Paul Kowalczyk 'right person for the time'

Paul Kowalczyk 'right person for the time'

CHAMPAIGN — Taking a cue from Illinois basketball coach John Groce’s approach to the instability of his roster due to injuries, Paul Kowalczyk is approaching his new position as if he’s simply the next man up.

“When you’re asked to step up, you step up, and I felt like it was an obligation and a duty to the university,” Kowalczyk said.

That’s not to say these last few days have been easy for the 57-year-old.

Kowalczyk got word Wednesday he was being tabbed by Interim Chancellor Barbara Wilson to replace Thomas. Kowalczyk was hired in 2012 by Thomas as a senior associate director of athletics, and the friendship with Thomas is one Kowalczyk plans to continue.

“They’ve been a little sleepless,” Kowalczyk said of his last few nights. “Just weighing what’s transpired and Mike’s situation and trying to take this role on, it’s a lot.”

Since the news was delivered to them both last week, Kowalczyk has spoken to Thomas, and all is good on both ends of the relationship.

“He’s a class act. We have a good rapport, good conversations. I feel for the guy, but he handled things with grace and dignity. He’s done a really phenomenal job,” Kowalczyk said. “I didn’t want him to feel like I’m betraying him because he’s a good man, and he brought me on board. He’s been nothing but a class act, gracious. Any questions, I can call him; there are no issues there whatsoever.”

In explaining the decision to appoint Kowalczyk, Wilson noted his previous experience as athletic director at both Southern Illinois (2000-06) and Colorado State (2006-2011).

“He’s the right person for the time, just like the president felt I was the right person at the time,” Wilson said.

At Southern Illinois, Kowalczyk hired Jerry Kill to resurrect a Salukis’ football program that developed into an FCS powerhouse. In Carbondale, Kowalczyk also hired Matt Painter and Chris Lowery as basketball coaches, and that duo led the Salukis to four straight NCAA tournament berths.

At Colorado State, Kowalczyk was responsible for major facilities upgrades, including an indoor practice facility that contained a football field, practice courts for basketball and volleyball, and strength and conditioning and academic centers. The football stadium was upgraded, a $2 million tennis facility was constructed and video boards were installed in the basketball arena.

His hire of current Nebraska basketball coach Tim Miles was also a highlight as Miles guided the Rams to the NCAA tournament in 2012 — the first appearance for the programs in nine years.

But the football program at Colorado State never got going under Kowalczyk’s direction, and he was fired before the football coach he hired — Steve Fairchild — was eventually let go.

“Both situations, we were making progress. We had a lot of success more quickly, perhaps, at SIU,” Kowalczyk said of his previous stops as athletic director. “We improved graduation rates, won conference titles, appeared in the NCAA postseason in a lot of our sports (at Colorado State. We had a lot of success there, had good quality people and good quality coaches.”

Asked if Kowalczyk would be the person making any decisions on the Illinois football coaching position being manned currently by interim coach Bill Cubit, both Wilson and Kowalczyk were noncommittal.

“We haven’t made any decisions about that; Paul’s been in the job for about three hours now,” Wilson said.

But there’s a real possibility, should Illinois decide to extend the job to Cubit at the end of the season, that Kowalczyk could be making the hire.

“Making hires, it’s not as easy as it sounds, (like saying) ‘Yeah, we’ll just hire the best football coach out there.’ You never know for sure,” he said. “You’re going to do your homework, and you’re going to hire the best person for the position at that time.”

Kowalczyk was noncommittal on whether he would throw his hat in the ring for the job permanently.

“I’m going to approach the next couple of months day-to-day. Trying to steady the course here, make sure everybody knows we’re in this together,” he said.

“We’re going to get through these challenging times. We’ve got a bright future ahead for this university, for this athletic department. That’s what I’m focused on right now.”