Head coach Tod Kowalczyk’s transformation of the University of Toledo men's basketball program is complete as he enters his eighth season at the helm of the Rockets after guiding the Midnight Blue and Gold to their third postseason appearance in the past six years last season.
Upon his arrival in 2010, Kowalczyk instituted a culture of discipline and accountability for a Toledo program that had endured three straight losing seasons following its 2006-07 Mid-American Conference title.
That new culture started to produce on-court results in 2011-12 when the Rockets registered the second-best turnaround in the country. Featuring a senior-less roster, UT posted a 15-win improvement with its 19-17 win-loss mark following a 4-28 ledger in Kowalczyk’s first year on the Toledo bench.
Toledo continued its upward trend in 2012-13 by capturing a share of the MAC West Division title with a 10-6 league mark for its most conference victories since posting a 14-2 ledger in 2006-07.
The 2013-14 campaign brought unprecedented success for the Rockets as UT established a school record with 27 victories, a figure that ranks fourth in MAC history. UT also captured a share of its eighth league regular-season title in program history and appeared in its eighth National Invitation Tournament.
In 2014-15, Toledo posted its second-straight 20-win season, marking the first time it has done so since winning 20 or more five straight years from 1976-81.
The Rockets posted a 17-15 win-loss mark in 2015-16 for their fifth straight winning campaign under Kowalczyk and following that up with a 17-17 ledger in 2016-17 and a trip to the College Basketball Invitational.
2016-17: A Return to Postseason Play and NCAA-Record Tying Eight Overtime Games
Toledo tied a national record by playing in a school-record eight overtime contests and qualified for postseason play with an appearance in the College Basketball Invitational. Senior forward Steve Taylor Jr. earned second-team All-MAC honors after topping the nation with 9.9 defensive rebounds per game and ranked third nationally with 12.2 rpg. Senior guard Jonathan Williams received third-team All-MAC accolades for a second consecutive season to give UT at least a pair of all-league honorees for a fifth straight season.
2015-16: All-MAC Honors for Boothe & Williams
Senior Nathan Boothe earned first-team all-league honors, making UT the only MAC school to have a All-MAC First Team honoree each of the last four seasons. Junior guard Jonathan Williams also earned all-league honors as he was named to the All-MAC Third Team. Boothe led the conference with 19.3 ppg, while Williams tallied 17.6 ppg to rank third in league scoring.
2014-15: Another 20-Win Campaign
The Rockets registered their second-straight 20-win campaign, marking the first time UT has notched back-to-back 20-win seasons in nearly 35 years. Toledo finished with an 11-7 league mark and earned a No. 4 seed in the MAC Tournament.
Three-time all-league guard Julius Brown (16.3 ppg, 40.0 3PTFG%) concluded his Rocket career with a second-straight first-team award as well as another spot on the Collegeinsider.com Mid-Major All-American squad. Seniors Justin Drummond (13.1 ppg, 4.6 rpg) and J.D. Weatherspoon (12.9 ppg, 8.4 rpg) were each named to the third-team all-conference unit with junior Nathan Boothe (10.0 ppg, 5.7 rpg) earning an honorable-mention spot.
The Rockets’ four all-conference selections marked a league-best eight all-conference honorees for UT over the last two seasons.
2013-14: Building an Offensive Juggernaut
Kowalczyk’s emphasis on offensive execution elevated Toledo into one of the most explosive teams in the nation.
The Rockets averaged 79.2 points per game to go along with a 1.5 assist/turnover ratio, figures that topped the MAC and ranked among the Top 20 nationally.
Junior guard Julius Brown (14.9 ppg, MAC-high 6.0 apg) was the engine that drove UT’s attack. He was recognized for his impact on the Rockets with first-team All-MAC accolades as well as earning a spot on the Collegeinsider.com Mid-Major All-American squad.
Three Rockets — senior guard Rian Pearson (14.6 ppg, 2nd Team), junior guard Justin Drummond 14.2 ppg, 3rd Team) and junior forward J.D. Weatherspoon (10.6, Honorable Mention) – were also honored with spots on the all-league squad.
Guard Jonathan Williams (6.7 ppg) came off the bench to earn a spot of the MAC’s All-Freshman Team, marking the third straight season a Rocket has been honored.
2012-13: Hanging a Banner in Savage Arena
Toledo was dealt a blow prior to the 2012-13 season when it was ruled ineligible for 2013 postseason play by the NCAA for poor Academic Progress Rate (APR) figures from previous coaching regimes.
The Rockets responded with determination and focused on building their program with an eye toward capturing the MAC West Division.
UT opened its MAC slate by winning at Kent State for the first time in 13 years to send a message to the league that it was going to be a force to be reckoned with.
Fast forward to the Rockets’ stretch run, as UT won seven of eight contests to put itself in position for its first division title since 2007. UT capped off its season with a 78-67 triumph at Eastern Michigan, igniting a locker-room celebration that served as a reward for overcoming a season filled with adversity.
