Three NBA players. Six McDonald’s All-Americans. Twenty-nine years.
By the numbers, Paul Pellicani had a successful career as a high school basketball head coach.
More important to Pellicani, though, is the development of those players into young men — sharing values that later prepared them to become good husbands, fathers, employees and, in some cases, coaches.
Pellicani said goodbye to his job as Severna Park High School varsity head coach prior to the basketball season last winter. But his influence is still resonating with former players.
Before he joined Severna Park High School, Pellicani coached Maine Central Institute. From 1982 to 1989, he went 135-18 at the Division I junior varsity level, according to a Baltimore Sun article penned when Pellicani was later hired to coach Severna Park.
Derrick Brevard was on one of those teams.
“We played full court, all game, fast and hard,” he said. “You can’t take any plays off. You can’t take any days off.”
Brevard called Pellicani “tough but fair,” showing the players exactly what he wanted them to do while mapping out a purpose and goals.
“He was big on character,” Brevard said. “We rarely had anybody on the team who got into trouble or did not do well in the classroom.”
When Tony Lucas joined Maine Central Institute in 1988, he witnessed Pellicani coming to the players’ dorms for over two hours per night. A curfew was set.
“He was not only a good coach, but he was our father figure there,” Lucas said.
Coming from the Midwest, Lucas was not ready for the “East Coast mentality” of basketball. He was not in shape when he came to the school, and because Pellicani’s practices entailed a lot of running, the coach said he might bench Lucas.
Lucas accepted the challenge.
“It was moving up and down, run and shoot. It was fast break,” Lucas said. “Once I got used to the style he wanted, it opened my game more with shooting 3’s and ball-handling.”
Pellicani had the program rolling. Because of the school’s status and location on the East Coast, Pellicani was able to meet college coaching giants including Jim Boeheim from Syracuse and Mike Krzyzewski.
He used those connections to help players. But even the good things in life come to an end.
“The last headmaster called me in and said it was his intention to change the [school’s] image,” Pellicani recalled. “He said, ‘We’re not going to be a basketball school. We’re going to be a music and drama school.’”
In between head coaching gigs, Pellicani worked under Marty Blake as a scout.
Before long, Pellicani was Maryland bound.
Pellicani moved to Olde Severna Park in 2004. When the head coaching job was available, Pellicani was not interested at first. His wife offered advice.
“She said, ‘Do you know your sons are going to Severna Park? And who do you want to coach them?’” Pellicani said.
He came to the Falcons after the program had losing seasons seven of the 12 prior years. Coaching at a public high school in Severna Park had its own challenges and benefits. Every year at Maine Central, Pellicani had different players. At Severna Park, he was able to coach players for multiple years, but they had skill sets that were different from his former players. For example, one of his Maine Central teams had three athletes who were 7 feet tall.
“In college, you recruit players to fit your system,” he said. “Shaka Smart of VCU had the chaos pressure defense … you’re not going to be able to do what Marquette does or what the Syracuse kids do. We ran alley-oop out of bounds at Maine Central. I’m not doing that at Severna Park.”
Despite those differences, it did not take him long to get acclimated to Severna Park. He instilled a culture immediately. Norman Gee started on varsity almost four full years from 2000 to 2004 and was on Pellicani’s first Severna Park squad.
“I was really fortunate to have some great coaches in my career and coach Pellicani is up there with the best,” Gee said. “When you’re playing for him, sometimes you don’t understand his rhyme or reason, but he is masterful at being able to identify what motivates a player and get the most out of them.”
Gee once forgot his shorts during a road game. Instead of bailing out his player, Pellicani sat Gee. The player learned from that lesson and now appreciates his coach for helping him generate collegiate playing opportunities.
Sam Jones, who played for the Falcons from 2006 to 2009, remembers Pellicani setting expectations so that his players had accountability.
“It’s hard to get kids at that age to understand what hard work is and to actually do it,” Jones said. “His teams played hard, worked hard, and were disciplined.”
Pellicani also taught accountability in other ways. He preached four cornerstones: trust, honesty, respect and shared responsibility.
“If not all four, daily at least one would come up,” Pellicani said. “I might say, ‘This is an example of trust. Trust [that] when you get tired, you give me a shirt tug. Trust that you’re not buried on the bench but getting a needed break.’”
On Saturday mornings, he read “Principles My Father Taught Me,” a passage penned by Major Doug Zembiec, whose words are read by plebes in the Navy.
Zembiec was named the Lion of Fallujah following his heroic actions commanding E Company during Operation Vigilant Resolve in 2004 in Iraq. He was awarded the Silver Star Medal, the Bronze Star Medal and two Purple Heart medals before he was killed in 2007 while leading a raid in Baghdad.
A challenge coin in honor of Zembiec was given to former Severna Park High School JV basketball coach and retired Marine Dave Bethel, and from there, Pellicani presented it to players who demonstrated leadership on and off the court.
“With the coin, it showed how he prioritized turning us into responsible young men instead of being good at shooting and rebounding,” said former Falcon Taylor Kitzmiller.
Pellicani said, “You’re talking about 16- to 18-year-old boys over 12 years and that coin was never lost.”
Pellicani’s teams did not lose much either. The Falcons were county champions in 2003-2004 and 2013-2014. During that 2013-2014 season, his team set a school record with 23 wins.
“Coach P would have every single day planned down to the minute,” said Jake Hallet, who said Pellicani was like a father figure to him and several teammates around 2017. “For seven minutes, we start jogging … six minutes after that, we are going to stretch.”
Former Severna Park High School athletic director Dave Lanham remembers Pellicani for being meticulous and for always asking Lanham how his family was doing.
“The thing with Paul, his teams were always competitive regardless of what the roster looked like or the size and height of the players, or the depth,” Lanham said. “Paul would always get the most out of every player. Paul was self-sufficient. He was a model of consistency.”
Wins aside, Pellicani’s biggest impression was caring about the boys as people, a practice that has not ceased in retirement.
“I send Christmas cards and he is always the first to send me a message back,” said Gee, who now lives in Virginia.
Brevard, who now coaches a girls basketball team, still hears from Pellicani.
“Even to this day, he still coaches me on life stuff,” Brevard said. “He watches my games on a computer. I appreciate that always.”
Pellicani was in attendance for one of Jones’ biggest milestones.
“He was at my wedding 12 years after I graduated,” Jones said. “I was always a better lacrosse and football player, but some of the most impactful lessons I learned were through Severna Park basketball: toughness, resiliency, accountability — he will still drop me a note. ‘Sam, I’m proud of you.’”
Pellicani is proud that some of his players became doctors and lawyers, showing that athletic and academic success can coexist.
“If you played basketball, that was his way of getting through to kids,” Brevard said. “Through basketball, he got them to look down the line and prepare for other things in life.”
If he can give any coaches one piece of advice, it’s this: “Don’t underestimate the importance you have on kids,” Pellicani said.