David Adam

Sunday Conversation with Steve Hawkins

Western Michigan men's basketball coach Steve Hawkins poses with his family — wife Kelly, son Trey, 10, daughters Emily 5, Alyssa 3 1/2 — in their Kalamazoo, Mich., home.
Photo Courtesy of Steve Hawkins
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Sep. 3, 2016 9:55 pm Updated: Sep. 4, 2016 1:30 am

It's been 16 years since Steve Hawkins left Quincy, but he's not forgotten here -- and he still loves the city.

His first college basketball head coaching position came at age 28 at Quincy University, and his teams won 137 games and qualified for three NCAA Division II national tournaments in nine years. However, he grew weary of dealing with daily financial struggles at QU and left in 2000 to take an assistant coaching position at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Mich. Three years later, he was named the head coach at WMU, and he's guided the Broncos to seven 20-victory seasons and seven Mid-American Conference West titles in 13 seasons.

Now 54 years old, Hawkins' life has changed off the court as well. He got married in 1997 while he was coaching in Quincy but divorced after the move to Michigan. He married Kelly Wojciechowski on May 15, 2010, and lives in Kalamazoo with Kelly's son, Trey, 10, and their daughters Emily, 5, and Alyssa, 3 1/2.

Before he took off with his team for a 10-day trip to the Netherlands, Belgium and France last month, Hawkins talked about his time in Quincy, his love of coaching and what it's like being a father late in life.

Growing up in Ventura, Calif., did you ever imagine you would become a college basketball coach?

No, no, not at all. I thought my career would be in football. I knew I wanted to coach and teach. In junior high school, one of my idols was Chuck Miller, my physical education teacher. I watched what he did. You show up in a T-shirt and shorts and announce, "We're playing softball." I thought that would be pretty cool to do for the rest of my life. I was the JV coach at St. Bonaventure (High School in Los Angeles) while I was going to Ventura Junior College. They fired the varsity coach, Frank Palminteri, at the end of that year, and I was offered the head coaching job at the age of 21. They fired him for losing, but I knew why we lost. We didn't have a kid over 6-foot-4. So I said no, I'm not going to take the job, and by the way, you fired a helluva coach. Nobody told me I didn't have to. I just knew I shouldn't. That's when I figured college may be the way to go. I was at Coach (John) Wooden's camps, I'd been around college coaches, and I'd have more of a say in who I coached than just whoever was in my school district.

What's the difference between coaching Division I and Division II basketball?

Level means absolutely nothing. I could care less about D-I and D-II. I could have stayed in Quincy the rest of my life. I was there when Title IX came to being enforced, which is a good thing, but the men's basketball program had a lot more than the women's team had. Like every other school in higher education, instead of upsizing, everybody downsized. The NCAA wasn't expecting that, and we had things taken away. I lost one of my assistants, Tim Walsh, and the program kept getting cut while I was there. Southern Indiana, Northern Kentucky and Kentucky Wesleyan were pouring money into their programs, and we were getting cut. It was becoming very difficult to compete. I had been in meeting after meeting after meeting with the administration, and there just wasn't the money that we needed. I don't blame them. I had to make a decision to move (to Kalamazoo) and take an assistant spot, but if Quincy had given me what I was asking, I very easily could have stayed there the rest of my life.

Was the situation significantly different when you left Quincy for Western Michigan?

It's been unbelievable. You have to be here to kind of really experience it. Seventeen years ago I came in here, I cared less about being an assistant coach. I was so happy not to be fighting daily for my program. When I got here, all I had to do was recruit and coach, and I had the resources. At Quincy, when I was on a recruiting trip at Applebee's, I was splurging. When I stayed at a Holiday Inn instead of a Red Roof Inn, I would be asked, "Why did you stay there?" You get here (to Kalamazoo), and you get a per diem and you stay in a room that costs $99 a night. It was just a relief to only have to coach and recruit. There were two scholarship players when I got here. We were given a blank slate, and we were able to build. Then my boss (Robert McCullum) left for South Florida, and they gave me the job.

How did you find out Quincy when you were an assistant at South Alabama?

The head coach at South Alabama at the time was Mike Hanks, so after Sherrill (Hanks, Mike's father) retired at Quincy, they gave the head coaching job to Jay Lowenthal. I became a graduate assistant for Jay in his second year. Then, as the world turns, when I moved to St. Andrews (in Laurinburg, N.C.), the person who got me that job was (current John Wood Community College president) Mike Elbe. He was a graduate assistant at South Alabama when I was there, so when Mike left for North Carolina-Wilmington, he recommended me to his boss. When I came back to Quincy the second time, Brad Dunn brought me back.

Dunn left after your first year back. Were you prepared to be the head coach?

We were losing that year (finishing 10-18 in 1990-91), and Brad had kind of hyped up the fact we were going to be good the next year, which he had to do because we were so bad. I knew the kids we were bringing in, and I knew we were going to be decent, but we're an independent, and I don't know if we can make that big of a jump. Brad left, I got the job, and that first year, we were miserable (the Hawks were 8-20). I think we lost our first seven. I remember driving home after we lost a game. I was 28 years old, we were 0-5 or 0-6, and I thought to myself, "I don't know if I'm a good coach. I don't know if I'm cut out for this." It never occurred to me that my job might be in jeopardy, but (then-Sports Editor) Don Crim wrote an article with the headline, "Give Hawkins a chance." I picked up the newspaper and thought, "What the hell is this?" But he knew the natives were restless. The next year, we went 16-11, and the third year, we were 19-9 and had our first NCAA Tournament team.

