De La Salle. He and others close to the program couldn’t help but think to themselves, here we go again.

It was then that Giannone received some needed help. A word or two from a few friends to lift his spirits and remind him that he was doing the right thing.

Whatever was said worked. De La Salle went to Grandville the next week and won, 31-0. And the Pilots kept winning. Even in their loss (33-23) to Erie (PA) Cathedral, the Pilots remained positive and confident.

On Friday De La Salle (12-2) whipped Livonia Franklin, 41-6, in the Division 2 final at Ford Field to claim the school’s second state title.

Bob Lantzy, the longtime Utica Eisenhower (41 seasons) coach who now is the head coach at Rochester Hills Stoney Creek, and Eisenhower co-offensive coordinator Brad Morris, who was Giannone’s offensive coordinator at Dakota both called Giannone following the Lowell loss and told him not to get too down on himself and remain positive.

The convincing victory over Grandville turned the season around for De La Salle. Senior quarterback Luke Pfromm said after De La Salle’s 14-13 victory over Detroit King in a semifinal that perhaps he and his teammates weren’t ready for the Lowell game and that they needed to play a game to find out just where they stood.

De La Salle assistant coach Bob Schroeder also kept Giannone upbeat by reminding him he was doing the right thing.

Giannone, 57, spent 18 seasons at Dakota and compiled a 158-51 record. Dakota made the playoffs for the first time (1999) under Giannone and won its first playoff game (28-27 in overtime) over Rochester that same season. His teams won the Division 1 title in 2006 and ’07, reached the semifinals two other times, and his program, along with Eisenhower, was considered Macomb County’s best.

Giannone left Dakota after the 2015 season and took over at De La Salle last season. It was certainly a transitionary season. It was De La Salle’s first losing season since 2005.

No matter how anyone could assess last season, it was unacceptable and Ginnone knew it better than anyone.

“When we started with Lowell, I thought we bit off more than we could chew,” Giannone said.

There wasn’t any magic formula or rah-rah talk after the Lowell loss. Giannone said his team had one of their best weeks’ of practice going into the Grandville game.

There were other significant victories. Going into the season expectations, outside of De La Salle, were not great. Detroit Catholic Central and Orchard Lake St. Mary’s were predicted to vie for first place in the Catholic League Central Division and Birmingham Brother Rice was said to be improved. De La Salle defeated those teams by a combined total of 55 points during the regular season. The Pilots played one of their best games in the league championship game at Ford Field on Oct. 21 as they defeated Catholic Central, 35-14.

De La Salle went into the playoffs as one of a handful of favorites to win the state title. King, the two-time defending champion, was another as were Muskegon Mona Shores and possibly Oak Park and Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central. In other words, the title was there to be had but, still, the Pilots had to get past Oak Park and King to have a shot at the title.

Giannone said his coaches, notably defensive coordinator Brandon Bush and offensive coordinator Tom Nowak, deserve much of the credit. Bush played for Giannone, at linebacker, on his championship teams and Nowak is a wing-T guru. De La Salle doesn’t run a strict wing-T, rather it’s a variation Giannone calls the “spread wing”.

Whatever. It works.

“Bush is a defensive guy,” Giannone said. “I don’t deal with the defense. He had some different ideas. He never wavered. He never panicked. He’s sure of himself. He’s confident. As a player, we ripped on him all the time. He had no room for error. He was scrutinized all the time.”

And Nowak?

“He’ll talk all day long about the wing,” Giannone said.

Despite going from one of the best, and largest, public school programs to an all-boys Catholic school, Giannone said there really wasn’t much of a change. As he explained, kids and kids.

“Kids yearn for discipline,” he said. “You have kids who want to be great. Going to an all-boys school, they stick together. I see guys coming back from the 60s to support the program. At Dakota it was 20 years. Here it’s 90 yards.”

Now there’s a difference.