Junior Rian Pearson (17.9 ppg, 6.8 rpg) was awarded all-league accolades for a second-straight season with a spot on the first team. Sophomore Julius Brown (13.1 ppg, 3.1 rpg) joined him as a third-team All-MAC selection. Center Nathan Boothe (8.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg) was also recognized for his solid rookie campaign with a berth on the All-MAC Freshman Team.
2011-12: A Remarkable Turnaround
The seeds to gaining a piece of the 2012-13 MAC West Division title were planted at the end of the 2011-12 campaign. That’s when UT won eight of its last 11 contests to register a second-place division finish.
As part of that stretch, Toledo won its first two MAC Tournament contests over Miami and Central Michigan before falling to eventual tourney champion and NCAA ‘Sweet 16’ participant Ohio in the quarterfinals. The Rockets then posted their first postseason victory in 11 years with a triumph over McNeese State in the 2012 CollegeInsider.com Tournament.
Sophomore Rian Pearson received All-MAC second-team accolades after pacing the league with 16.4 ppg and grabbing 8.3 rpg.
Excelling in the Classroom
Toledo has improved its academic performance by leaps and bounds under Kowalczyk’s guidance. The Rockets have garnered the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) Team Academic Excellence Award in two of the last three seasons (2013-14, 2015-16).
The Team Academic Excellence Award recognizes NCAA and NAIA men’s basketball teams that earned a cumulative grade point average of 3.0 or better throughout the entire academic year. UT was the lone MAC school to be honored, ranking 10th in all of Division I basketball with its 3.16 GPA.
The Rockets enter the 2016-17 campaign with their roster possessing a cumulative 3.25 GPA.
Toledo’s Academic Progress Rate also ranks near the top among MAC men’s basketball programs. The Rockets’ score of 985 during the four-year period from 2011-12 to 2014-15 is tied for second.
Building a Program in Green Bay
Turning around a program is something Kowalczyk is familiar with after taking over the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay’s program in 2002 under similar circumstances that he faced at Toledo.
Kowalczyk was named the fifth head coach in the history of Phoenix men’s basketball in 2002, taking over a program that was coming off three consecutive losing seasons and possessed an RPI rating over 270.
Kowalczyk put his stamp on the Phoenix immediately. Green Bay soared from consecutive years as the seventh-ranked rebounding team in the Horizon League to the conference leader in his rookie season.
During the 2003-04 campaign, Kowalczyk orchestrated one of the nation’s top single-season turnarounds. The rise of the Phoenix to a 17-11 record was among the top 10 improvements in the NCAA that year.
Green Bay’s second-place showing in the 2004-05 conference race was the team’s best in nearly a decade, since an undefeated 1995-96 league championship season.
The 2005-06 campaign saw a freshman-dominated squad finish in a third-place tie in the Horizon League with an 8-8 mark after being tabbed to place seventh in the pre-season poll.
In 2006-07, Green Bay posted 18 wins, the most by a Phoenix team in eight years.
The fruits of Kowalczyk’s labors at the Phoenix helm were realized when Green Bay reached postseason play for the first time in 13 years with an appearance in the 2009 College Basketball Invitational.
In Kowalczyk’s final year with the Phoenix, his squad posted a 22-13 mark and won the program’s first post-season game since 1994 when it registered a first-round victory at Akron in the College Basketball Invitational.
Kowalczyk’s tenure in Green Bay produced an eight-year run of success that saw the Phoenix post a 136-112 (.548) win-loss mark, including a pair of 22-win campaigns in his final two seasons. That period of prosperity also enabled Green Bay to become one of just 18 teams in the nation to place among the top four in its conference for seven straight seasons.
Learning His Craft as an Assistant
Kowalczyk prepared for his time as a head coach with 13 years as an assistant at five different institutions with his final stint coming at Marquette under current Indiana Head Coach Tom Crean. While with the Golden Eagles, Kowalczyk coordinated efforts that outfitted consecutive top-25 recruiting classes in Marquette uniforms.
In 2001-02, the Golden Eagles finished Kowalczyk’s last season ranked in the top 10 nationally, tallied a 26-7 overall record, and advanced to the NCAA Tournament. Marquette followed up that season with a Final Four appearance and a 27-6 mark in 2002-03.
“Coach Kowalczyk worked with me every day,” said Marquette All-American and 2006 NBA Finals MVP Dwyane Wade. “I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for him.”
Kowalczyk embarked on his coaching journey as a student assistant at the University of Minnesota-Duluth in 1988 on the heels of a prosperous collegiate playing career with the Bulldogs. Kowalczyk graduated from UMD in 1989 with a bachelor of applied sciences degree in health education and physical education.
Kowalczyk and his wife, Julie, reside in Ottawa Hills and have two children, Race (10) and Rose (8).
A standout prep star at De Pere (WI) High School for coach Jake Orlowski, Kowalczyk still holds the school record with 53 points scored in a single game for the Redbirds. He is the son of Rod Kowalczyk, longtime coach and athletics director at De Pere.