Since taking over the Fenwick boys basketball program, Rick Malnati has guided the varsity team to a promising 6-2 start. I recently sat down with him for an exclusive Wednesday Journal interview to find out more about the Friars’ charismatic new head coach, who also devotes his busy days toward his family and the family business, Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria.
Why did you accept the job of Fenwick boys basketball head coach? At the time of the offer, I was working as an assistant basketball coach at Loyola University so I was kind of out of the high school game. I think my personality is probably more suited to being a head coach. With its location, Fenwick presents such a unique opportunity. I’ve seen education change kids’ lives. Hopefully, we can attract kids who want to play in a good basketball program and receive a great education.
How’s the season gone so far, considering [Fenwick star forward] Scott Lindsey has been out with an injury? We’re not making excuses that our best player is out. We’ve got enough ability with what we have to be successful. It’s been a learning experience and an adjustment for the players. We have a senior-dominated team. All of a sudden, they get a new coach in their last year. Looking down the road, I think we’ll be hard to beat.
How does playing a tough schedule benefit the team? I’ve never shied away from competition. When I was coaching at New Trier, we always tried to make our games as tough, interesting and fan-friendly as possible.
At Fenwick, we played in the Chicago Elite Classic a few weeks ago. We’re taking on OPRF, Proviso East at their gym, and several other excellent teams. These kinds of games are good for our team and the overall visibility of the program.
Describe your relationship with John Quinn, your predecessor as the Fenwick basketball coach and still a history teacher at Fenwick? Coach Quinn has been outstanding in a tough situation. Before I came to Fenwick, we were competitive friends because our teams had battled each other. John has offered me an open door since I’ve come here. We’re trying to make the best of an awkward situation, but he’s a first-class guy who has treated me great.
Can you compare and contrast Fenwick and New Trier? Well, New Trier is a public school and Fenwick is a private school. At New Trier, the kids I coached were playing basketball together forever and they grew up in the same community.
At Fenwick, the kids come to school here from all over and they don’t know each other initially. I addressed that during our [Fenwick] intrasquad scrimmage with parents watching the workout. I told parents that the vision of Fenwick basketball is to have a program with a community feel to it.
We had a lot of great traditions at New Trier; I’m sure Fenwick does as well. We’re also trying to build some new ones here at Fenwick.
What role has basketball played in your life? I was pretty average academically so I kind of got my self-esteem through sports. If you had to describe New Trier in one word it would be “competitive.” So being in such a competitive environment, I was able to distinguish myself a little bit from others through sports. I’ve always loved basketball and being part of a team.
In college, I was on good and bad teams [at Bradley University] not just in terms of results but also character. Even in business after college, I worked at Lou Malnati’s [Pizzeria] for 15 years. Whether it was business or even my own family, I’ve tried to model them after what makes a good team. Sports have essentially been the laboratory for me to experience life.
I’ve had a lot of great coaches too, who have played a big role in my life. So coaching now for me is a way of paying it forward.
Who were the best players you faced when you played basketball? I guarded Larry Bird and Mark Aguirre in college. My current players don’t necessarily know who the heck those guys are. I had to make up for a lack of talent with hard work and hustle.
Can you talk about your father, Lou, and his influence on you? He was definitely a man’s man. He would work from 4 p.m. till 4 a.m. so I never really saw him much when I was growing up. He was always working in the restaurant business with my grandpa at Pizzeria Uno and Pizzeria Due. When he went on his own with Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria and made the business a family affair, my brother Marc and I worked every day there. It was a different era. School didn’t come first; the family business did. My freshman year in high school, my dad got sick with cancer. He kind of beat it for a while, but then my senior year, he got really sick.
My best memories of him were when he watched me play sports. My senior year at New Trier, we had the first boys basketball team at the school to win a regional, sectional, supersectional and advance downstate. Half of those games he was in the hospital listening to the games on the radio. Other times, they would give him a blood infusion and he’d be able to make it to a game. He passed away my freshman year at Bradley University.
He lived life to the fullest. From where he started with and what he ended up with was incredible. He lived in Italy till he was 18 before coming to America. He was just a self-made guy. My dad wasn’t school smart but he was street smart.
When is Lou Malnati’s opening in downtown Oak Park? Everybody wants to know the answer to that question [Malnati laughs]. I’m hoping to get over there soon for lunch myself. We had a few issues early, but hopefully we will open in late January. We were shooting for Christmas, but that’s not going to happen. All my players want to know when we open as well. They think because they are on the team, that’s the road to a free pizza.
What are you most proud on and off the court? Off the court, I’m most proud of my family. I’ve been blessed with a great wife, Tina, and three wonderful kids, Tino, Gaby and Gianna. I always tell my kids if you’re going to overachieve in an aspect of life, make it your marriage. My mom, Jean, has been another blessing in my life. She turns 84 on Dec. 22. She’s full of life and fun.
I’m also proud of the family business that my brother Marc and I took over after my dad died. Marc is the best leader I’ve ever been around. We’ve expanded the business, and I’m very proud of the culture around Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria. It’s a great team with a lot of loyalty.
In terms of basketball, I’m proud of the tradition we established at New Trier. When I coached there, we were acknowledged as the No. 5 rated program in the state, according to one guy who has a system of rating basketball programs. We never won a state championship or took second place, but we were very consistent. I’m optimistic we’ll achieve some great things with Fenwick basketball as well.
Can you talk about when New Trier upset Proviso East in the 2002 state playoffs? That game was obviously on a huge stage. It was a well-played game on our part. We beat a team with some guys [Dee Brown, Shannon Brown] who went on to become professional basketball players. I’ve always felt that teamwork negates athleticism. When you get five guys playing together like that team I had at New Trier, a lot of great things can be accomplished.
How do you like to spend your free time? I’ve got a long commute to Fenwick every day, so I listen to Bill Hybels, the pastor from Willow Creek Community Church. Hearing him preach the word of God is amazing. I like reading. My family and I will get hooked on different TV series like “24” or “Homeland.” We try to have a family night every week. I like playing golf but wish I was better.
What’s been a pleasant surprise at Fenwick? The coolest part of the job has been watching the kids grow in their faith. Before our first home game, we had chapel and seeing some of the kids going in there, it’s an inspiring feeling like you’re on holy ground. You can be open and honest about your faith without getting in trouble. Fenwick is a unique place in that regard. I hope the kids are taking advantage of the opportunity to grow in their faith while they are here.
Favorite movie? “Ben-Hur” or “The Godfather.” My wife would say “The Godfather” because every time it’s on, I watch it.
Favorite book? The Bible. I also loved reading “Kane and Abel” by Jeffrey Archer.
Favorite vacation spot? My family and I go to Greece and Italy every two years. My wife is Greek and I’m Italian. It’s always a great trip. They live a different lifestyle which is refreshing.
Favorite holiday? I love Christmas and trying to buy the perfect gift for my kids. The only problem with Christmas is the Proviso West Tournament is Dec. 26th so every Christmas I was thinking about playing against Fenwick and John Quinn. Now, I’ll probably have to start thinking about facing New Trier.
I also love my kids’ birthdays and making a big deal out of those celebrations.
If you could talk to a famous person — dead or alive — who would it be and what would you talk about? Jesus. I don’t know if I’d want to hear what he would have to say about me [Malnati laughs]. I’m not quite ready for my judgment.
I’d also love to talk with Martin Luther King and find out about his courage and faith. How he accomplished so much through a peaceful approach is amazing.