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Mutka: Tom Church connects as SJC’s 18th hoops coach

New St. Joseph's College men's basketball coach Tom Church is hown sideline for FloridSouthern College last season. | FloridSouthern athletics

New St. Joseph's College men's basketball coach Tom Church is hown on the sideline for Florida Southern College last season. | Florida Southern athletics

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Updated: June 14, 2013 6:23AM



RENSSELAER — College coaching takes more twists and turns than a mountain road. St. Joseph’s basketball coach Tom Church is a classic case of how networking can pay off in a dysfunctional job market.

The 33-year-old newcomer spent the last three years at Florida Southern as the top assistant of Linc Darner, who left St. Joseph’s in 2006 after guiding the Pumas to a 31-3 record and the Elite Eight.

“We’re all kind of intertwined,” said Church, who played guard for Darner at Ashland University in Ohio (1999-2003) and assisted deposed SJC coach Greg Davis from 2007-10.

At the bucolic campus Davis and Church formed a 1-2 coaching punch to shock Division II basketball in 2010 by becoming the first No. 8 seed to win a regional title. When Church departed from SJC after that 20-12 season, the Pumas skidded to 23 wins in the next three years.

That sealed the fate of Davis, who slumped to a 94-102 record in seven seasons. It’s a bittersweet promotion for Church, who is a close friend of Davis.

“Greg was in my wedding two summers ago,” Church said.

Awkward moment aside, Church faces the challenge of rebuilding a once-proud program. No first-time head coach could serve a better apprenticeship than with Darner, who played his college ball for Gene Keady.

“We share the same up-tempo philosophy,” said Church. “Full-court pressure ... we’ll try to create as many possessions as we can.”

That formula clicked for Florida Southern, which qualified for the NCAA Division II tournament all three years and won two Sunshine State Conference titles. The Moccasins were 70-25 in that stretch, providing Church with his second Elite Eight experience in four years.

“Last year we were No. 1 in the country in turnover margin.” he said. “We averaged only 10 and forced 22, 23 a game. Defensive pressure was our motto.”

Darner couldn’t be happier for his former colleague.

“Tom’s had a big role in the success we’ve attained in the last three seasons and is ready to be a head coach,” the former Purdue guard said.

As the 18th head basketball coach at St. Joseph’s, selected from 98 candidates, Church recognizes the need to revive a flagging program. It starts with recruiting to a campus surrounded by cornfields and bordered by I-65 to the west, but within easy reach of major metropolitan areas.

“We’re in a great location,” he said. “Chicago, Indianapolis, Northwest Indiana, Fort Wayne ... they’re all within an hour-and-a-half driving range.”

In Church’s Elite Eight ride, the Pumas relied heavily on Michael Horton (Von Steuben, Chicago), Marcus Jackson (Ben Davis) and Phil Collins (Indianapolis Pike).

“We were very deep, but those three come to mind as kids who could have played lower-level Division I,” he said. “We also had a kid from Highland (Andrew Helmer) who was a force, a solid rebounder for his size.”

Church understands the importance of mining Northwest Indiana talent and I reminded him of active Division I basketball standouts like Michigan State’s Branden Dawson (Gary), Michigan’s Mitch McGary (Chesterton),Glenn Robinson III (Lake Central) and Spike Albrecht (Crown Point); Ball State’s Chris Bond (Bowman), UIC’s Hayden Humes (Valparaiso) and Loyola’s Joe Crisman (Munster).

Church gets the message. He hopes to cash in with a fairly straight-forward approach to recruiting.

“A lot of things factor into gauging the interest of student-athletes,” he said. “Staying close to home, smaller class size, a lot of variables figure. You have to do your homework, broaden your scope, then narrow it down to players who fit your system.”

Division II competition within the state is limited to Indianapolis and Southern Indiana, fellow members of the Great Lakes Valley Conference.

“What we need is an infusion of energy,” Church said. “That’s why I’m here.”

Relocating is among his immediate priorities. Our conversation was interrupted by a phone call from his wife, Jennifer, still teaching in Florida. Her fields include language, arts and a degree in administration.

“She’s got some options,” he said. “We’re trying to find her a job up here.”

No children complicate their life yet, but they do have a Yorkie puppy.

To dedicated dog lovers, that can compare to having a child.

“Sometimes it seems like it,” he said.

Applause, applause: Congratulations to Griffith’s Austin Brown and Lowell’s Spencer Kersey, who are among seven finalists for the Scholar-Athlete Awards, which will be presented during the National Football Foundation Honors Dinner at the Purdue Memorial Union on June 10.

They were chosen from 29 candidates by the NFF Joe Tiller Chapter of Northwest Indiana.

Highland native Ryan Grigson, general manager of the Colts, will be a primary honoree at the banquet. Grigson, the NFL Executive of the Year, was a three-year starter at Purdue on the offensive line and a team captain in 1994.

For information about the dinner, email Jim Vruggink at jvruggink@purdue.edu.



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