- Graham Hays, espnW.com
- 0 Shares
It was a phone call Ken Bothof had taken often during his years at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, yet he found himself flummoxed when the time came for him to make it.
How does the director of one of the smaller athletic departments in Division I ask the University of Michigan if it would mind terribly much if he hired away the Wolverines' basketball coach?
The road Kevin Borseth followed to become the subject of such a call is constantly choked with bumper-to-bumper coaching traffic. Bigger is always better, the grass always greener. Players graduate and move on to the real world. Coaches graduate to the next rung up the ladder. It's how Borseth got to Michigan in the first place. But to borrow from Robert Frost, the road that ultimately made all the difference to him was less well worn.
He chased a dream, but found what he was looking for when he retraced his steps.
"I just didn't enjoy myself where I was at," said Borseth, who returned to Green Bay this season after five seasons at Michigan. "I didn't. And not because it was anything of anybody else's doing. It was just that I didn't enjoy my quality of life. I really didn't. It was very difficult, and I think it weighed on me as a person, it weighed on me as a coach, it weighed on me as a parent. And I think a lot of people could see that.
"I feel it now. I mean, I get up in the morning and just my mind is clear."
While the pro football team in Green Bay operates on even footing with competitors in Chicago, New York and other major markets in the most successful league in the country, life is a little different at the college across town.
A small operation even by Horizon League standards, the Green Bay athletic department doesn't have football money paying the bills (depending on whom you ask, leaving the gridiron to the Packers was either Vince Lombardi's helpful suggestion or a condition of earning the franchise's support when the school was founded in 1965). In charge for more than a decade now, Bothof is adept at doing more with less. No program embodies that more than women's basketball. The Phoenix have won at least a share of 14 consecutive conference championships. They reached the Sweet 16 two seasons ago and flirted with the top 10 in the polls for portions of the past two seasons.
No wonder, then, that deep-pocketed suitors spirited away his coaches, Michigan taking Borseth after the 2006-07 season and Illinois taking Matt Bollant after the most recent season. Bothof is used to getting those phone calls.
This past spring he dialed.
After Bollant left for the Big Ten, Bothof called Borseth to talk to him about one of his assistants at Michigan. But he couldn't let his former coach go without asking another question. There had been rumblings for some time in Green Bay that Borseth might not rule out a return, rumblings that picked up steam a year earlier, when it appeared Bollant would leave for Wisconsin. So Bothof had to ask this time, would he be interested in coming back?
Borseth suggested his old boss call his current ones at Michigan before the conversation progressed.
"It was different for me," Bothof chuckled. "I was a little bit, in fact, even nervous about making the phone call to say, 'I'm calling because I would like to visit with Kevin about our opening here.' It was certainly different for me to make that phone call to them, versus typically it's coming from the other direction."
Borseth didn't create the Green Bay basketball brand, but the second coach in program history perfected it after Carol Hammerle steered the program from its AIAW roots through the NAIA and finally to NCAA Division I status. Borseth took over in 1998-99 and made the NCAA tournament in seven of the next nine seasons. His teams posted a 125-13 record in conference play in that span. With a frenetic, foot-stomping, full-throated coaching style that played well in Lombardi's town, and with rosters loaded with overlooked kids from Wisconsin and Minnesota, he became part of the fabric of a program in every bit the same way, albeit on a smaller scale, as Geno Auriemma or Pat Summitt.
"He's definitely an entertainer," said former Green Bay standout Celeste (Hoewisch) Ratka, who spent her redshirt season under Borseth's tutelage. "I remember a lot of fans would come up to us and say, 'Wow, even if you girls weren't so good, we'd still come just to watch your coach on the sideline.'"
Current Phoenix senior Adrian Ritchie signed with Bollant and played her first three seasons for him, but she grew up in neighboring De Pere watching in-state players win game after game for Borseth.
