Sunday Conversation: Paul Kowalczyk

Sunday Conversation: Paul Kowalczyk

Paul Kowalczyk was named Illinois’ interim athletic director on Monday. Staff writer Scott Richey caught up with Kowalczyk on Wednesday, less than 48 hours into his new job, to discuss what’s next for Illinois athletics, his previous stops at Southern Illinois and Colorado State, life as a Cleveland Browns fan and craft beer:

How many emails, phone calls and texts have you received?
I’m sure it’s hundreds, but I can’t say for sure. It’s a lot. It’s OK. That goes with the territory, and people have been very kind. Let’s put it that way, because they recognize the sensitivity of the situation and what’s transpired with Mike (Thomas) to me. And also supportive in my efforts going forward.

Did knowing about the switch five days before it happened help at all?
It was a challenge. I was still working with Mike. We talked about that. My heart goes out to him because of the situation he was in. I said it during the press conference and I’ll say it again — he was nothing but class and dignity and really impressive in how he handled everything. People don’t realize how challenging that can be to put on a good face while he’s going to events and doing things he’s supposed to do because of the position and he already knew what was going on.

How do you regain the public’s trust?
I think it’s going to take a little bit of time. We’ve been through six, seven, eight months — whatever it is — of very, very challenging and unprecedented times. This university and other universities have been through similar challenges. But we’re going to be 150 years old. This is a great institution. We have some of the finest faculty in the country. Our academic reputation is top shelf. People in this department are working hard to do the best they can for our student-athletes and to have success. We’ve had a good run in the Olympic sports. Certainly everybody wants football and basketball to have that success as well. I think, like us, we’ve got to take it day by day, believe in the university, believe we’re going to make the right decisions and things will be OK. Most importantly, believe in those kids, the student-athletes, and continue to support them. Don’t think this doesn’t matter to them as well. They’re focused in their little world, but there’s a ripple effect. I think it’s just going to take a little bit of time for people to see we’ll be OK in the long run, that we’ll get our legs underneath us. Hopefully the worst is behind us.

In your role as interim athletic director, are there limits on what you can do?
Whether I’m interim or not, the AD is always going to work with the chancellor and chancellor’s office. I’m not going to do anything in a vacuum because it has too much an affect on what’s going on in the chancellor’s office and in the (athletic) department. I think right now we need some stability. We don’t need to be making wholesale changes or changes for change sake. I’m not looking to cause any more concern at this point or make anybody any more nervous than they already are.

Will you conduct the search for the next football coach?
That’s assuming there’s going to be a search. This is one of those things that’s all nuanced. Those decisions will be made at the end of the year. The chancellor’s office and I will be in contact on all that throughout.

What’s the best advice you got this week?
I guess the best advice is be yourself. I’ve gotten that a few times.

What’s the next big facility push at Illinois?
What’s out there right now is trying to take a look at the stadium and see what we can do with football operations over there. That’s the next big project, but we have many other things going on around here right now that are smaller but no less important to those coaches and student-athletes. We put the wheels in motion. Mike did a great job with laying those things out, and Warren Hood has been outstanding in his role with our facilities.

How did you get interested in athletic administration?
My undergraduate degree was in accounting, and I spent about four or five years in the profession working for a corporation back in Ohio. My wife and I were actually at a Cleveland Browns training camp and I told her, “I don’t really love what I’m doing, and I don’t know if I can keep doing this forever.” Her question was, “Well, what would you like to do? What’s your passion?” I said, “Sports. I’d love to be the general manager of the Cleveland Browns or get involved with sports in some level.” She said, “Kent State has a graduate program in sports administration. You might want to take a look at it.” I did, and that’s what got me down this path. I played youth football from the age of 9 through one year at Dennison University, Division III. I was always active in sports and had a passion for it. It’s pretty cool to have a career in it. It’s the best move I ever made.

Still a Browns fan?
It is a challenge being a Browns fan these days, which is very unfortunate. So many people don’t realize the history of that franchise. I grew up as a kid, I was young, but there was Jimmy Brown, and Frank Ryan was the quarterback and Gary Collins at receiver. This was in the ‘60s, right, so that’s when they were winning championships and they were just a tremendous franchise. It’s been a long, hard road since they got back in the NFL. But, as with Cubs fans, you have to keep the faith.

Who were some of your mentors along the way?
I would say a couple of gentlemen. Dave Coffey, who gave me my first job in the profession at Portland State and has been someone who’s been in my corner since day one. Just a bright and genuine individual. He was wonderful and always has been to me. Another mentor in learning a lot about the business was Rick Taylor, who was my boss at Northwestern. Rick took over at a challenging time, but did a really fabulous job at Northwestern when I was there. He was very much a business guy, but there was a lot to pick up with how he handled that side of intercollegiate athletics.

What was your experience like at SIU as athletic director?
Going in, it was an eye opener. When you’ve never been the boss and had responsibility for all of those student-athletes and all of the those employees, I took that very seriously. It’s a huge responsibility. The program wasn’t in great shape by any stretch, but we were able to assemble an amazing team administratively and hired some of the best coaches, clearly, because they’ve gone on to many better things. The transformation was pretty special. I remember my wife, Peg, and I talking about it like, “I don’t know if it’s going to get any better than this.” We were having success. People were happy. Fans were showing up. Student-athletes were having a great experience. We had turned the program around and had a great culture. That was very satisfying and fulfilling.

What was the impetus behind your move to Colorado State as athletic director?
Colorado State was also a program in need of a turnaround and in need of help. When I got contacted about it, I thought it would be a great opportunity. That was a bit more of a challenge. It was taking a little bit more time to get turned around. We built a lot of facilities, and we had some things going in the right direction momentum-wise. We had Tim Miles, with basketball, who was getting things going. We weren’t able to get things turned in football like I had hoped. That, obviously, didn’t end the way I would have planned it, but I was able to find employment here. Mike had the opening, I was available and fit the bill.

What was it like to see Jerry Kill retire this season?
It was hard to watch the press conference because of my relationship with Jerry. I know how sincere and genuine he was in his comments and his emotion. That’s who he is. He lived for football as a coach and a teacher. That’s the thing Jerry had that was special. He connected with kids at a level that you just don’t see that often. That was his M.O. when I hired him at Southern. Even at the lower levels at Grand Valley State and Emporia. Kids would go to the end of the Earth for this guy. I was sorry to see it for his sake as his profession, but I was also relieved in some ways for his health. I don’t know how many seizures you can have before it has a toll.

What are your interests outside athletics?
I’m a jogger. I like to read. I like music. I like craft beers. I like to think I know a little bit about that. I love the Blind Pig, and Triptych’s done a great job as well, and the choices you have at some of the other establishments in town have been good. When I first got my job at Portland State — we lived in Portland, Ore., in 1987 — the craft beer craze, whatever you want to call it, was really just starting. Then it kind of exploded, it pulled back and now it’s kind of re-exploded, which is great for those of us that like something other than domestic light beers.

How has your new job affected your family?
It’s just my wife and I. It’s been a somber situation because we knew Mike and Jeni, Peg and I, for I don’t know how many years. It’s always difficult. My wife’s been in this role before. She’s been very supportive and certainly wants to see Illinois do well. Our cats, they really haven’t been all that affected. They seem to be OK with things.

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ROB McCOLLEY wrote on November 15, 2015 at 1:11 am
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"I think right now we need some stability. We don’t need to be making wholesale changes or changes for change sake. "

Ooh, a voice of reason. I suppose he'll be fired now.