Obituary: John L. Cinicola Jr. / Natural-born coach and motivator, led Duquesne basketball to NCAA tournament

Aug. 14, 1929 - Aug. 14, 2014

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Former National Basketball Association scout John L. Cinicola Jr., the last coach to take Duquesne University to the NCAA basketball tournament and a physical fitness devotee whose passions included rowing, cycling and running marathons, died of cancer Thursday at his Bellevue home. He was 85.

The East Liberty native, who never played for a high school or college basketball team, was a fiery competitor who loved teaching athletes of all ages the physical and mental aspects of whatever sport he was coaching at the time.

“It’s incredible how good he is,” former Robert Morris rowing coach Liz Jones told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 1998. “He understands what people need and how to get the best out of everybody.”

Mr. Cinicola dropped out of Peabody High School, took up learning to be a plumber, then returned to high school and graduated from Pittsburgh Academy in 1949. After a semester at the University of Miami, he transferred to Duquesne, when he earned a teaching degree in 1955. He then served two years in the U.S. Army, where he coached basketball and swimming.

Upon leaving the Army, he taught at Sharpsburg and Hempfield high schools, coaching basketball at both schools.

He joined the staff of Duquesne head coach Red Manning in 1960, serving as coach of the freshman team for seven winning seasons, including two undefeated seasons. He then became an assistant to Mr. Manning. When the head coach was named athletic director in 1974, Mr. Cinicola took over the varsity squad. Under him, the team had a record of 52-56 and made it to the NCAA tournament in 1977. The star of that squad was one of Mr. Cinicola’s recruits, guard Norm Nixon, who went on to a long, distinguished career with the Los Angeles Lakers.

Duquesne dismissed Mr. Cinicola the following year. He then became a marketing representative for two athletic shoe makers, Pro Keds and Pony, as well as a scout for the New Jersey Nets and the NBA.

“They valued his judgment,” said former Sharpsburg High teacher and basketball coach Lou “Bimbo” Cecconi.

Mr. Cecconi never remembers Mr. Cinicola shooting a basketball or demonstrating techniques, but said his longtime friend had tremendous skills as a teacher and motivator.

He put those talents to work off the basketball court, serving as an assistant coach for Ms. Jones and for North Allegheny High School’s rowing team and as head coach of the rowing team for the Westinghouse Corp. He also coached swimming at the Mt. Lebanon Aqua Club.

Mr. Cinicola competed in several Boston Marathons, running 100 miles or more each week as part of his training.

“He got me running,” said Ray Goss, who has broadcast Duquesne basketball games since 1968. “The guy stayed in terrific shape.”

That continued well into his 80s, when he worked in the warehouse at Kadmon Pharmaceuticals in Cranberry. Warehouse supervisor Vince Dispenza said Mr. Cinicola persuaded him to start running and was always ready to join much younger employees in lifting and other physical tasks.

“If you put anything in front of him, he would definitely achieve whatever was ahead of him,” Mr. Dispenza said.

Mr. Cinicola was inducted into the Western Chapter of the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame, the Duquesne University Hall of Fame and the Italian Sports Hall of Fame.

He is survived by two sons, John of Ben Avon Heights and Daniel of Sudbury, Mass.; two daughters, Eileen Painter of Montclair, N.J., and Mary Mlinarich of Allison Park; and 13 grandchildren. His wife, Eileen Conlon Cinicola, died in 2012.

Viewing is at Lawrence T. Miller Funeral Home, 460 Lincoln Ave., Bellevue, on Sunday and Monday from 1 to 3 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. A mass of Christian burial will be held Tuesday at 10 a.m. at the Church of the Assumption, 45 N. Sprague Ave., Bellevue. Mr. Cinicola will be buried at Mt. Carmel Cemetery in Penn Hills.

In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Kingsley Association, 6435 Frankstown Ave, Pittsburgh, PA 15206.

Len Boselovic: or 412-263-1941.

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