David Adam

Sunday Conversation with Steve Joslyn

Former West Pike boys basketball coach Steve Joslyn will start his sixth year as the baseball coach at Chicago State University this spring. | Photo Courtesy of Darren Eyring
Darren Eyring
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Oct. 8, 2017 12:01 am Updated: Oct. 8, 2017 4:00 pm

The school no longer exists, and the coach has been gone for more than 20 years, but what Steve Joslyn and the West Pike boys basketball team did in the early 1990s never will be forgotten.

Joslyn came to Kinderhook in 1988 at age 24, and West Pike had been one of the most downtrodden teams in west-central Illinois for many years. The Cardinals won 15, 16 and 18 games in his first three years, then went 24-2 in 1992-93.

The devastating flood during the summer of 1993 nearly forced the school to close, and many families in the school district lost their homes. The communities of Kinderhook, Hull and New Canton rallied around the high school basketball team, which went 28-1 in 1993-94 and then went 32-3 and finished third in the Class A state tournament the following year.

Joslyn left after the 1994-95 season and went to coach basketball at Downers Grove North. He eventually became an assistant baseball coach at North Central College and Northern Illinois University. Now, at age 54, he is in his sixth season as the baseball coach at Chicago State University.

So what are you doing this time of the year?

We've got fall practices every day. It's kind of the prime time to see what you have as a team, especially for us since we have so many junior college guys. This is where kids determine where they're going to be in the spring. When we get back from Christmas break, we'll spend 21/2 weeks in the gym and then we're on road.

Chicago State is in the Western Athletic Conference, which has teams in California, Arizona, Washington, New Mexico, Utah and Texas. Do you ever get used to that travel?

We figured out last year that we have more plane flights than any team in the nation. All the big boys play their first 25 games at home, but in our league, every trip is a plane flight. We're going to make 9 or 10 flights this season. That's a huge chunk.

How does a person who has spent most of his life in northern Illinois end up in Pike County?

I was at Oswego High School, coaching three sports. I was 21 years old, and I thought, "I could do this for the rest of my life." I'm in my hometown, it's comfortable, everybody knows you. The head basketball coaching job opened up, and I wasn't quite ready for it. The principal was a great guy, and he said, "Steve, I want you to be the head coach here, but you're not ready yet. Go somewhere, get some head coaching experience, and you'll go where ever you want." It was great advice. I wanted to stay close to home, and all my family was in the Oswego/Aurora area. I divided the map in half and said, "I'll stay in this top half." I think Kinderhook was on the crease. When I went there (to interview), they were transitioning to a new principal and a new superintendent. Barry was open at the same time, so I went over there too. Both of them offered me the job, but I was going to stay with West Pike.

Did you plan to stay long?

I really thought it would be a one- or two-year deal. It was going to be get there and get out. That was the thought process.

How did you adapt to life in Kinderhook?

It was unusual. We had to meet the Pizza Hut delivery guy at the Hannibal bridge. Just little things like that. But at the same time, I guess I never felt anything dramatic. Everybody was just so nice. I wasn't used to it. To me, it was like going back in time a little bit. That doesn't mean it was bad, but this is where everybody knows your name, everybody waves at you, and I wasn't used to that. It was really neat. The timing was everything for me. Great people, great faculty.

Before you arrived, West Pike hadn't had a winning record since 1974-75. What kind of shape was the program in?

People always talk about the state tournament team, but it was important that the first team kind of accepted me. I'm sure they said, "This guy is demanding a lot. We do summer stuff, we do offseason conditioning." It was kind of their acceptance of me that got the whole ball rolling. They could have said, "This guy is nuts," but they bought in. They said, "We're tired of losing too, and we want to make a name for ourselves." I was just surrounded by good kids like Richie Dunker and Greg Kroencke and Jason VonBurg. Timing is everything. I don't think it was anything I did. They won 15 games that first year, and that was huge.

Did you know there was young talent in the program?

Larry Mosley helped me (as an assistant), and he told me when I got there that we've got some good kids coming. Well, Larry knows basketball, and he was right. He said, "This is going to be a special group, and they work hard." I didn't know how good they were going to be, but those guys just lived in the gym.

You said that the kids could have said, "This guy is nuts." What did the community think of you?

Within the school, you had people like Bonnie Fee and Larry. We had great administrators, and they were all for it. We had some naysayers around town who thought, "What is he doing?" We had parents of these kids, however, who said, "Hey, let's give this guy a chance." It was like the barbershop scene in "Hoosiers" before they tried to run the coach out of town. Yes, there were people shaking their head, but it was just a special time at a special school. They didn't know they were going to exist from day to day. They already were talking about consolidation at that point, and they were going to combine with Barry or Pittsfield. There was a core group who said, "Let's make this our last best run."

Did the success of your teams surprise you?

I don't think I knew any better. I was kind of a naive, cocky young guy, and this was what was supposed to happen. I knew it was a special time, don't get me wrong, but I don't think anybody thought that wasn't something that we couldn't do. I had so much help. Those people who made those game nights so special. The atmosphere at our games was completely unique, like when the Cardinal (mascot) came out in the Corvette. It always was an event.

