Can you really say someone’s coaching career has ended prematurely when they are 75 years old and they’ve been doing it for 45 years?
The 2020-21 basketball season would have been Steve Konchalski’s 46th and final one at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., and he was supposed to transition the head coaching job over to Tyrell Vernon.
Instead, due to COVID-19 concerns, Atlantic University Sport postponed the entire season.
This wasn’t how the legendary Canadian basketball coach’s career was supposed to end. This coming March, the X-Men were supposed to be the host team at the USports final eight men’s basketball tournament at Scotiabank Centre in Halifax.
The tournament would have been the final chapter in his memorable coaching career.
“Some of the greatest successes that I’ve had in my career have been at the Scotiabank Centre and it would have been a great place to finish up,” said Konchalski, from his home in Antigonish. “But right now I’m just putting my focus on helping my team deal with the uncertainties that we have in the world right now.”
Konchalski, known affectionately as Coach K, said it would have been nice to have one last season so he could say farewell to many of the people in Atlantic Canada he has met along the way in his amazing Canadian basketball journey.
That journey began in 1962 when he left his home state of New York to play basketball at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S.
In 1965, Konchalski was one of the key players for Acadia and was the tournament MVP when they won their first national championship. Ten years later he landed in Antigonish for his rookie year as the coach of the X-Men. His first recruit was Gil Green, a talented young guard from New York.
“Steve was not just my coach, he was a father figure to me and a mentor,” said Green, from his home in Richmond, Va. “I lost my dad when I was 16.”
In his 45 seasons Konchalski coached his teams to a Canadian college basketball record 918 wins. Along the way there were nine AUS titles and three national championships, in 1993, 2000 and 2001.
“He was always a great motivator and he had a sternness about him, but he was definitely what you would call a players coach,” said Green, now 64.
Konchalski was a fiery coach who was always full of energy on the sidelines. In games played at Acadia, fans would mock his sideline antics.
He was loved at Acadia as a player, but not so much as an opposing coach, particularly in the 1970s and 80s when St. FX and Acadia had a bitterly fierce basketball rivalry.
In the heat of the moment of one game, Acadia coach Ian MacMillan confronted Konchalski on the sidelines and pointed his finger into his face. MacMillan claims Konchalski then bit his finger. The next time the X-Men played at Acadia, fans showed up wearing Band-Aids on their fingers and waved them at the St. FX coach.
Coach K also had his own rapport with referees.
“One night I was reffing with my brother Reg, and Steve said to him, ‘I don’t think they play basketball where you’re from and this is no time to be learning on the job,'” said long-time basketball referee Roger Caufield. “But, you know, Steve really made you work hard every night, he expected you to give your all and he was very fair.”
One thing that will never be argued by anyone is Konchalski’s passion for the game and the love of his players.
Three years ago, in honor of Konchalski, the main gymnasium at the St. FX Oland Centre was renamed Coach K Court.
Even though the AUS season is postponed, there is a possibility Konchalski could still lead his team onto the court a few more times. A number of AUS schools are looking into having exhibition games.
“We are exploring possible exhibition games that may start in February should conditions permit,” St. FX athletic director Leo MacPherson said via email. “With the two-week isolation period for students returning to campus, followed by a couple of weeks of practising, the earliest we could look at exhibition games would be in early February.”
Any tentative plan for competition in two months time could easily be derailed if COVID cases continue to be reported. But if it is safe to do so, Konchalski would like to have at least one more road game.
“Having been recruited by the great Stu Aberdeen in ’62 to play at Acadia, it would be kind of neat to have one more chance to coach against them before I’m done,” said Konchalski.
Konchalski said he will still remain active in basketball by continuing his consulting work with the Canadian national men’s basketball program and assisting with Nova Scotia provincial teams.