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Sunday, August 27, 2017

Kevin Walden- Knox College Basketball

(From Knox website)
Kevin Walden is headed into his 6th year as the Knox College men’s basketball coach. Becoming a college coach at any level is a real journey. To succeed in college coaching, you have to have toughness. Often when a coach starts the journey, they are starting with very low pay as an assistant, grad assistant, or video coordinator.

Kevin graduated from Knox in 2001 as an Elementary Ed major. He became assistant coach for Tim Heimann at Knox immediately. In his first position, he was not just assistant basketball coach but he also had 2-3 other job titles to try to make ends meet. My point, it wasn’t a life of luxury. Whether on D3 or D1 level, becoming a college coach requires someone to have a strong vision of where they want to get. And no matter the bumps in the road, they have to just keep going.

To reach your goal in any field, you have to be willing to challenge yourself. Sometimes you have to be willing to do the “uncomfortable.” For Kevin Walden, the comfortable was to be willing to leave his job as Knox assistant to go to St. Ambrose as an assistant. This was a challenge but a way to grow. Then he made the move across country to become the head coach at Warren Wilson in Ashville, NC. When the Knox head coaching job opened up in 2012, Kevin had experience at Knox, at St. Ambrose, and head coaching experience at Warren Wilson. He had been willing to prepare himself.

It is a journey to become a head coach. I am sure there had to be times when Kevin questioned if it was all worthwhile. Kevin and his wife, had to have a toughness to work through the obstacles and challenges. So now as head coach, Kevin has the basketball experience learned at three different programs. But he also has been tested by the journey and has the toughness needed to develop the Knox program. 

Kevin is not afraid of challenges and doesn't back down. It will be exciting to see Kevin's hard work pay off at Knox!!

Massey- It seems like most young men/young women who dream of being college player, they just think about being DI and getting a full-ride. From your perspective having played D3 and now coaching D3, what don't high school players and parents understand about D3 basketball?

Coach Walden- Everyone is looking for an athletic scholarship these days and a lot of people will bypass looking at a D3 school because of that.  I think the two things that are most misunderstood about D3 basketball is the competitive level and cost of attendance.  As far as the competition at the D3 level, there are very good players at our level, even scholarship level players that want to make a bigger splash at a smaller school.  Just in our league, the Midwest Conference player of the year just signed a deal to play overseas in Denmark.  You’ve seen more and more D3 teams compete with and beat scholarship teams on a more regular basis because of that fact.   There are really good players at the D3 level and almost every high school player coming in has an adjustment to the size and speed of our game.  Former Galesburg player Eric Thompson told me last year that he thought he had played against pretty strong players in high school until he played in his first MWC game against St. Norbert this year.  Even Eric who was a three-year starter in the Western Big 6 had an adjustment to D3 basketball.  Most of our players are just like Eric, they were starters and main contributors to their high school teams.  I think the stat is less than 5% of high school basketball players go on to play in college.  Even at the D3 level we have a lot of talented players. 

Another common misunderstanding of D3 schools like Knox is that they are going to cost too much money and that scholarship schools will provide more money to families.  I have to assure parents all the time that schools similar to Knox make it affordable for families to send their son or daughter to school.  They see our sticker price and assume that we cost too much, but most of the time, families are pleasantly surprised by how much money schools like Knox are able to provide.  I’ve worked at St. Ambrose, an NAIA school, and a lot of schools similar to them cannot not provide full athletic scholarships.  They try and piece it together with partial scholarships here and there.  When in fact, a D3 can sometimes provide more money because not only do they provide higher academic scholarships but also need based financial aid.  While working at St. Ambrose, we struggled a lot of times trying to compete for players with the likes of Augie and Illinois Wesleyan because their financial aid packages were similar and a lot times even better than what we could offer.  I actually choose to go to Knox over St. Ambrose when I was a high school senior partially because Knox gave a better financial aid package for my family.  D3 schools provide funding based on academic success and financial need which enables families of all incomes to send their child to school for an affordable price. 