What do you remember about living through the flood of 1993?

As traumatic as it was for the community, as an outsider, I was pretty much a part of the community by now, and it was really neat to see. A flood is different. I have friends who went through the hurricane in Florida, but with the flood, there's this anticipation of weeks and months. You're sandbagging and wondering, "Is this going to hold?" It's a different feeling. All the kids went to load sandbags or take water and food to people on the levees. I remember being waist-deep in the levee thinking, "I have no idea what I'm doing. but I'm here to help." We were always doing summer stuff, and we had raised funds to go to a big tournament in Florida. Right before the breach, I asked, "Are we going to go?" The parents were like, "We want you guys to go." We actually did go, and we were in Clearwater Beach when the levee broke. We got the call, and I remember telling the kids that half of them just lost their house. It was pretty traumatic. Looking back, everybody kind of bonded together. We were family.

Did you leave the tournament to come home?

We were like halfway through, and I called (principal) Rodger Hannel and asked, "Do we come home now?" He said, "There's nothing you can do here. It would just make it worse." It was a roller coaster of emotions. I'll never forget the work ethic of the community. When we got home, we're out there slinging sandbags, and they're all saying to me, "We're going to be pretty good next year, Coach."

Did everybody seem to turn to your team for something positive during this time?

It was more than basketball. Those people would get there early, and it was an event. It was something that they hung their hat on, and they were proud of. The games, they just run together. I knew we were going to have a really good year, but we still had the monkey on the back that we had never won a regional. We had to play at QHS, and it was pretty different than the gyms we normally played in. Plus we still had to go through Notre Dame and schools like Liberty and Payson.

It's got to be a little easier to coach when you have an all-stater like Marty Hull to work with.

A lot of special players on that team would have been "the" player at another school. The great thing about Marty was he was such a quality kid and a humble kid. He could have scored a lot more, and he still got his 25 to 30 points. Almost all of those kids were accepting of me. I wasn't the easiest guy to play for, but they knew I cared for them. Marty was quiet and did his business.

How difficult was it to leave Kinderhook for Downers Grove?

I was there for six years, and honestly, I loved it. I was kind of to the point where this could be where I wanted to stay. I liked it so much, but it was just about getting closer to home. It was a tough decision, but it was time to do something new. There's a part of me that would been very comfortable had I stayed at West Pike. There was never anything that made me feel like I want to get out of there.

Now that you're coaching in downtown Chicago, how often do you think back to your time at West Pike?

It impacts me every day. When I look at some of these guys today, I think that I demanded more from a freshman in a small school in Pike County. I was telling them the deer story the other day.

What's the deer story?

One of my first teams was having practice the day before deer season opened, and at the end, I said, "We'll see you tomorrow." No one wanted to say anything, but then finally, one of them said, "Coach, it's deer day. We've never practiced on deer day." So I made a deal. I would go out with them at like 4 in the morning, but then we'll come back in the afternoon. So some of the guys propped me up with a gun on Bonnie Fee's property, but they didn't want me to shoot. I walk around and see the deer, and they're like within 15 yards of me, but I didn't shoot. Then everybody came back in their orange, and we practiced at 2. It was just kind of neat. I learned how important it was to them. It was just fun to be part of the experience. I got to find out what motivates them, and they educated me as much as I educated them.

When you were at Downers Grove, you also started coaching baseball at North Central. How did that work?

(North Central is) where I played baseball. The head coach at North Central and I played together. Then when he got the head job at Northern Illinois, he said, "Why don't you come out here?" It was just another new, different challenge. I helped him for 10 years.

How did you wind up at Chicago State?

The athletic director was a guy I knew from Lewis. I knew what I was getting into. If we didn't beat Chicago State by 10 runs, we were mad. They were underfunded, they didn't have facilities, and when they came to Northern, they would have 12 guys and were wearing mismatched hats. I felt sorry for them to a certain extent. I talked to the AD, and he said we're going to put a facility on campus and we're going to get into a new league. I could sense a real commitment to doing it. He just convinced me were going to do something. The first year, we played all of our games on the road. Now we're in the WAC, and it's a great baseball league. It's a neat recruiting tool to say you're going to play in California and Arizona. We got hit with the state budget stuff, and again, I was at school where you didn't know if you were going to exist from day to day. I got pink-slipped three times in a three-month period two years ago.

How is your program affected by the state budget now?

I think we've weathered the storm. It's not where I would have wanted to be at this point, but we're back on track to some positive things. The vibe is good, the state has its act together. We weren't hurt any differently than an Eastern Illinois or a Western Illinois. We took a pretty good hit, so it's going to still take some time. Sometimes, you get hit by a flood or you have 88 freshmen in your incoming class.

How often do you get back to Pike County?

Not as often as I like, and I hate that. I love those people. I think about those people all the time. When the flood hit, the Mosleys took me into their house. And the coaches I hung out with ... I think people sometimes don't realize ... they don't know how good they have it. Those guys I was coaching against, they were good. That just happens to be where they're at. They could be at much bigger places making more money, but they're there for a variety of reasons.