St. FX coach on verge of all-time wins record

Steve Konchalski wants to win tonight. But not because it would make him the most successful coach in Canadian university basketball history.

Steve Konchalski watches the game from the sidelines with one of his players Nov. 2 at Saint Mary's. (Photo: Peter Saltsman)

Steve Konchalski stands on the sidelines and claps. His eyes, fierce and reddened with adrenaline, dart from the basketball to the scoreboard at the other end of the court and back again. He's shouting something in his distinctive New York accent, but you can't hear it over the crowd.

His clapping turns into a solitary fist pump that's almost reserved, given the circumstances.

His X-Men, the men's basketball team he coaches for St. Francis Xavier University, just scored. In fact, they're about to beat the Saint Mary's Huskies 82-76. And that means Coach K, as everyone calls him, is about to tie the Canadian Interuniversity Sport record for most wins as head coach of a men's basketball team.

Not that that's what he's excited about.

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Coach Konchalski makes himself heard. (Photo: Peter Saltsman)

"I'm excited because I want to try to get this team going," he said before the game. "This is kind of a transition year for our program because we graduated some key players and we're trying to integrate some new recruits into the lineup."

Konchalski has been coaching the X-Men for 35 years, and he knows what his priorities are. On Nov. 2 it was that win against the Huskies. On Nov. 6 it'll be the first game of the regular season against the University of Prince Edward Island.

The fact that it could also mark his 735th career win - one more than Jerry Hemmings had when he left the University of Brandon Bobcats in 2003 - is nothing more than a pleasant side note.

"It would probably be more at the end of my career when I look back at it than right now when I'm still in the middle of it, you know, preparing for games," he said.

For love of the game

If this is only the middle of his career, he's going to have a lot to look back on. He's taken the X-Men to three national championship victories, taken the Canadian national team to three Olympic games (he was assistant coach for 16 years and head coach for four), and been inducted into the Nova Scotia Sports Hall of Fame and the Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame.

This record adds to a career that began as a love affair with basketball as a "chubby 13-year-old" in New York City who didn't make his high school team.

But even his players can see why he stuck with it this whole time.

"He's coaching for love of the game," said Randy Nohr, who played for Konchalski in 2000-01 and who is now an assistant coach at the University of British Columbia.

"Knowing Coach K, he's not coaching to beat this record," he says.

Konchalski doesn't think much of personal accolades. Basketball, after all, is a team sport. And though he started as a player, he knows that's especially true as a coach.

"As a player, you win the national championship and it's centred around yourself," he says. "As a coach, you can share that championship feeling with the 12 players on your team and the assistant coaches. You can share it with more people."

All in the family

That's the magnanimous spirit his players remember most about him.

"Our word when I was playing was family," says Nohr, who remembers being invited to Konchalski's house for Thanksgiving dinner with the rest of the team. "He's really the key to all that. The father figure."

"What Coach always did was he demanded a lot from us both in the classroom and on the court," says Brent Baker, who played for Konchalski from 1981-1986 and later coached alongside him before taking the head coaching position at the University of New Brunswick.

That's not surprising for a coach who also holds a law degree from Dalhousie.

Konchalski says he learned those values from George Kehoe, the man who hired him at St. FX, Stu Aberdeen who recruited him to play for Acadia, and Jack Donohue who coached the national team with him. These are the people who got him to his 734th win.

"When it does come, I'll take a great deal of pride representing those people that meant so much to me," says Konchalski. "But when it comes, I'll also share it with every player that ever played for me."

And there are a lot of them, considering the length of his career. But that's yet another accomplishment for Konchalski to be proud of, says Nohr.

"It says a lot about him that he's been at one program for 35 years. In sports these days, nobody stays at a job that long."

But Konchalski says he'll stay a bit longer if it's up to him. This year's team is good, but they've got a long way to go before he'll be satisfied. And although he's thinking about the next game right now, he's already got next year in his sights.

"I know the national tournament's coming back to Halifax next year," he says. "And I have so many memories of the Halifax Metro Centre, winning three national championships in there. It would be great to go back into that building and win another championship."



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