Kowalczyk stresses mix of success on, off courtWritten by Scott Calhoun | | firstname.lastname@example.org
After eight seasons transforming Wisconsin-Green Bay University (UWG) into a winner both in hoops and academics, Tod Kowalczyk became the 18th head coach of the Toledo men’s basketball program. The Rockets are coming off their worst season in a 95-year history.
Courageous enough to uproot his family and move three states away to take on the Rockets, Kowalczyk, 43, displays the same ambitious focus fighting a troubling trend of academic abandonment particularly prevalent in men’s college hoops.
“I do savor the challenge,” said Kowalczyk, pointing out the current rate of NCAA Division I men’s basketball players graduating college is 42 percent. “I feel we can quickly turn around [the Rockets] with players who want to compete at a high level.”
A member of the National Basketball Coaches Ethics Committee since 2005, Kowalczyk stresses academics. He graduated every eligible hoopster on his roster in each of his eight years piloting the UWG craft. The latest NCAA Academic Progress Rate score (APR) (combined over the past five seasons) registers at 965 for UWGB, the second highest in the Horizon League.
“I want our guys to understand first and foremost that our priority is academics first,” Kowalczyk announced just before reporting that Rockets’ Larry Bastfield, Ian Salter, Josh Freelove and Neil Watson were departing due to higher academic standards in the wake of prior departures by Jordan Dressler and leading scorer Jake Barnett since March 30, his first day on the job.
The mass exodus leaves him with just five returning scholarship players, headed by senior-to-be standout Justin Anyijong.
No-nonsense Kowalczyk is not concerned.
He’ll simply fill the voids with the type of kids he’s looking for, the kind that always graduated at UWG while amassing a 136-112 during his tenure in Wisconsin.
“To me it’s a not a loss. It goes back to recruiting guys who want to get an education,” Kowalczyk said. “I am not going to recruit guys that aren’t interested in graduating.”
He didn’t get to this point in his career by accident. Insisting throughout his youth that he wanted to be not just a coach but a college basketball coach, Kowalczyk infused heredity with a vision and the result is firmly in place.
His brother Tim and sister Terry are teachers and his father, Rod Kowalczyk, was a De Pere High School coach for the Redbirds from 1959-77 and athletic director 1980-98. Rod’s educational imprint on the community is so deep the school’s gym is named after him.
“Tod’s policy is you must sit first row in class, you must ask questions, and all cell phones must be off,” father said of his son. “If they break the rules they get in trouble.
“He believes if you can convince the players’ parents that their kids will do well and graduate they’ll be happy.”
After growing up a fan of the once powerhouse Marquette program, Kowalczyk served as an assistant under Tom Crean’s Golden Eagles right on the cusp of their resurgence in the early 2000s. He left to coach UWG the same season Marquette returned to the Final Four in 2002-03.
Crean had previously mentored under Michigan State coach Tom Izzo (current 975 APR at MSU) before taking the Marquette helm and later moving on to be the current coach at Indiana.
Both men stress family and classroom first.
“It’s a Tom Izzo system. If you have to beg kids to come to your program, don’t go after them,” said Rod Kowalczyk, further explaining that his son follows Izzo’s doctrine of allocating each coach on the staff three to four players to mentor through respective careers on campus in order to achieve closeness.
Kowalczyk employed the method at UWGB with great success. He’s brought a pair of assistants to Toledo in Jason Kalsow and Angres Thorpe to help make a smooth transition.
“Let’s be frank, this team won four games. We are at an all-time low,” he said, “but I feel we can turn around this team quickly with new guys who want to do it the right way.”
As for mid-major bookworms breaking through the surface of success on the court, Kowalcyzk pointed to UWG’s Horizon League rival Butler, fresh off its 61-59 near-miss at a national crown against 92-percent graduation-rate Duke in the 2010 NCAA championship game. The Bulldogs are already a 2010-11 preseason top-five favorite.
The Bulldogs have a four-year 90-percent graduation rate and are the top APR team in the Horizon with a 966, barely edging Kowalczyk’s hard work back home in Green Bay.
“Look at them,” he said. “It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you harness student-athletes who want to be successful in the classroom and on the floor.”