It’s been two years since men’s basketball coach Steve Konchalski retired after 46 years behind the bench at the University of St. Francis Xavier, but his legacy still looms large in Antigonish, NS
It’s there in the old gym — known these days as Coach K Court, where he became the winningest coach in U Sports history — and can be found in the DNA of players like Dondre Reddick, who grew up in the small college town and went through most of his childhood kicking around the same court.
Konchalski’s legacy is also a focus for Tyrell Vernon, the team’s new coach, who took a leap of faith a decade ago and transferred to St. FX to play for him.
But for a man with basketball in his blood, Konchalski’s retirement is going about as well as Michael Jordan’s in his first two rounds.
“He’s at every game and we’ll meet every week, watch game film, meet players … it’s non-stop,” said Vernon, who considers Coach K his mentor.
Konchalski is also busy working with the Canadian Elite Basketball League as a senior consultant for the Newfoundland Growlers and Calgary Surge.
He’ll even be in the stands at the Scotiabank Center in Halifax this weekend as the X-Men go for their first national championship since the basketball team won back-to-back titles in 2000 and 2001.
The school was set to host the U Sports Final 8 men’s basketball tournament in 2021 — Konchalski’s senior year — but it was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“That would be my swan song,” Konchalski said. “We were building towards it then and [Vernon] he has another two years to build towards it and he has done a fantastic job. I think we have a legitimate chance to compete with any team there.”
Big shoes to fill
In his two seasons as a coach, Vernon has stepped into some very big shoes, but he fits them very well after recently being named the 2023 Atlantic University Sport Men’s Basketball Coach of the Year.
Vernon was a member of Konchalski’s team that won bronze at the national championships in 2012 and has kept in touch with him since he graduated in 2013.
And when he took a job coaching basketball at TRC Academy, a prep school in Brantford, Ont., in 2016, Coach K was the first person he called for advice.
Three years later, in 2019, TRC had won back-to-back championships and Vernon was making a name for himself as an up-and-coming coach in Canada. Meanwhile, Konchalski was realizing it might be time to retire.
He said many of his former players had looked at the job over the years, including former star Randy Knorr who led two championship teams and once told him to “keep the seat warm,” but up until that point, his choice had been clear.
“Basically, I chose Tyrell,” he said. “It’s great because I feel comfortable walking into the gym and he doesn’t feel like I’m looking over his shoulder. I’m there to support.”
In 2019, Vernon rejoined the X-Men as an associate head coach, spending two seasons under Coach K before taking over the program.
“Having those years with him — just talking every day, practicing programming every day, how it works every day — is invaluable,” Vernon said.
“It’s deeper than basketball,” says the X-Men star
When Konchalski isn’t on the road, he’s back home in Antigonish, meeting with players like Dondre Reddick to make sure they stay focused, both on and off the court.
“I’ve never had anyone invest so much time in me,” said Reddick, an All-Australian Second Team All-Star now in his third year with St. Louis. FX.
Reddick credits much of his success over the past two seasons to Konchalski’s tireless work with him in the gym. In the offseason, he said he works with Coach K almost every day, but he’s also there during the year checking in.
“The work ethic he’s taught me and the character skills run deeper than basketball,” he said.
Growing up in Antigonish, Reddick attended St. FX to host his legendary basketball camp each summer, attracting young athletes from across the Maritimes to practice under the guidance of Konchalski and his student-athletes.
As a teenager, Reddick longed for the “real” Camp X experience—a full week’s stay in the nearby dormitories with breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the mess hall each night—but his family couldn’t afford it.
“I sent an email to Coach K … and Coach K wrote back with a letter and I went to X Camp for free,” he said. “That’s when our connection started to build. It just showed what type of person he was.”
Although he can’t quite remember that gesture, Konchalski remembers Reddick as part of those camps, with a love for the game that reminded him of himself at that age.
Offering support to young athletes, regardless of their abilities, has always been a point of passion for Konchalski, and seeing how far Reddick has come over the years makes it even better, he said.
“I’m very proud of all the players, but mainly [in] having someone from Antigonish represent him as he is.’
Panhellenic championship this weekend
Ahead of a quarterfinal matchup with Queen’s University on Friday, Reddick likes his team’s chances.
“I’ve been waiting for this moment,” he said. “I feel like this is the year we make history.”
Meanwhile, Coach Vernon is busy getting his team ready for the big game, one step at a time.
“You get to [Scotiabank] Cross and prepare as best you can and then go throw the ball and see what happens,” he said.
Coach K will be there, of course, but he plans to keep a healthy distance in the stands.
“I won’t be anywhere near the bench, but my heart will be there,” Konchalski said. “He’s Tyrell’s team now and he knows I’m there 100 percent behind him.”