Yale men’s basketball coaching legend Vancisin dies at 98

Joe Vancisin, who coached the Yale men’s basketball team for 19 seasons and won three Ivy League championships, died on Monday at the age of 98. Vancisin was honored as Yale’s first Legend of Ivy League Basketball at the inaugural league tournament in 2017.

“Joe was a wonderful friend and a passionate basketball coach who cared dearly about Yale and all the young men that he mentored,” Yale basketball coach James Jones said in a statement. “I feel blessed to have known him and will miss my friend.”

Vancisin, who was inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2011, took over at Yale in 1956-57 and promptly led the Bulldogs to the first official Ivy League title. Yale then lost to North Carolina 90-74 in the NCAA Tournament at Madison Square Garden. The Bulldogs returned to the NCAA Tournament in 1961-62, dropping a heartbreaking 92-82 decision to a Wake Forest team led by Billy Packer that went on to advance to the Final Four. Yale shared the Ivy title in 1962-63 but fell to Princeton in a playoff game.

Yale’s appearance in the 1962 NCAA Tournament was its last before the Bulldogs recent trips in 2016 and 2019.

Vancisin, who lived many years in Branford, attended 60 consecutive NCAA Final Fours (1948-2008) and 63 overall, playing in the 1944 event while at Dartmouth and attending the 2013 Final Four in Atlanta at age 90.

Another notable highlight of his coaching career came when the Bulldogs captured the 1969 Rainbow Classic in Hawaii, knocking off Pete Maravich’s LSU team in the championship game. Renowned as a brilliant court tactician, Vancisin helped develop Yale stars John Lee ‘58, Rick Kaminsky ‘64 (both All-Americans), Larry Downs ‘59, Bill Madden ‘62, Ed Goldstone ‘68, Rick Stoner ‘68 and Jim Morgan ‘71.

“Mrs. Vancisin called me with the news, and her first words were, `Your Coach has passed away.’ She wanted his former players to know how much we meant to him,” said Morgan, the captain of the 1970-71 Bulldogs and Yale’s sixth all-time leader with 1,510 career points. “I was proud to play for Coach Vancisin, and he was recognized throughout the coaching ranks as an outstanding tactician. We didn’t always match up to the talent level of our opponents, but we were always well prepared.

“Coach was a proponent of fast break basketball and a motion offense, both of which suited my style. He always showed a great deal of respect for me and the other players even when we made a mistake. You never saw Coach curse or yell at anyone, not even the refs. He had confidence in us even when we were struggling, and I think he truly believed we could win every game we played. I’m grateful for having had the chance to play for him, and I know my teammates feel the same way. He had a major impact on our lives, and I sincerely appreciate everything he did for me and the basketball program.”

Vancisin, who won 206 games as the Bulldogs’ head coach, left Yale in 1975 to become the NABC’s executive director for 17 years before his retirement in 1992. Under his leadership, the NABC debuted its college all-star game at the NCAA Final Four, elected its first African American president in Georgetown’s John Thompson and adopted a code of ethics.

Vancisin’s career in basketball covered more than 54 years as a player, coach and administrator. The Bridgeport, Conn., native was the captain of the state and New England championship team as a senior at Bassick High, was selected to the All State and All New England teams and was recognized as Connecticut’s most outstanding scholastic player.

At Dartmouth College, where he played basketball and baseball, he was a starting guard when Dartmouth was edged in overtime in the NCAA championship game by Utah in 1944. Coach Ozzie Cowles persuaded Vancisin to remain to coach the freshman team and, after one season, he enlisted in the Air Force. After being discharged, Vancisin followed Cowles once again, serving as an assistant coach at Michigan, helping the Wolverines win the Big Ten title in 1948. He then moved on to Minnesota for seven seasons (1949 to 1956) as a basketball and baseball assistant coach as the Golden Gophers captured both the Big Ten and NCAA baseball championships in 1955.

Vancisin traveled extensively giving clinics around the world and was a member of two U.S. Olympic basketball staffs — on the gold medal winning team headed by Dean Smith in 1976 and with the 1980 team, coached by Dave Gavitt.

Vancisin was an active member of the NABC, served on the board of directors and was the NABC president in 1974. He succeeded Bill Wall as NABC executive director in 1975 and was the recipient of the John Bunn Award from the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993.