Tim O’Toole: Different ways to skin a cat


Thomas Yang | Assistant Visual Editor

Associate head coach for the Pitt men’s basketball team Tim O’Toole coached at Fairfield University before being named to Jeff Capel’s coaching staff.

By Cale Berger, Staff Writer

Tim O’Toole was hired to Jeff Capel’s Pitt basketball staff last summer as associate head coach, bringing a resumé that included time under basketball’s brightest minds and a knack for developing big men. But before he carved out a name for himself as a passionate presence on the sidelines, O’Toole was just a low-paid graduate assistant at Fordham University, on the fence between a life in finance or a life in basketball.

While at Fordham pursuing an MBA in finance, he interviewed for a job with investment firm Cantor Fitzgerald in 1989. When the firm’s president told O’Toole that he could make upwards of $300,000 in salary after just two years, he thought back to an adage his father often shared with him.

“He used to tell me all the time ‘Make your vocation your vacation,’” O’Toole said. “If you can make your vocation your vacation, if you enjoy everyday what you’re doing, you’re going to be a heck of a lot further than most people.”

It was after this reflection that O’Toole knew what his true passion was. He declined the lucrative job offer, and committed fully to a career as a basketball coach — a decision that he by no means regrets, but one that has had an unimaginable impact on his life.  

Cantor Fitzerald’s New York offices were located within the World Trade Center, populating the 101st through 105th floors. They lost 658 employees on Sept. 11, 2001. If he had taken the job offer, O’Toole likely would have been working there the day of the 9/11 attacks.  

“You have these moments in life where you know you’re lucky, or that you have guardian angels,” he said. “The reality is that if I was there, I was dead.”

O’Toole grew up in White Plains, New York — about an hour north of the city — and was the head coach at his alma mater of Fairfield University in Connecticut at the time. Being in the tri-state area, he attended countless funerals. It’s a period that he thinks about often, and one that certainly puts life and the game of basketball in perspective.  

“My son Collin has two ‘L’s’ in his name as opposed to one,” he said, “because I never want him to forget that there were two trade towers that used to be here.”

To honor his friends and near-colleagues that were lost on that day in 2001, O’Toole tries to make every day count, taking nothing for granted, a lesson that he tries to instill in the players he coaches.  

“We’re lucky,” he said. “No matter how good or bad we think we got it, we have an opportunity … If you don’t have energy and fire behind it, it makes it a hell of a lot harder.”

He tackles every day with a sense of vigor and enthusiasm that is not lost on a young Pitt team, and O’Toole’s impact and energy was noticed on his first day.  

Sophomores Terrell Brown and Khameron Davis had not yet formally met O’Toole, but they were playing pickup in the practice gym of the Petersen Events Center the day he was named to Jeff Capel’s coaching staff.  

“We go down, someone misses a shot, we get a rebound and we’re running the fast break,” Davis said. “And from the corner of my eye I see someone running from the out of bounds, and I’m like ‘Who is running?’ I look to the side and coach O’Toole is running the sidelines as we’re playing.”

Sure enough it was O’Toole, sprinting up and down the sideline, stride-for-stride with the players on the court as they transitioned from offense to defense.  

“It came to a point where some of us were more focused on him running,” Brown said. “Like he’s really keeping up with us.”

While Davis and Brown certainly found his behavior peculiar, O’Toole himself found it completely normal, likening it to a coaching style he has used often throughout his career.

“For the most part I deal with the big dudes, and they’re baseline-to-baseline guys,” he said. “I wanted to make sure that if I was going to say something to those guys, I better know what I’m talking about. And the best way to do it is if you’re running up behind them.”

O’Toole’s hands-on style may be slightly unconventional, but his tutelage under some of the game’s greatest coaches has taught him that there are many different approaches that can lead to winning basketball.  

O’Toole was an assistant for Syracuse in 1991. On the first day of practice, he found his locker right next to head coach Jim Boeheim. When Boeheim asked him if Syracuse did things differently compared to his previous stops, O’Toole assured him that coaching for the Orange was nothing like he had done before. They had fast-paced, competitive practices that O’Toole compared to the Indy 500. That’s when Boeheim gave him some friendly advice.

“There’s a lot of different ways to skin a cat,” he said.

Fast-forward four years, and O’Toole was coaching under Mike Krzyzewski at Duke.  Again, his locker was right next to another legend. Unlike the zone-oriented Boeheim, Coach K was all about man-to-man defense. After a practice, Krzyzewski posed a question that was eerily familiar.

“Am I a lot different than Jim?” he asked.

When O’Toole explained to him the differences he had noticed, Krzyzewski responded with an even more familiar answer.

“Remember,” he said. “There’s a lot of different ways to skin a cat.”

O’Toole was stunned.

Thirteen years later in 2008, O’Toole was interviewing with Mike D’Antoni, then the head coach of the New York Knicks running his fast-paced ‘Seven Seconds or Less’ offense. D’Antoni was fresh off of coaching the U.S. Olympic team with Krzyzewski and Boeheim, so he too was curious of what O’Toole had to say about coaching alongside his contemporaries.  

“Am I different than Mike and Boe?” he asked.

O’Toole said of course. D’Antoni replied in the most poetic way possible.

“Remember, there’s a lot of different ways to skin a cat.”

It was after this third interaction that O’Toole finally caught on.

“Three of these monsters tell me this,” he said. “I better learn at least one thing.”

Now, O’Toole is drawing on all of that knowledge and passion in an attempt to help a young Pitt team that has lost 10 consecutive games in conference play.

“I don’t want one person that comes to the Petersen Events Center to leave this building with a loss,” he said. “So then when we come here and there’s human beings, and they’re loud … you almost want to jump up and down and be grateful, because that’s the choice they make.”

For O’Toole, coaching is all about sharing that knowledge, energy and passion that he attacks life with on to the players, because he knows all too well that you can take nothing for granted.

“O’Toole really does care,” Davis said. “Though his methods are, you know, different — ultimately it’s all for the benefit of you. And I do believe that.”