After a tough season, Kowalczyk sees success on the horizonWritten by Chris Schmidbauer | | firstname.lastname@example.org
It has been almost a year since Tod Kowalczyk took the job, but for the UT men’s basketball head coach, this season might have seemed like an eternity.
“I won’t lie,” Kowalczyk said, “It’s been a pretty tough one.”
When he took the head post, Kowalczyk knew it would be difficult, but even he may not have fathomed just how difficult it would be.
On March 8, the 44 year-old head coach wrapped up a 4-28 campaign with the Rockets. The season has been marred by injuries, personnel conflicts and many tough losses for the hoops squad.
A year ago, Kowalczyk was putting the finishing touches on his eighth season as the head coach at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. It was his fourth consecutive season of finishing at or above .500 for the season with the Phoenix. It was his second season in a row to be invited to the College Basketball Invitational, a postseason tournament for teams not involved in the NCAA’s annual championship.
The contrast is stark, which raises the question: Why anyone in their right mind would leave a winning program to take on a rebuilding project of immense proportions.
“I am very grateful for my time at Wisconsin-Green Bay and all they did for me and my family. But I had always heard about UT basketball and the potential that existed here.”
From the athletic department’s point of view, Kowalczyk possessed all the intangibles it was looking for to replace Gene Cross.
“Tod quickly shot up to the top of our list of candidates,” said UT athletic director Mike O’Brien. “He was a winner for one, but we like that there was more to him than just winning. He graduated every player from Wisconsin-Green Bay in his eight years there, and he was active in the local community. That made him a great fit for our basketball coach.”
After speaking to some confidants in the college basketball world, including Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo, Kowalczyk decided to take the job.
“When I talked to those guys, they all told me this is one of the best jobs in the MAC, and that I needed to take it. So that’s what I did.”
A season to forget
Fellow coaches may have thought UT is the best job in the MAC, but the trying times have made many second guess that notion.
The Rockets lost their first nine games of the season before winning three in a row. The team would go almost another month before notching its fourth victory of the season on Jan. 19. UT did not win another game.
Compounding the problems were the multitude of injuries that have piled up throughout the season to a squad that was always shorthanded when it came to available scholarship players.
Part of Kowalczyk’s strategy in rebuilding the Rockets was to use transfer players and award them scholarships. Per NCAA rules, transfers must sit out an entire year before competing.
“We knew that we were going to sacrifice some wins by giving transfers scholarships,” Kowalczyk said. “But I never foresaw this many guys getting hurt.”
Kowalczyk insists that while others think injuries are a normal part of basketball, he does not.
“It is one thing to say that about football, but in basketball there isn’t nearly that same kind of contact or as much contact. I have never had this many guys down at one time.”
The string of players who were hurt left the already depleted Rockets with just five scholarship players able to play down the homestretch. UT was forced to play several walk-on players, something Kowalczyk was not used to doing.
“In my eight years at Wisconsin-Green Bay, I never played a walk-on guy. I have worked our walk-ons harder this season than I have ever done in my entire coaching career, but that is because I have never been forced to go the lengths to get players like I have this past season.”
This season has produced some record-setting lows. The Rockets’ average deficit in defeat was 16 points. The team’s 4-28 record matches last year’s for the worst in school history and the program is still mired in a record-setting 48-game losing streak on the road.
Kowalczyk said to cope with all the stress he has tried to focus on more important things in life.
“I have tried to remember this sport is just a game,” he said.
The coach said he also has focused his and the Rockets’ attention on the finer points of basketball.
When Kowalczyk took charge, there were discipline, academic and off-court issues to deal with before basketball could be the team’s sole focus.
“I’ve said a lot that this season wasn’t just about wins and losses for this team this year. It was about building a culture around Toledo basketball that will be the foundation of the program for years to come.”
Just dealing with it
Kowalczyk admits it hasn’t been easy being the head coach of the Rockets this season.
“It’s frustrating and taxing for sure,” he said. “There is no question there have been some humbling experiences this season.”
One thing that Kowalczyk has not been is shy. He is quickly becoming known as a coach who is candid with the media and his team.
“Sometimes I am too negative with the team, but they haven’t always left me much choice,” he said.
“The only way that I know how to coach is to be honest. In fact, I have been told that sometimes I am too honest, but I am not a guy who sugarcoats things.”
Kowalczyk focuses on his family and friends. He said his wife and two children are a great reminder of what is important in life, which helps keep everything in perspective.
“It has been tough on my family at times because they like to see me happy and there haven’t always been a ton of happy days this past season.
“My son just turned 4 and we had a birthday party. I also lost a good friend this year. There’s so much more to life than just wins and losses. It’s been about setting this program up for success and doing it the right way instead of cutting corners.”
Athletic Director Mike O’Brien has his own perspective on this season and, despite a tough year, he said he is excited to see the direction the program is going.
“We certainly haven’t won the number of games we would have liked to,” O’Brien said. “We knew coming in this season would be a struggle, but when you look at the way Tod has handled everything, we are confident we made the right decision.”
O’Brien said this season has in no way shaken the faith in the abilities of the first-year head coach.
“We still have absolute faith in Tod and his ability to turn this program around,” he said.
On the horizon
Despite all of the problems that the basketball program endured this past season, hope springs eternal regarding the UT basketball team.
First and foremost, Kowalczyk will welcome four recruits next season in Justin Moss, Ryan Majerle, “Juice” Brown and A.J. Mathew, all of whom are rated high by several recruiting Web sites and publications.
The quartet will join with transfer players Curtis Dennis, Dominique Buckley, Rian Pearson and Matt Smith.
In many ways, Kowalczyk has tied the program’s transformation to the performance of this new crop of Rockets. He even took the unprecedented step in naming Buckley, Pearson and Smith captains for the current season.
“I wasn’t going to name just anybody captain. Those three guys had been working hard in the gym every day and they had the right approach,” Kowalczyk said. “They strived to be the best players they could become and that was what I was looking for.”
With the influx of new talent accompanying the pieces already in place, the mantra of “wait till next year” may finally have some truth behind it for the Rockets.
“When you look at the way [Kowalczyk] is setting things up for next season, you can see the program is heading in the right direction,” O’Brien said.
The blueprint that Kowalczyk has been working off of to rebuild this program has already started to pay dividends.
“We have seen several players get better this season and buy into the program,” he said. “I have seen guys cry after tough losses and that tells me they care about this team as much as I do.”
Kowalczyk is also confident in his decision to come to the Glass City because of the hospitality of fans and citizens who have made his and his family’s transition easier.
“Our fans have been great, and they are passionate about Rocket basketball,” he said. “I think they are one of the most knowledgeable fan bases in the country. They root hard for us and want to see us succeed and that has been great to have that support.”
No matter what hardships the fans and the program have faced in recent years, O’Brien said soon those days will be firmly in the rearview mirror.
“Next year people won’t be asking these questions about losing,” he said. “That’s why next year will be so sweet.”