Massey- People say it is hard for Knox to recruit from Peoria. Why did you choose Knox?

(From Knox website)
Coach Walden- I choose Knox for four major reasons.  I wanted to go to a school close to home (1) where I felt at home (2) that had great academics (3) and where I had a chance to make an immediate impact on the court (4).  The assistant at the time, Mike Smith, had called me and introduced me to Knox.  I still remember honestly not knowing that Knox was in Galesburg and only 45 minutes away from me.  Once I visited, Head Coach Tim Heimann was the most real and genuine coach that I had met on my visits and I really felt like I would enjoy playing for him.  Our roster was filled with Central Illinois players at the time from Metamora, Annawan, Pekin, Galesburg, Moline, Bradford, and Chillicothe which also allowed me to fit right in.  I had played against or knew the names of most of the players on the roster at the time.  I also knew Knox was the best school academically I was looking at and I thought I could play right away as a freshman.  I was close to home where my parents could watch me play but I was also far enough away from them to experience college life.  I attended a great academic school where I got play in every varsity basketball game for 4 years.  Knox was the perfect place for me. 

Massey- You played for Coach Heimann and then you were his assistant. What were his strengths as a coach? 

Coach Walden- Coach Heimann was a real and genuine person.  He cared about you like you were is son and he always made you feel special.  I don’t think there was a time where he would greet me without a smile and upbeat personality.  As a coach, sometimes being real is hard because you are always seen as the head coach.  Coach Heimann was as real as they got.  He could be your friend and coach in the same sentence.  That’s what made him such a great coach.  He could coach you up but also put his arm around you.  That was a unique trait that he had that a lot of us coaches struggle with.  I really learned how to treat people the right way from Coach Heimann and that win or lose the individual is most important.  

He was also a great X’s and O’s coach.  I didn’t really appreciate that aspect of him until I was his assistant.  He could think the game.  He had an answer for everything you could throw at him.  I was a cocky, young, know it all assistant and I would try and stump him all the time.  He always had an answer.  He taught me so much about the game and made me such a better communicator and tactician. 

Massey- Whether it is high school or college coaching, they say it is always good to go different places and get different perspectives. How valuable was your experience from St. Ambrose, and what did you take away from it?

Coach Walden- My decision to leave Knox was by far the best decision I ever made.  I was telling a young assistant the other day that leaving and learning from someone else was the single best professional move I could have done.  I was able to learn from a Hall of Fame coach in Ray Shovlain who has surpassed 600 wins.  He taught me how to run a successful basketball program and how to maintain sustained success.  St. Ambrose was different than Knox on how they did things which was great for me to learn.  I got experience dealing with athletic scholarships, NAIA rules and I was the head JV coach where we played in 20 games a year.  I got valuable in-game head coaching experience.  Coach Ray was also the athletic director and professor in the business department so I had the opportunity to run the program at times as the associate head coach.  I had full autonomy with recruiting, creating an offseason program, and player development as well as helping coach in over 50 games a year (30 varsity and 20 JV).  That experience really prepared me for being a head coach. 

Massey- I am sure you were anxious to get your own head coaching job. You go to Warren Wilson in Asheville, NC. That is a huge trip for a guy from the Midwest. Do you remember what thoughts were going thru your mind on the drive there? What were your challenges?

Coach Walden- I was definitely excited and anxious for the Warren Wilson job.  My fiancé at the time, Amanda, who is now my wife, had never been to Asheville.  I found our apartment, rented a Penske truck and off we went.   I was excited about my job and getting started but anxious about traveling 13 hours from family to the middle of the NC Mountains.  I remember driving through the mountain gorge between Tennessee and North Carolina and thinking there’s no turning back now.  My wife and I are both Midwesterners and we had just made the trip to the Southeast so one of the biggest challenges was not knowing anyone.  We were forced to make friends in a different region of the US.

