- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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It’s been three long years since Toledo has put together a winning basketball season, three strings of disappointing runs where the Rockets could only muster 11, seven, and worst of all, last season’s four wins.
Naturally the fans have been frustrated, disenchanted even.
Which is why, for the past three seasons, the Rockets have ranked third, second and second in attendance in the Mid-American Conference.
Yes, you read that right. While Toledo struggled to a 22-72 record, the fans still came to Savage Arena despite the painful product on the court.
And that is why Tod Kowalczyk is here, why he abandoned a cruise-along gig at Wisconsin-Green Bay, where he had literally brought the Phoenix up from the ashes and turned them into 22-game winners in each of their last two seasons.
It is not what Toledo is right now, but rather what it could be.
“I took this job almost sight unseen,’’ Kowalczyk said. “Over the course of a 22-year career, while you’re out recruiting you hear people talk about what jobs are good jobs. I had always heard that Toledo was one of the best jobs in the MAC. So when it all went down, I made some phone calls to some very close friends, people I trust and they all said, 'Tod, take this job. It’s a great situation.'"
Well, it will be.
Right now, Toledo -- which suffered a 19-game losing streak en route to its ultimate 4-28 demise last season -- is something of a disaster. Two players, including leading scorer Jake Barrett, opted to leave in the offseason and Kowalczyk elected to release four more, cutting the numbers to five returning scholarship players.
Despite the hole they put him in, the dismissals were necessary for a team that needs to understand what it takes to win, Kowalczyk said.
“This program needed an awful lot of adjustment regarding the culture of the program, the culture of responsibility and accountability both socially and academically,’’ he said. “We’re starting from ground zero. Some guys decided they didn’t want to be here and I respect them and to be honest, there were some guys that I didn’t want to have as part of this program. I want guys who are committed to being great students and great teammates and that wasn’t the case when I first got here.’’
A bulky freshman class of eight has buoyed the slim numbers and the future looks brighter with transfers Rian Pearson and Matt Smith (from Green Bay) and Dominique Buckley (from Iowa State) in the wings for next season.
Still, it is a shaky base to pull a program out of a 4-28 quagmire.
“Well I know this much, we’ll be picked to finish last,’’ Kowalczyk laughed.
But the 44-year-old is invigorated, not overwhelmed, by the challenge, an instinct he comes by naturally. He is the son of a coach.
Rod Kowalczyk spent 40 years at De Pere High School in Wisconsin, serving with such distinction as a teacher, coach and athletic director that the court there now bears his name.
His second son was a tough competitor with a natural stubborn streak. Rod tried to steer Tod into a high school career, arguing it offered job security and a decent salary, but his son was hell-bent on the college route. After playing, graduating and assisting for a year at Minnesota-Duluth, he took a job at the University of New Hampshire as an administrative assistant, where his salary was less than $10,000.
“I went to visit him in New Hampshire,’’ Rod Kowalczyk said. “He was sharing a house with three or four other people. The windows were all sealed shut. His mattress was on the floor, so that’s where we slept and I’m not exaggerating when I say that the thermostat was set to 58 degrees. I woke up in the morning and said, ‘Tod, this is no way to live.’ But he saw the light at the end of the tunnel.’’
Plenty of people figured the tunnel would stop in Green Bay, the place where he grew up. The elder Kowalczyk still lives in De Pere, just outside of the city, and his son was a success there. When he arrived at Green Bay, the Phoenix were -- like Toledo -- coming off three losing seasons, with an RPI hovering around 270.
In his eight seasons, UWGB averaged 16 wins a year.
The jump to Toledo, in many people’s eyes, seemed little more than a lateral move. Take away Butler and the Horizon League isn’t much different than the MAC. Some might argue it’s better.
But Toledo has football -- a huge recruiting ploy in Kowalczyk’s eyes -- and the Horizon has Butler, the looming shadow that eclipses the Horizon. Those 22-win seasons Kowalczyk engineered at Green Bay were rewarded with tickets to the CBI.
So when Toledo called, Kowalczyk listened.
And what he heard the program was, and more what he imagined it could be, was enough.
“It was difficult to leave for two reasons: I was leaving behind a very good team with really good guys, and No. 2, I had some very dear friends there,’’ Kowalczyk said. “But this was just a better opportunity for our staff to be successful.’’