Men's College Basketball

Southeastern grad's vision leads to national title celebration

By Herald-Whig
Posted: Mar. 23, 2019 7:20 pm

Matt Lewis may be facing a monumental challenge.

How do you top winning a national championship in your first season as a collegiate head coach?

"That's a good question," said Lewis, the interim men's basketball coach at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, which won the NCAA Division III title a week ago. "Hopefully it starts by getting the permanent job in a couple of weeks."

It would be difficult to find anyone who could do it any better.

A West-Central Illinois native -- he grew up in Adams County the son of a farmer and graduated from Southeastern High School in 2005 -- Lewis led the Titans to unprecedented heights. They won their first outright Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference since 1978 and piled up a single-season school-record 29 victories.

They won the first national championship in school history, beating Swarthmore College (Pa.) 96-82 in the title game at the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum in Fort Wayne, Ind.

"The vision was to win the first national title at Oshkosh and to build something that could be sustained for a lot of years," said Lewis, who is wrapping his seventh season on the Titans staff after spending six seasons as an assistant. "Now that we've one, it doesn't change the goal.

"We want to be one of the elite programs in Division III on a yearly basis. So we still have some big visions for ourselves. But we're going to make sure we enjoy the first one, because you never know if it happens again."

The Titans earned the right to celebrate.

The championship was the end result of a four-year process that began with recruiting a class of freshmen who committed to the vision Lewis and former Oshkosh coach Pat Juckem created. During the graduating Class of 2019's four-year career, the Titans made four national tournament appearances, finished as the national runner-up in 2018 and finally won the title.

"They bought in when we were terrible," Lewis said. "They took us a long way."

It took leadership for it to happen.

"To play a small part in that vision is pretty special," Lewis said.

Lewis always had that vision. He grew up dreaming of being a professional basketball player until his freshman season at Southeastern.

"I was like, ‘Yeah, I'm not a high-level basketball player,'" Lewis said. "So then it was, ‘How can I still be around basketball?' I had some coaches who were really influential, and I was thought I could coach basketball. So that became the end goal, to coach college basketball."

His love affair with the sport goes deeper.

It can be traced to the day his family switched school districts -- from Central to Southeastern -- when Lewis was headed into sixth grade. Todd Fox and Mike Fray were coaching at Southeastern at the time and gave Lewis and his dad, Jim, a key to the gym.

"They told me to return it when I graduate," Lewis said. "When I graduated high school, I walked into Coach Fox's office, handed him the key and said, ‘I'm outta here.'"

He was off to fulfill his dream and become a national champion.