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Published: Saturday, 1/19/2013 - Updated: 1 year ago

Longtime friends, Toledo's Kowalczyk, Ohio's Christian oppose each other today for first time

BY RYAN AUTULLO
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Long time friends, Ohio University basketball coach Jim Christian, left, and Toledo basketball coach Tod Kowalczyk face off for the first time today in Athens. Long time friends, Ohio University basketball coach Jim Christian, left, and Toledo basketball coach Tod Kowalczyk face off for the first time today in Athens.
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Asked what he likes most about Ohio University basketball coach Jim Christian, Tod Kowalczyk did not hem or haw. "He’s honest," Kowalczyk said.

Christian was asked the same question about the University of Toledo coach. "He’s going to give you an honest impression," Christian said.

There is not much baloney spewed when these two speak with one another on the telephone. And they chat often, several days a week, exchanging coaching strategy, counseling the other on inconclusive decisions, and even checking in on each other’s children.

"He is without question my closest friend in this profession," Kowalczyk said.

Moments earlier Kowalczyk cracked a smile and addressed the proverbial elephant that will be hovering today inside of Ohio’s Convocation Center.

"We obviously don’t share as much now as we used to," Kowalczyk said.

Kowalczyk and Christian will match wits for the first time as head coaches, writing a new chapter in a friendship that began 20 years ago with the two toiling as assistant coaches in the Northeast Conference. If the occasion brings awkwardness, they only have each other to blame.

Christian, who is in his second tour of duty as a head coach in the Mid-American Conference, convinced Kowalczyk to take the Toledo job. The endorsement was so convincing — Christian trumpeted Toledo’s facilities, financial resources, and the strong reputation of athletic director Mike O’Brien — that Kowalczyk accepted the job sight unseen.

Another friend of Kowalczyk’s, Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, expressed similar marks. Kowalczyk, who interviewed with O’Brien in Detroit, never set foot in Toledo prior to his introductory news conference.

Not that Christian, who won 20 or more games in all six of his seasons at Kent State, needed assistance in making a decision, but Kowalczyk nudged him last offseason to leave a bad fit at Texas Christian University and return to the MAC. Christian, who suffered his only three losing seasons with the Horned Frogs, posted an 18-15 mark last season and had the program trending upward.

"I asked if he thought it would be a good move," Christian said, likely knowing what Kowalczyk’s response would be.

Added Kowalczyk: "I tried to talk him out of the TCU job. He didn’t listen to me."

The lives and careers of Christian, 47, and Kowalczyk, 46, have take similar trajectories. They were assistants in the Northeast Conference at the same time — Kowalczyk at Rider, Christian at St. Francis — and reconnected years later on Big East benches with Kowalczyk at Rutgers, Christian at Pittsburgh. Bachelors well into their 30s, they married within a couple of months of each other.

What’s more, they became head coaches for the first time in 2002-03, and both employed current UT assistant Ryan Pedon (Christian encouraged Kowalczyk to hire Pedon). Their young children are the same ages. Even their golf games are similarly mediocre.

"Our lives have really mirrored each other a lot," Kowalczyk said.

When their teams square off, the home coach will host dinner for the visiting coach and family. Friday’s expected fare at the Christian household, where four young children ran around, was takeout pizza.

"I don’t think you ever enjoy coaching against friends," said Christian, who faces the best man in his wedding, Kent State’s Rob Senderoff, twice a season. "But once the ball gets tipped you’re so focused on your team and what you need to do. Win, lose, or draw, we’ll talk after the game and talk about each other’s teams and what we think."

NOTES: UT guard Josh Lemons, who hurt his head Wednesday at Western Michigan, is doubtful. Kowalczyk does not believe Lemons suffered a concussion. ... Although no official word has come, Kowalczyk expects transfer Angel Aparicio to be eligible beginning Jan. 30 at Ball State. ... Magician James David entertained the Rockets after practice Friday. David, who is touring the region, is a friend of UT assistant Jason Kalsow.

Contact Ryan Autullo at: rautullo@theblade.com, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.



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