One of them is here on “blind faith,” the other purely out of loyalty. Together they have reinvigorated a once-proud, then mostly mediocre college basketball program into one that will have Savage Arena rocking and rolling yet again this evening.
On March 30, 2010, when Tod Kowalczyk arrived to take over as head coach at the University of Toledo, it marked the first time he had ever set foot on the campus or in the city.
“I’d never been here before that day,” he said. “Never recruited here, never coached here, never played here. I had two phone conversations, one with Jim Christian, who had coached at Kent State and is now at Ohio, and one with [Michigan State coach] Tom Izzo. They both thought it was one of the best jobs in the MAC.
“So I took it on blind faith. Sometimes you have to follow your gut. I’ve never regretted it for a minute.”
Kowalczyk came to UT from Wisconsin-Green Bay, where, a day earlier, he called a team meeting and broke the news of his departure to his players.
One of them, Rian Pearson, had just finished his freshman season with averages of 6.4 points and 2.7 rebounds in 16 ½ minutes per game.
“I walked out of the room with Coach K,” Pearson recalled. “I hugged him, and said, ‘I’m going with you.’ It was that quick. And then I found out [assistant coaches] Jason Kalsow and Angres Thorpe were making the move too, and it was a no-brainer.
“It’s a great staff [Thorpe has since departed UT] that welcomed me as a freshman in Green Bay, and it immediately felt like family. What I did was out of loyalty to them.”
With Pearson and another Green Bay transfer, Matt Smith, sitting out during their transfer year, Kowalczyk’s first UT team went 4-28. Since that duo first stepped onto the Savage court in uniform, the Rockets are 50-32 entering tonight’s 6 p.m. tip against Kent State.
There’s no question who has been the star of this renaissance. In 2011-12, as a captain during his first eligible season at UT, Pearson had 10 double-doubles and tied for the MAC scoring lead with 16.4 points per game. The 6-foot-4 shooting guard bumped that to 17.9 points per contest last season while snagging first team all-league honors.
Yes, the Rockets have been Rian Pearson’s team.
And, now that they are poised for one of the best seasons in UT history, it is no longer simply Pearson’s team, and the latter has a lot to do with the former.
The Rockets will be bidding for a 17th win in 19 games tonight and if you are in your seat for the pregame gathering of officials and captains, you will note that Pearson is no longer among them.
“I preferred not to be a captain, and Coach K was good with it,” Pearson said. “It was best for the team and me, too, I thought. I’m not a vocal type of leader, so I figured I would back off that and let somebody else do it. I try to lead by example.”
Although he admitted to “a little shooting slump” recently, Pearson has scored in double figures in 31 of UT’s last 33 games. His 14.7-point average still tops the team this season.
So Pearson’s influence remains dynamic and often dramatic. But he’s no longer alone. All five Toledo starters average in double figures.
It isn’t his team. It’s a real team. There is plenty of ownership.
“We’re all one, all together,” Pearson said. “It’s everybody’s team, from the coaches to the last guy on the bench.
“I’m glad I have the help. It has meant some change and a little adjustment for me, but I’m just glad Coach K went and got all these guys because there’s nothing better than winning.”
It is no longer Pearson’s team because Juice Brown has left little doubt who is the MAC’s best point guard … because J.D. Weatherspoon may be its most athletic player … because Justin Drummond can go off like he did against Northern Illinois last Wednesday at any given moment … because Nathan Boothe can bang bodies on one possession and nail a fall-away triple on the next.
With talent like fellow senior Smith, Jordan Lauf, and Jonathan Williams there is ample depth and help on the bench.
Kowalczyk has, justifiably, become the toast of the town for his role in turning around UT’s program. But he knows very well which player he built around, and he’s not eager to see Pearson walk away at the end of this season.
“He’s been a heck of a good player,” Kowalczyk said. “Everybody has sacrificed minutes and shots for the good of the team, and I really love the way Rian is defending. He cares about winning and getting this team to the NCAA tournament.
“I don’t think it’s anybody’s team right now. It has to be everybody together with one goal. But Rian and I have been through a lot together… hard times, good times, a lot of laughs. I’ll never forget walking out of that [Green Bay] meeting with tears in my eyes and Rian walking right up and saying, ‘Coach, I’m going with you.’”
Maybe at that moment Kowalczyk realized that regardless of how bad the Toledo program was at that point in time, no matter how painful the first season may be, that better days would not be far down the road.
One player, more than any other, is responsible for that reality.
Heck, maybe it is Rian Pearson’s team.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.