The other challenge was my job at Warren Wilson.  I was the first full-time head men’s basketball coach hired at WWC.  The previous year, they had seven total players and three of those guys were seniors.  I was hired during the summer so I couldn’t bring any other players in so I had 4 returners and 3 newly recruited players.  That’s pretty scary going into your first head coaching job with just seven players.  I was 1 or 2 injuries away from having to forfeit games.  I ended up recruiting some players from the school to join the team which really helped in practice.  I think we ended with 10 players that year.  My assistant and I a lot of times had to practice with the team in scrimmage situations.  I really was forced into an adverse situation which allowed me not to think too much about being a new head coach and just allowed me to run with it. 

Massey- You had been an assistant coach for a long time, yet I am sure there were some surprises becoming a head coach. What did you learn in your first year as a head coach?

Coach Walden- I really learned how to handle adversity and how to run practice with so few players.  I learned from Coach Ray at St. Ambrose that success a lot of time is how quickly and positive you make adjustments to adversity.  To this day, if you ask Coach Ray how he’s doing, his reply is, “Great as always, always great.”  I asked him once why that’s his response and he said things can always be a lot worse and that he didn’t want to take for granted what he was doing today.  That stuck with me throughout my first year.  We had 9/10 players at times and struggled at times with the competition we were playing but I always tried to look at the bright side of things.  I had to deal with a lot of different personalities at Warren Wilson which really made me learn how to deal with different people.  We had players from all over world with different commitment levels and that really challenged me to provide a positive basketball environment.  As an assistant, you don’t really have to deal with individual player problems as much because you leave that to the head coach.  That was the biggest thing I learned my first year.  How to effectively deal with many different individuals on a daily basis.  From academic issues to player conduct outside of basketball to playing time, I really learned how to effectively run an individual meeting and manage different personalities on a small college campus. 

Massey- You come back to Galesburg and to Knox College. How excited was it to be hired at your college?

Coach Walden- We were very excited about getting back to the Midwest.  My wife is also a Knox grad and she’s originally from Kewanee.  We always had a goal of getting back to the Midwest, not necessarily Knox.  The Knox job had opened up and we talked about it with excitement.  We met at Knox and had positive student-athlete experiences.  It wasn’t the most ideal time to leave Warren Wilson as we returned a very good roster and welcomed a good recruiting class from a team that had won 16 games the year before.  It was August and the beginning of Warren Wilson’s school year.  I told my players at WWC that Knox was the only place I would have left for at the time.  Leaving was difficult but my wife and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to move back to the Midwest to the place where we met and had such fond memories.  We believed and still believe in what Knox has to offer.  It is a dream come true to be able to coach at your alma mater and to say we were excited about coming back to Knox and the Midwest was an understatement. 

Massey- What have been the challenges at Knox?

Coach Walden- Recruiting is a challenge at every place you are at so I anticipated it to be a struggle at Knox too.  It is difficult to recruit but you have to be fluid and creative at times.  We’ve done a pretty good job of recruiting players to Knox.  Our roster my first year was 14 players with 3 true post players and 8 players 6-0 or below and this year we will be starting with 25 on the roster 11 players 6-4 or above.  The biggest challenge that we’ve run into with our program is our better players have been transferring.  We lost five guys in ten months all 6-3 or above and starters to other schools and one to an injury.  Our two starting post players from the 2014-15 season and our three leading scorers from the 2015-16 season did not return for the following season.  That has really set our program back as far as getting us over the hump competitively.  We’ve been more competitive but have failed to take that next step to win which is the hardest step.  We have not been able to utilize our starters and leading scorers as underclassman as upperclassman.  It’s tough to win with younger players and we’ve struggled with getting older.  We’ve changed some things up within the program to help correct that problem and hopefully stop that trend.

Massey- When I first got ahold you this summer, you were in Las Vegas recruiting. I know you have gotten some players from Los Angeles. How do you get kids from the west coast interested in coming to Knox? 