Off the basketball court, what was your time in Quincy like?

I loved it. I loved Quincy. I always said that Quincy had such a strong sense of community. The best thing was that most everybody knew everybody. I thought it was a good place to raise a kid, and it was safe, which was unique to me coming from Los Angeles. And I loved the university. I was really comfortable with what we could sell. We put our stamp on what QU basketball should be about -- high-character kids who could play basketball.

I'm guessing your stamp on what Western Michigan basketball should be about is the same.

A lot of that has to do with Coach Wooden. He was my mentor. I took a lot of his teachings and what he thought a coach should be to his players. He thought they should compete in the classroom and the court. Those teachings are timeless. Even today, as much skepticism as there is about NCAA athletes, right is right and wrong is wrong, and nobody can change that. ... It's the same recipe here. High-character, high-integrity kids. Entering our 14th year, we've had two players not graduate, and both are playing professionally overseas.

When you think back about your time in Quincy, what comes to mind?

I really don't even remember the end. I remember the kids. I stay in touch with a lot of former payers. I know where they're at, and I know what they're doing, and that's one of the beauties of Facebook. I don't have negative memories of Quincy. (Leaving QU) had to do with more than the budget cuts. I knew we were going to struggle to compete, and along with that, the walls were starting to close in on me. I loved to coach. It just had to do with the administration. Father Eugene (Kole) had taken over (in 1997), and it was a mess. I was thrown out of a game one night, and the next day, I had to go see Father Eugene. He said, "If you had hit that referee, I would have fired you." And I said, "If I had hit that referee, you should have fired me." He also came to one of our practices and looked up at the shot clock and asked, "What's that little clock for?" I knew we were dealing with a whole different animal than Father (James) Toal, who was there at the games and the practices and then would sometimes go have a beer with you.

Does it surprise you that, after 16 years, you still have so many people you have kept in touch with in Quincy?

What I've told people about Quincy, trying to explain it, is how insulated it is. There's nothing close to it. Quincy isn't small. People come to Quincy to shop. Quincy to me is a soap opera. I don't mean that figuratively. It's like a TV show, and I was a character in the show for 10 years. The show has a long run. What I am now is a recurring character. They still talk about me because I hear it, but I don't show up on the set except once in a while.

Have you changed as a coach?

The demeanor hasn't changed much. I still oftentimes throw up before games like I did in Quincy. The competitive fire is still there. The practices would sound like the practices in Quincy. I've tried to make a conscious effort to spend more time not concentrating on the officials. That's probably where my growth came mostly, but (the officials) still have to be addressed. I also can tell you at the Division I level that the refs are much harder to work. You're not going to affect those guys. I can concentrate more on the game and the adjustments ... but it doesn't mean that what I'm saying to the referees when I'm standing next to them was different than what I was saying in Quincy.

How is your job different at the Division I level?

Basketball is basketball. Teaching hasn't changed a ton. You try to do things to put your players in the best position to win. One of the biggest differences at the Division I level is the time demands away from the court. The court is a pleasure to be on. That's the best part of the job. What we're required to do when it comes to speaking engagements and appearances for your shoe company or for the university or to speak at a benefit or motivational speeches for companies, that takes more time away from what you got into coaching for. That's the bad news. The good news: We have all the resources to handle it. I have three coaches and a director of basketball operations. That's a long ways away from year No. 1 at Quincy, when we put together our own media guide on (assistant coach Jeff) Dunlap's computer.

How has getting married again and having a family changed you?

After my second divorce, I had zero interest in getting married again. I relegated myself to the fact that I was going to be married to my job. I always wanted kids, but I knew that was basically not going to happen. When I met Kelly, we had no delusions of grandeur. We were seeing each other off and on, and the next thing you know, you're deeper into the relationship. I think I'm in love again. We got married. She got pregnant real quick. We wanted two kids, and we were able to do that. What has happened is that it centered me. Coach Wooden said two most important words in the English language are love and balance. Those lessons still ring true in my head.

How have you had to change your job to find time for your kids?

It's not like I have to find time. I want to spend time with them. Now, instead of sticking around the office and doing things there, I try to get home right away. I take my work home, and after they go to bed, I'll put the film in at 11 and work until 4 in the morning. (Being a father also) has made me way more health conscious. I had a complete disregard for my body. Sleep, exercise, just all of it. I burned the candle at both ends of the stick. In Quincy, there were a lot of late nights at the Abbey, and then I'd get up the next day and never missed a beat. Now I have a whole different perspective. I want to see my daughters into their 30s. That means I need to live and be around as much as possible. I walk as much as possible and exercise as much as possible. That doesn't mean I won't have an occasional beer, especially after a win, but the days of back-to-back beer nights are gone ... well, except when I visit Quincy.

Your kids are starting to play sports. How are you as a sports parent?

Trey played football for the first time this year, and he played Little League baseball for the first time at age 9. Emily's first day of kindergarten is coming up. The girls love coming to work with Daddy so they can run around the basketball court. As far as the sports parenting thing, I didn't know how I would respond, but I was pretty proud of myself. I was able to just help him. I didn't know if I would become a crazy sports parent myself, but I was able to separate myself. My wife was not able to. She has us both covered on the crazy sports parent part.

How much longer do you see yourself coaching?

The only time I think of retirement is when I see money going to my financial guy. But no, no, no. If I stop enjoying what I'm doing, if more things become frustrating, that's when you need to start thinking about it, and it's not even close to happening here. I never say never and never say always, and I've been offered to go to different situations, but right now, (retirement) it's not on my radar. Everything is still spent on building this program.