Former University of Maine and La Salle University basketball coach John Giannini fishes the Penobscot River in Old Town on Sunday, July 8, 2018. Giannini was back in Maine to visit a longtime friend, and contacted BDN outdoors editor John Holyoke to arrange a brief fishing outing. Credit: John Holyoke

Last week, some time between trips to the lake during a sweltering vacation week, I received an email that made me chuckle.

“Want to go fishing with a fired basketball coach?” the writer asked. “I’m up [this] weekend if you’re around.”

The message was a blast from the past, and brought back all kinds of great memories. And I immediately replied, telling former UMaine and La Salle University coach John Giannini that I’d love to go fishing again.

It had been too long.

Giannini left UMaine 14 years ago, bound for the greener hoop pastures of La Salle, where he led the Explorers to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament in 2013.

Five years later, he was out, another casualty of the cutthroat college coaching game.

Then he made good on a promise he’d made back when I was covering the UMaine hoop teams that he coached.

During those years, we maintained a deliberate professional distance from each other, as I was the reporter, and he was the coach. Once a year, however, we spent a day doing some “off the record” fishing. On alternate years we’d hop in his boat and fish for bass on Pushaw Lake, or jump in mine and troll for togue on Green Lake.

It might have been 2001, or 2002, when we had a conversation I still remember well.

He knew that eventually, he’d likely have to leave UMaine. The allure of a paycheck that would be three or four times larger would simply prove irresistible.

“What’s the worst-case scenario if I go somewhere else?” he asked me.

I pointed out that he might end up failing, or unappreciated. And he might get fired.

“Well, I’ll have earned as much money in three years as I would in 10 here [at UMaine],” he told me. “Then I’ll come back here, think about my next move, and we’ll fish all the time. And I’ll buy lunch.”

In March, after the La Salle season ended, that day finally came. Giannini was out.

On Sunday, he was true to his word. He bought breakfast, not lunch, but the sentiment was the same: We were going fishing. And we were going to spend some time catching up.

Over a pile of blueberry pancakes at one of his old haunts — Governor’s Restaurant in Old Town — and couple hours trading casts on the Penobscot River, we did just that.

Giannini has landed on his feet and has plans for the future. Coaching, it seems, isn’t among those plans.

First, he’s taking a job at Rowan University, working with sports communications students and organizing some guest speaker events for the school where he won the NCAA Division III championship back in 1996, just before heading to Orono.

He’s also hoping he gets a shot at doing some TV work as an analyst on basketball broadcasts.

And when he has time, he’ll continue to fish.

Giannini grew up near Chicago, where he developed a love of fishing for coldwater species. During his time in Maine, he lived just a few hundred feet from Pushaw, and could be in his boat fishing for bass just minutes after returning from Memorial Gym.

The time he spent here is still important to him. He points to the coaches he worked alongside — Shawn Walsh, Joanne Palombo McCallie, Sharon Versyp and Paul Kostacopoulos — and says UMaine was lucky to have such a talented group.

And his former players remain an important part of his life.

“The guys that I recruited, I still keep in touch with most of them,” he said, ticking off a list of names that UMaine hoop fans of that generation would recognize: Andy Bedard, Derrick Jackson, Errick Greene, Todd Tibbetts, Colin Haynes and Julian Dunkley.

That’s what the coach will miss. Not the pressure of feeling like he has to wake up every morning and do everything perfectly in order to help his team just gain an at-large berth in the NCAA tourney. Not trying to please a few older fans who still view the school’s 1954 national championship as the standard.

The players. The relationships. Striving for a single goal, together.

On Sunday, the tales were more plentiful than the takes. Only a pair of smallmouth bass took the time to visit our lures and flies, and neither of those fish stuck around for long.

But neither of us was worried about that.

“Tell me about you,” he said. “What’s been going on with you?”

That’s when the span of years between our fishing outings really became clear. When we’d last spent time like this together, I was in my 30s. He was a young father.

Now, his daughters are in their 20s.

And what’s new for me? Nothing has changed at all. Except for my marriage and my three stepchildren.

And the three strokes that I suffered a year and a half ago.

And the death, earlier this year, of my father, who had been a huge fan of the teams Giannini coached.

On the banks of that river, we fished a bit. That, we told each other, was the purpose of our trip.

But deep down, we both knew that fishing was merely an excuse to make up for lost time.

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John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. He spent 28 years working for the BDN, including 19 years as the paper's outdoors columnist or outdoors editor. While...