When USF’s new basketball coach, Orlando Antigua, stepped up to the podium, it wasn’t long before tears began to fill the eyes atop his 6-foot-7 frame.
As the applause ensued to congratulate him on his first head coaching job in the U.S., Antigua paused for a moment to gather himself before his “thank you” speech went on.
His eyes welling, Antigua thanked his “friend and mentor,” John Calipari, who he coached alongside for six years, including their current Final Four run at Kentucky, which Calipari let him step away from to interview for the job.
“He said, ‘It’s an unbelievable opportunity. Go get the job. Go surprise people. Go make history,’” Antigua said.
Antigua thanked everyone who was along with him throughout his journey.
His five years at Kentucky under Calipari included a National Championship and several appearances in the Final Four, Elite Eight and his one-year stint at Memphis alongside the same coach.
Antigua’s five years coaching at Pittsburgh — his Alma Mater — under coach Jamie Dixon weren’t left out, either. Nor were the members of the Dominican Republic National team, which he coaches — one of the players even showed up for the Spanish portion of his speech.
But Antigua didn’t forget about his early roots either.
He recalled St. Raymond’s, his high school in the Bronx, where his younger brothers, Oliver and Omar followed him after they and their single mother were evicted from their apartment and left homeless before moving into an uninhabited convent across the street from the school
And now, together, they share his success.
“To Omar and Oliver, let’s keep enjoying this ride,” he said.
Oliver, now an assistant coach at Seton Hall, said he vividly remembers the streets of New York, the hardships and the “father figure” Orlando had to become.
“We grew up with a single mom in the Bronx, and from an early age he started taking care of us,” Oliver said. “I went to Pittsburgh because of him, our younger brother Omar went to Carnegie Mellon. We all stayed very close and we even moved our mom out to Pittsburgh. She was my roommate my senior year of college. We always looked out for each other and been a very close family. We’re really proud of him.”
Oliver remembered being an 8-year-old when Orlando, at 10, would hand out discipline in their mother’s absence.
Orlando was “mature beyond his years,” his brother said.
“He just had the instinct to be that authoritative figure and to watch over us,” Oliver said. “He’s a natural leader. He was always someone who was respected by his players and coaches and we all knew he was going to be a coach. It was a natural fit for him. I think he will gain the respect and the trust of the players. I think you’re going to see a team that’s going to work really hard.”
That should come in handy for Orlando, who takes over a Bulls team that hasn’t had a 20-win season in two years and whose first NCAA Tournament appearance in 20 years came in the 2011-12 season.
But like Dorothy and Kansas in “The Wizard of Oz,” Orlando isn’t exactly in Kentucky anymore. Recruiting might not be how it was for the prestigious Wildcats, led by a historic coach.
While Orlando may help recruit new interest in the university, he will ultimately be judged by the performance of his players. USF has been called “a sleeping giant” for many years, through many eras, and no basketball coach has been able to consistently win at USF.
Orlando said he thinks he’s up to the task.
“I always thought that with the right circumstance, the arena, the practice facility, (it’s possible here),” Orlando said. “You need the infrastructure. You need the backing from the athletic department and administration. I realized those traits here. Meeting with (Senior Associate Athletic Director) Barry (Clements) and (Athletic Director) Mark (Harlan), their energy got me going. That excited me more about it.”
Orlando admittedly says he doesn’t know why a coach has yet to be successful in men’s basketball. Recruiting, though, may be the issue.
Orlando has coached and recruited a top recruiting class during each of the last five seasons. While under transcendent coach Calipari — who specializes in a “one-and-done” recruiting philosophy, where they churn out NBA players faster than they can make jerseys — they were at a height unknown to USF.
“We identify the needs and go get them,” he said. “We got the results of having success so that makes it a lot easier. We’ve got to be successful here. Tampa is similar to Pitt, as a pro-town. You’ve got to win. You have to play a style that they want to play in. You win, you get the fan support. It becomes a happening event. The ball keeps rolling down the hill.”123