By BOB ETTINGER
For the Star Beacon
It didn’t take Tom Church long to work his way up the coaching ranks to earn a chance to run his own program. After just three stops in seven years, Church has been named the head basketball coach at St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Ind.
Church, 33, began his coaching career at Conneaut before becoming an assistant at Hiram. After a year, he moved to Rensselaer for his first stint at St. Joe’s.
In Church’s three years on the staff, the Pumas were 53-37 with two NCAA Tournament appearances (2008 and 2010). During that run in 2010, the Pumas won the Great Lakes Valley Conference North Division and, as the eighth seed in the Midwest Regional, advanced to the Division II Elite Eight.
He now returns to try and duplicate that success.
“I feel really comfortable here,” Church said. “They know what they can expect from me and I know what to expect from them. It’s a good fit for both parties.”
The success at St. Joe’s led to a three-year stint as an assistant at Florida Southern, where the Moccasins were 70-25 with Sunshine State Conference Tournament championships in 2012 and 2013. The Moccasins made appearances in the NCAA Tournament all three years and won the South Regional to advance to the Division II Elite Eight this past season.
“I’ve been lucky to move along as quickly as I did,” Church said. “I have some connections, but having success helps. In my six years as an assistant in Division II, we’ve been to the NCAA Tournament five times and the Elite Eight twice in the last four years.”
Church led the Spartans during the 2004-05 and 2005-06 seasons. As a player, he was first-team All-Ohio in 1997-98 leading Conneaut to a 19-1 regular season and the Northeastern Conference championship.
“Everything is a learning experience,” Church, the son of Tom and Jan Church, said. “My time there was valuable, too. It gave me head coaching experience and that’s valuable.
“I did what I needed to do after my time there. I looked in the mirror and said, regardless of what happened there, I wanted to be a better coach. I was extremely young when I took over there. I looked in the mirror and wanted to be better. I’ve learned a lot since then.”
The success that Church was a part of as an assistant was certainly important in the minds of St. Joseph’s athletic director Bill Massoels and his colleagues.
“The search committee and I looked at 98 resumes for this position, making an abundance of phone calls before narrowing the field of candidates,” Massoels said in a press release. “We came to a conscience that Tom was the right person to guide our men's basketball program. He is certainly accustomed to winning and we look forward to seeing that trend continue throughout his tenure.”
Massoels and the search committee sought Church out once the job came open.
“I got a phone call saying they were interested in me and they were trying to find out if I was interested,” Church said. “That was the beginning of April. It’s been (a) short (wait), but it’s been stressful. It’s certainly a position a lot of people wanted. They had close to one hundred applicants and they interviewed three guys.
“It’s a position I wanted and felt I was ready for.”
Having worked with good coaches along the way has served Church well.
“I think that definitely helps a lot,” Church said. “I gained experience here then under Linc Darner at Florida Southern, which is one of the top Division II programs in the country. I worked under Linc for three years and we were 70-25, in the NCAA Tournament all three years and won the Sunshine State Conference two times.”
Church takes over a team that plays in the very tough Great Lakes Valley Conference.
“Drury, which just won the national championship is in our conference,” Church said. “Bellarmine, which is in Louisville, won the national championship two or three years ago, is in our conference. Southern Indiana, one of the top programs in Division II is in the conference.
“It’s a tough conference. We certainly have work to do here. We had success here before. Being a head coach at this level is extremely hard, but it’s an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”
Church already understands what being a good recruiter means to a program.
“A big part of being a top assistant is you are the head recruiter,” Church said. “You’ve got to track players, find players, call players and bring them to campus. The head coach is obviously involved, but the top assistant does it on a bigger scale.
“I had to talk to coaches and Division I transfers. That’s where a lot of my time was focused on. Obviously, there are other things involved, but I dealt a lot with find the players who would make the program successful. At this level, you’re only as good as the players you have.”
Though he had a lot of responsibilities as an assistant, Church understands that was just the tip of the iceberg.
“I’m extremely excited,” he said. “My wife, Jennifer, and I are very excited. I’ve got a ton of stuff to do. I just got to campus (Thursday). I’m very excited, but at the same time, I’m the man in charge now.
“I’m not just making suggestions from the bench about substitutions or what plays to run. I’m the guy calling the shots. I’m running the program now. I’m in charge of the budget and recruiting.”
Don’t mistake that as a complaint. Church is right where he’s always wanted to be.
“That’s what I’ve worked for,” he said. “Most assistants are striving to be a head coach. I love my job. I go to work every day loving what I do. I love recruiting and going on the road. It’s a blessing to go to work every day. I love what I do.”
That love, however, has led to many people from Church and his wife down through his parents and grandparents, to make adjustments.
“A lot of my family had to make sacrifices,” he said. “It’s hard being away from my family. I’ve got a lot of family and friends supporting me back in Conneaut. It’s a great support system.
“We have an extremely close family. It’s been a rough year for us. We lost my grandfather, Harry, in August. He meant a lot to us. I still get emotional talking about him. He was a big part of our family. My family has really been there for me.”
Jennifer Church has been a pillar for her husband, as well.
“Jen has been a rock for me,” Church said. “She said we were going to make this work. It’s what I’ve worked for and what I wanted and she’s given me her full support in following my dreams. I knew from a young age I wanted to be a coach.
“That support, from both my wife and my family, is very much needed and very much appreciated.”
Ettinger is a freelance writer from Ashtabula.