When you spend your lifetime in sports journalism, you encounter a huge number of people — watching them, interviewing them, writing about them.
I know it well.
Quite a number of years ago, I determined that I had met literally thousands of athletes, coaches, officials and others involved in the sports world in various ways. I just couldn’t estimate how many thousands.
Sure, the ultimate enjoyment comes in sitting and observing games and other athletic activities from press boxes or along the sidelines, never having to pay for such good times. It’s all part of the job I’ve had now for 66 years. I wouldn’t have traded it for any other profession.
I’ve seen and talked with the best athletes of my generation — professionals and amateurs, close to home and elsewhere. Those who compete get the most attention from writers and commentators. That’s because they’re the ones the public wants to know about the most.
Those thoughts came to mind the other day when I was thinking about St. Francis Xavier University basketball coach Steve Konchalski. At the time, he was preparing for still another journey into the AUS basketball championships in Halifax.
There’s not much I haven’t learned about the Elmhurst, New York native since he first arrived in Nova Scotia 58 years ago to study and play basketball at Acadia University. In the four years that followed, he brought national glory to the Axemen and the beautiful Annapolis Valley campus.
His coaching career got started in Montreal when he had a four-year tenure as an assistant at Loyola College.
Then, in 1975, he was back in our province when he accepted the coaching duties in Antigonish.
The rest is history.
It didn’t take him long to become a legend with the blue and white and, affectionately, labelled “our Coach K”, a mimic of the beloved nickname earned by coach Mike Krzyzewski at Duke University down in North Carolina.
During the 1960s, when he was the star of the Axemen, I was working for The Chronicle Herald in New Glasgow and got to watch him when he played against the X-Men in the cathedral town. He impressed everyone who was watching.
By the time he returned to Antigonish to lead the X-Men, I was sports editor of the provincial paper. That’s when I first met up with him, first interviewed him, first began what became a friendship.
While Steve was building a hoops dynasty at X, I became more and more impressed with his work. He was the one who consistently found outstanding talent and convinced them to join his program. He was the one who blended those recruits into champions. Conference and national championships quickly piled up.
Some of his achievements have been nothing short of fantastic.
Imagine a coach taking a team, in any sport, at any level, to the playoffs in 38 consecutive seasons. Most coaches don’t even coach that long. Adding nine conference championships and three national titles simply made his career all the more exemplary.
It’s easy to understand why he’s in the Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame, the Acadia Sports Hall of Fame and the Nova Scotia Sport Hall of Fame.
All those winnings, all those honours, must be shared with another of Konchalski’s qualities — his ability to deal with players, referees, fans and, yes, media folks. It allows someone like me to say, with no exceptions, that he’s been a gentleman in so many ways. It’s a reputation that’s difficult to maintain for so long in any profession.
That brings me to a subject that came up one day months ago when I was having lunch with a couple of long-time acquaintances at the Mic Mac Beverage Room in Dartmouth. If you’ve ever been to the Mic Mac, you know it’s one of those places where you’re supposed to munch your burgers and fish cakes while debating all sorts of sports subjects.
On that particular day, an intriguing question was tossed in my direction: Of all the coaches I’ve watched for any length of time in Nova Scotia, he asked me, who do I consider to be the best, the one I’d place at the head of the class?
Names whizzed through the thinking portion of my mind.
There was another outstanding university basketball coach, Brian Heaney. There was the great St. FX football mentor Don Loney. There was Nova Scotia Voyageurs coach Al MacNeil when pro hockey first came to the Maritimes. There was junior hockey coach Jim Bottomley, whose style drew critics as well as supporters.
Back in Pictou County, there were hockey coaches Bobby Beaton and Leo Fahey; more recent junior coach Troy Ryan; and high school multi-sport coaches such as John (Brother) MacDonald and Gus Fahey. I could go on, but won’t.
Whoever I considered, I kept coming back to Konchalski.
Not long after being asked my opinion, I was browsing the internet when I came across a site that listed these qualities as part of being a successful coach: “Be true to yourself, help others, make each day your masterpiece, make friendship a fine art.”
I thought that was very accurate. To me, Konchalski has certainly lived up to all of those expectations.
Time has marched on, making it hard to realize Steve’s been at X for so long. But, like everything else in life, all good things eventually must come to an end.
A year from now, there will be two significant happenings in Steve’s career.
First, the X-Men will host the 2020-21 U Sports’ Final 8 championship at Scotiabank Centre in Halifax. Soon afterwards, “our Coach K” will be retiring, winding down his success-filled 46-year stay with the X-Men.
For many sports-loving Xaverians, it will be difficult watching the blue and white without that familiar face on the bench.
His departure — no debate about it — will leave a huge void on the campus.