In the early 1970s, a tall, scrawny kid who called himself "a mediocre athlete and a troublemaker" in high school was given a choice by his father: Go to college or get a job.
The kid picked Valley College, then went out for the track team. He approached Coach Nick Giovinazzo, expecting to get turned down. But he didn't know Giovinazzo. As track coach at Monroe High, Giovinazzo once had 300 boys on the team--a third of all the boys in school. If you wanted to play for him, enthusiasm was the only requirement.
"Nick welcomed me in, and that was the turning point for me," said Fred Dixon, the skinny kid, who went on to become a decathlete on the 1976 and '80 U. S. Olympic teams. "He believed you could do a lot more than you thought you could do. It became contagious until you were convinced. I was an insecure kid with no confidence. Nick provided that confidence."
Giovinazzo (pronounced jo-vin- ot -so) is one of Los Angeles' great unsung sports figures. He's a contradiction to the popular belief that this is a city without a soul, a place where everybody is from somewhere else, where neighbors don't know one another's name, where close friends go back all the way to lunch--total strangers until bonding over an arugula salad and a round of Hollywood Hugs.
It's hard to imagine Giovinazzo taking a lunch or making a deal. Earthy, unpretentious and warm, he's that Southern California rarity--an Angeleno for all his 57 years. When 200 of his friends, family and former athletes recently threw a party to mark his retirement after 34 years as a teacher and coach, he wore his best polo shirt, his ever-present ear-to-ear smile and an aura of sincerity even while doing more hugging than Leo Buscaglia at a love-in.
Giovinazzo is an educator who fought for physical education and took an interest in athletes that went beyond their worth to him on the field. During his tenure at Valley College, from the fall of 1962 to the spring of '85, he was a coach and teacher, chairman of the physical education department for six years, chairman of evening health education for seven, iconoclast, innovator, motivator.
"Years ago, Nick did a lot of things coaching track that you see now," said Dan Means, acting president of Mission College. "And he helped Valley build a great physical education program in the '60s and '70s. But what distinguished him was that he was great with kids. He liked to work with kids who had academic difficulties. He took great pride in helping them get over these difficulties and go on to four-year colleges. He spent hours and hours helping them with their studies. He's that kind of person."
Giovinazzo is also the kind of person who would take the time to organize and run a semipro football team, as he said he did with the Valley All-Stars in 1960, "just to give older guys who can't get football out of their blood another chance to go out and knock heads." And he's the kind of person who will befriend and room with a 3-foot-10 little person, as he did with Billy Barty in the 1940s, and become a close friend with someone without even bothering to ask what he does for a living, as he did with motion picture director Martin Ritt.
"Nick doesn't care about those things," said Means, who chaired the Valley College PE department when Giovinazzo was hired. "That's why everybody loves him."
Means was the only college administrator to attend Giovinazzo's party. In his quest to maintain the quality of physical education at the junior college level, Giovinazzo has crossed swords with more than one administrator. To say he has contempt for them "is the understatement of the year," he said. But in the end, the administrators won. Giovinazzo grew weary of the battles, saying that coaching in junior colleges was "a major effort in futility." So he quit.
"I am a thousand times the teacher I was 10 years ago," he said. "I am at the peak of my productivity as an instructor. I could have lasted another 10 years, but my heart was torn out by what I saw happening in education today: the cutbacks and the layoffs and the polls that showed that 75 out of 100 teachers wouldn't recommend teaching as a profession. I was always the guy trying to get the other teachers 'up,' but I can't do it any more. I'm so down. It's hard to believe it's me."
And it's harder to believe that Giovinazzo will stay down. The son of Italian immigrants, he has overcome a lot more than mere disillusionment. When Los Angeles was young and still "like a small town," Giovinazzo said, he was born in a house that is now an off-ramp near Dodger Stadium, and as a child he played war among the Indian burial sites in Elysian Hills. His father, Joseph, was a gravedigger, bootlegger, restaurant owner and, finally, a wine maker with his own label, Sunland Vintage.
"When I didn't go into the business with him, my father sold out," Giovinazzo said, laughing, "and then he predicted that the wine business in California would never amount to anything."