JMU remembers legendary basketball coach Lou Campanelli

Published: Feb. 2, 2023 at 5:49 PM EST
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HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) - The James Madison University Community is mourning the loss of legendary men’s basketball coach Lou Campanelli who passed away on Tuesday at the age of 84.

“He’s one of the founding fathers. One of the true figures that helped establish this athletic department,” said JMU Assistant Athletic Director for Communications Kevin Warner.

Campanelli coached the Dukes from 1972 to 1985 and helped grow the program from a non-scholarship Division II team to a Division I team. He took several of his teams to NCAA Tournament and was inducted into the JMU Athletics Hall of Fame in 1999.

“The record speaks for itself that he was an outstanding coach and just extremely passionate about what he was doing. Very committed to the program, building it in many ways from the ground up,” said Gary Michael, a former JMU sports information director.

Michael joined the JMU athletic department in 1980 just before the peak of Campanelli’s run when the Dukes advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament three years in a row.

“That was just a magical time. You know it’s kind of arrogant on our part but I think you got to the point where you expected to beat those really good people. We’d gone to the tournament two years in a row and beaten Georgetown and Ohio State before losing that game in ‘82 to North Carolina,” he said.

The Dukes knocked off West Virginia in the first round of the 1983 tournament. Kevin Warner said that the three-run was huge for JMU athletics and what it would become.

“If you look today at what this department has become, the success that we have across all of our sports, the passionate fan base. We have school spirit at JMU unlike a lot of schools and I really think it goes back to that time,” said Warner.

Perhaps Campanelli’s most famous moment was his team’s 1982 loss to North Carolina in the second round of the tournament. The Dukes lost by just two points 52-50 against a team that had NBA Hall of Famers Michael Jordan and James Worthy and went on to win the national championship.

“He said ‘Look a team that’s been division one for 5 or 6 years shouldn’t do what we just did’. To lose by two to a team like that, that’s one of the top 5 teams in college basketball history, he was really proud of what he built that program into,” said Warner.

In the game, the Dukes’ defense held Michael Jordan, regarded by many as the greatest basketball player ever, to just six points.

“James Worthy in an interview after they won the National Championship by betting Georgetown, one of the commentators talked about how tough the game was against Georgetown and James Worthy volunteered very quickly ‘The James Madison game was just as tough as this one’,” said Michael.

Michael said that Campanelli was a great friend who was very passionate about JMU even after leaving to coach the University of California in 1985.

“A very good person, a good family person, but extremely committed to his program. That was a huge part of his life building that and being successful,” he said.

Kevin Warner said that Campanelli greatly appreciated his time at JMU and stayed connected to the program even in recent years.

“When we hired Coach Byington he called him on his second day on the job and wished him luck and spoke about his fond memories. So that’s a special bond between coaches,” said Warner.

Campanelli shared a deep bond with the players he coached that lasted decades.

“His former players loved him. We’ve seen some of the players commenting on our Twitter posts or Facebook posts and they really looked at him like a father figure,” said Warner. “When he went into hospice care a couple of weeks ago they got a bunch of his former players to write notes and his daughter read those notes to him in hospice care in his bed so he was able to relive some of those cherished memories. I know that bond between him and his players was really strong.”