"I definitely fell in love with the whole idea of Green Bay, and he was a big part of that," Ritchie said. "I always looked up to him and saw how people responded to him and how the girls really appreciated him as a coach and as a person."
The success those teams enjoyed inevitably led to opportunities to climb the coaching ladder. Borseth nearly left once, reconsidered at the last moment when it appeared he was bound for Colorado after the 2004-05 season. But it wasn't until Michigan called two years later that the lure proved irresistible. He was a Michigan native, even though his hometown in the Upper Peninsula is a much shorter drive from Green Bay than from Ann Arbor, and grew up rooting for the Wolverines. He got his start as a head coach at Michigan Tech, taking a failing program and turning it into an immediate winner.
He said Michigan and Notre Dame were the only schools that could have convinced him to act on it, but the desire to coach on a bigger stage had always been there. In the end, leaving wasn't a decision on which he wavered.
"My whole lifetime I wanted an opportunity to go and be able to compete at the highest level," Borseth said. "I don't know that many coaches who have put that much time in don't desire to do something of that nature."
His departure stirred emotions but little resentment from those left behind. The same players who hadn't been recruited by Big Ten schools understood that, for better or worse, this was how college sports worked. Ratka went on to be one of the instrumental figures on Bollant's team that played Baylor in the Sweet 16 and now works for him on his staff at Illinois, but she was also in the locker room in those uncertain times, when it would have been easy to be bitter.
"When he left, it was really sad; it was devastating," Ratka said. "I think everybody really liked Coach Borseth and were happy for him. They knew this was his dream job, that he grew up in Michigan."
When he took the job in Ann Arbor, he asked someone about playing golf on the university course. They told him not to worry about it; he wouldn't have time. He soon realized why. The actual act of coaching was similar enough at Michigan, albeit with and against more athletic players and in generally much closer games, but that was only one small part of it. There was much more to manage off the court, much more to navigate at a school the size of Michigan. And more than missing a few rounds of golf or dealing with distractions, he worried about his family. His three oldest children attended parochial schools in Green Bay. He and his wife grew concerned their two youngest children weren't getting the same kind of experience in their schooling. A man whose faith is important to him, he regretted no longer having most Sundays for his family (the Horizon League follows a Thursday-Saturday scheduling structure).
Little of that translated to disappointing results on the court. Michigan went 10-20 the year before he arrived and hadn't had a winning season since 2001-02. His first team went 19-14 and reached the WNIT quarterfinals. The second season was a struggle, but his final three seasons produced a 58-39 record and three postseason appearances, capped last season by only the program's fifth NCAA tournament appearance. Suffice to say, nobody was pushing him out.
He tries to make it clear he enjoyed individual components of the experience -- particularly the players he coached, including the current seniors who made up his first recruiting class. But he was not, in his words, the right person for the chair. That might ring hollow for a coach making another move up the ladder. It does less so from a coach who took a step back.
"It's tough to make time for your family; it's tough to make time for yourself to breathe," Borseth said. "You're just -- I don't want to say gasping for air, but at times you gasp for air, just wanting to breathe. It was really difficult to do the things I wanted to do. Quality of life, that was probably the biggest thing. Quality of life is a whole lot different."
Going back to Green Bay means shelving any thoughts of one day playing for a championship. It means a lot of recruiting doors that were open to a coach at Michigan will close in his face. It means whispers that he couldn't cut it in a major conference. It means a smaller paycheck.
It also means the guy who still occasionally looks as though he's about to burst some variety of vital organ during games, the coach whose postgame rant about offensive rebounding went viral early in his Michigan tenure, can wake up with a clear mind.
At 58, Borseth is not yet so old as to make another move impossible. If Green Bay continues to win beyond its station, and the Phoenix are 7-2 this season with victories against Missouri and Marquette, Bothof's phone might yet ring again. But Borseth doesn't sound like someone who feels a need to chase anything anymore.
Green Bay doesn't need to be a stop. For at least one person, it is a destination.