Coach Walden- My recent visit to Las Vegas was the third time our staff has been out on the West Coast this year recruiting.  It has started to be a good place for us.  This year’s roster will have 6 players from Southern California as well as players from Florida, Missouri, Wisconsin, New Mexico, Colorado, and even Greece.  We’ve tried to align our recruiting with the type of student Knox attracts.  Knox consists of 1400 students from 49 states and 53 countries and only 30% of our students come from Illinois.  We aren’t to that level yet but 13 of our players are from outside of Illinois.  We seem to be a great fit for a west coast student because we seem to be better priced and offer a similar campus feel to many of the small liberal arts schools on the West Coast.  Even state schools are very expensive out West.  We offer something just as good and many times better academically for a much cheaper price.  Many students out West are more open to traveling away from home and try new things.  That’s where Knox has really found its niche.  Our second and third most populated states on campus are Colorado and California, respectively.  I see Knox staying on that trend for a while which will also dictate our men’s basketball program to do the same. 

Massey- How hard is it to recruit on D3 level? It is not like D1 where you see a kid in July who you want and you offer a scholarship. How does the process work for you?

Coach Walden- The major difference between recruiting at the D3 level and D1/scholarship level is the number of guys we have to recruit compared to them.  D1’s can target players based on what they need for the upcoming school year so their initial pools to start are much lower than what I have.  Generally, we have to recruit 250-300 kids to yield 50 admitted students and 7-9 players who decide to come.  We yield about 10% of students who apply.  To find enough academically qualified and talented student-athletes is a challenge and one of the main reasons why we travel away from our three hour radius to recruit.  That’s been our equation for the last few years and we’ve been able to meet our goals.  Some D3’s and a lot of D1 and D2’s will have an initial pool smaller than even fifty players.  With us only having 3 seniors this year, we will attempt to target a smaller initial pool but we also can’t afford an empty class.  There’s a fine line that we have to be around to sustain our program and continue to move it in a positive direction.   

Massey- I know you have tried to set up some nice trips for the team. What does your schedule this year look like?

Coach Walden- We’ve got a tough schedule this upcoming season.  We open up with 9 of 12 on the road to start the year.  With a young team, that in itself will be a challenge.  We do travel to Los Angeles for 2 games against the University of LaVerne and Cal Tech.  Like I said before, we have 6 guys on our roster from Southern California.  It’s nice for them to be able to play in front of their family again and it helps with our future recruiting.  One of our seniors, DJ Lewis, is from Chino Hills and yes, he played with Lonzo Ball in high school.  He has a great family and friends network that will be able to watch him play in his senior year.  That will be a tremendous experience for him.  We’ve also resurrected the Knox-Monmouth Classic Thanksgiving weekend where we play Eureka and Westminster at home.  It should be a fun schedule. 

Massey- You went to school with Reed Allison, GHS grad and brother of Andie Leibach. How would you evaluate his game as a basketball player?

Coach Walden- Reed is a good friend of mine and yes we went to Knox together.  Funny enough I do have a basketball story about Reed Allison.  A bunch of us basketball guys were playing pick up at the FIGI house one afternoon and needed an extra player so Reed volunteered.  We were all a little skeptical to accept his offer since he was an offensive lineman for the football team, but we did.  At one point he was open and starting yelling, “Sag Out,” as loud as he could.  We immediately stopped the game and bust into laughter as none of us knew what “Sag Out” meant.  I don’t know what we were more shocked about the phrase he used or the fact that he wanted us basketball players to pass him the ball.  It became a running joke.  Every time we saw Reed walking in front of us on campus we would yell “Sag Out.”  Reed actually has much more basketball skill than you would think and he can actually shoot the ball OK for a football player trying to “Sag Out.”  That’s not to say that his pregnant sister, Andie couldn’t beat him right now.

Massey-  I love to go out to eat. As a Peoria guy, what is a place in Peoria that I need to go to?

Coach Walden- Without a doubt, my favorite place to eat at in Peoria is Avantis.  It’s an Italian restaurant similar to La Gondola and probably the reason why I love La Gondola so much.  I’d recommend the tortellini, gondola, and hot ham and cheese.  The bread there is amazing and everything is affordable.  Definitely a place I frequent. 

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