A coaching spark ignited during a long walk on a Florida beach.
University of Toledo’s Tod Kowalczyk, in need of an assistant, was in the Daytona Beach area last month on a family vacation. On the west side of the state, a little more than two hours away, was a coach looking for work.
So Kowalczyk and Mike Wells, strangers until meeting the day before, dipped their feet into the sands of New Smyrna Beach and walked an hour out and another hour back.
“I told him, you better have a bathing suit and flip flops on for this interview,” Kowalczyk said.
They kept their shirts on.
“We’re in our mid 40s,” Wells said. “We didn’t want to scare away anybody.”
The next day Wells accepted Kowalczyk’s job offer, giving the Rockets a veteran hand with almost two decades of NBA experience. Wells, a native of Mount Vernon in central Ohio, enters his fourth college season in 2014-15, having served two years at George Mason in Virginia and last season at South Florida.
His career, despite delivering two NBA titles and opportunities to see the world, has not always been, well, a day at the beach. For years Wells worked in obscurity, fulfilling thankless roles of video coordinator and advance scout on staffs headed by big-time coaches Rudy Tomjanovich, Jeff Van Gundy, Gregg Popovich, and Flip Saunders. And let’s not forget Larry Brown, the NBA Hall of Famer who hired Wells in the late 1990s to scout for USA Basketball.
Wells won his first NBA ring in 1995 interning in the video department of the Houston Rockets and his second 12 years later as an advance scout/assistant with the San Antonio Spurs.
Wells, who longed to coach in college, refused to surrender working with Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, and Scottie Pippen, and others like Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant whose enshrinement is coming.
“Should I have maybe thought about doing it earlier? Wells said. “Probably. But how can you jump off that thing?”
He interviewed with Gene Keady at Purdue in the early 2000s but got cold feet fearing Keady might soon retire. Keady lasted a few more years before deciding the 2004-05 season would be his last with the Boilermakers.
Wells, who will turn 44 this summer, ended his NBA run three years ago, figuring it was time to look elsewhere with the Washington Wizards rebuilding following the fallout of a locker room incident involving star Gilbert Arenas drawing a gun on a teammate.
“It was something I always wanted to do,” Wells said. “Going to such a small school in Ohio [Mount Vernon Nazarene] my whole deal was I wanna get to the Division I level.”
He helped George Mason to 46 wins in two seasons before leaving for South Florida. His time in Tampa was short lived after the administration jettisoned Stan Heath and his staff following a 20-loss campaign.
“I didn’t realize it was even close to being over in one year,” Wells said.
Kowalczyk’s phone rang, and his old buddy, Spurs assistant Jim Boylen, recommended Wells fill the spot opened by Jason Kemp’s departure for Ohio. Kowalczyk sought additional input from two other trusted pals: Charlotte Bobcats coach Steve Clifford, who worked with Wells in Houston, and Van Gundy.
“Jeff could not have said enough good things about him,” Kowalczyk said.
It just so happened Kowalczyk planned to be in Florida last month to see his father. He invited Wells and his family to join them for a couple days in the sun. Wells’ two young sons swam with Kowalczyk’s two kids. The wives hit it off. Everyone dined over seafood.
The next day the coaches reconvened for a deeper discussion on the beach. The offensive-minded Kowalczyk was drawn to Wells’ defensive acumen and his international recruiting contacts. Wells, scorned by the abrupt divorce at USF, sought stability, something Kowalczyk could offer coming off a school record 27 wins and with a contract running through 2020-21.
Their walk along the Atlantic Ocean, as unconventional of an interview as it may have been, marked the first of Wells’ career. He got NBA jobs based on recommendations of others and arrived at George Mason having never met coach Paul Hewitt in person. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo convinced Heath, his one-time protege, to hire Wells at USF.
“I don’t know in coaching what a traditional interview would be,” Wells said. “So the beach deal, it wasn’t that unusual.”