As St. FX goes for gold, Coach K's impact is still being felt — even in retirement

Since retirement, Steve Konchalski has stayed close to the program he helmed for nearly 50 years. He's continued to mentor players like Dondre Reddick, left, and offer advice to his hand-picked successor as head coach, former player Tyrell Vernon. (STFX Athletics - image credit)
Since retirement, Steve Konchalski has stayed close to the program he helmed for nearly 50 years. He's continued to mentor players like Dondre Reddick, left, and offer advice to his hand-picked successor as head coach, former player Tyrell Vernon. (STFX Athletics - image credit)

It's been two years since men's basketball coach Steve Konchalski retired after 46 years behind the bench at St. Francis Xavier University, but his legacy still looms large in Antigonish, N.S.

It's there in the old gymnasium — 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 spent most of his childhood kicking around that same court.

Konchalski's legacy is also top of mind for Tyrell Vernon, the team's new coach, who took a leap of faith just over 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 it did for Michael Jordan on his first two go-rounds.

"He's at every game and we'll meet every week, going over game film, meeting players … it's non-stop," said Vernon, who considers Coach K his mentor.

Nick Pearce
Nick Pearce

Konchalski also keeps busy by working with the Canadian Elite Basketball League as a senior advisor for the Newfoundland Growlers and the Calgary Surge.

He'll even be in the stands of Scotiabank Centre in Halifax this weekend, as the X-men goes for its 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 eight men's basketball tournament in 2021 — Konchalski's last year — but it was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"That was gonna be my swan song," Konchalski said. "We were building towards it then and [Vernon] got another couple years to build towards that and he's done a fantastic job. I think we have a legitimate opportunity to compete with any team there."

Big shoes to fill

In his two seasons as head coach, Vernon has stepped into some very big shoes, but he's fitting into them quite nicely, having recently been named Atlantic University Sport's men's basketball coach of the year for 2023.

Vernon was part of the Konchalski's team that won bronze in the national championship in 2012, and he's 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.

STFX Athletics
STFX Athletics

He said many of his former players had eyed the job over the years, including former star Randy Nohr who led two championship teams and once told him to "keep the seat warm," but by that point, his choice was clear.

"Basically, I handpicked 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 just there to support."

In 2019, Vernon rejoined the X-Men as an associate coach, spending two seasons under Coach K's wing before taking over the program.

"To have those years under my belt with him — just talking every single day, practice planning every single day, how he operates every day — it's invaluable," said Vernon.

'It's deeper than basketball' says X-Men star

When Konchalski's not on the road, he's back home in Antigonish, meeting up with players like Dondre Reddick, to make sure they're staying focused, both on and off the court.

"I never had anyone that invested that much time in me," said Reddick, an AUS Second Team All-Star, now in his third year with St. FX.

Reddick credits much of his success the past two seasons to Konchalski's tireless work with him in the gym. In the off season, he said he works out with Coach K almost every day, but he's there during the year too, checking in.

"The work ethic that he's taught me and the character skills, it's deeper than basketball," he said.

Growing up in Antigonish, Reddick watched as St. FX hosted its legendary basketball camp each summer, drawing young athletes from all over the Maritimes to practice under the tutelage of Konchalski and his student athletes.

Bryan Kennedy
Bryan Kennedy

As a teenager, Reddick longed to get the "real" experience at the X camp — a full-week stay in the dorms nearby with breakfast, lunch and dinner at meal hall each night — but his family couldn't afford it.

"I sent an email to Coach K … and Coach K wrote me 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."

Though he can't quite remember this gesture, Konchalski does recall Reddick as a fixture 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 means, has always been a point of passion for Konchalski, and to see how far Reddick has come over the years makes it even better, he said.

"I take a lot of pride in all the players, but especially [in] having somebody from Antigonish represent the way he is."

National championships this weekend

Ahead of a quarterfinal match with Queens University on Friday, Reddick is liking his team's chances.

"I've been waiting for this moment," he said. "I feel like this is the year that we make history."

Meanwhile, Coach Vernon is busy focusing on getting his team prepared for the big game, taking it one step at a time.

"You get to the [Scotiabank] Centre and prepare as best you can and then go throw the ball up and see what happens," he said.

Of course, Coach K will be there too, but he plans on keeping a healthy distance in the stands.

"I won't be anywhere near the bench but my heart will be there," said Konchalski. "It's Tyrell's team now and he knows I'm there 100 per cent behind him."