Coach of the year

Updated: January 25, 2008 - 9:32 am

Jay Pivec has notched his 500th win as a college basketball coach of his squad, the Minneapolis Community and Technical College Marauders.

The coach hit the 500-win mark on Jan. 23 against Anoka Ramsey in the MCTC gym on Hennepin Avenue.

Alas, junior college basketball doesn’t make for the sexiest sound bite, so forgive ESPN if they don’t acknowledge the achievement.

Likewise, even though MCTC is by far the most ethnically diverse community college in the state, the local sports media will likely devote more coverage to Kentucky expat Tubby Smith’s 400th victory than on the story of a city kid who stayed in the city and in the game he loves in order to help other city kids — and chalk up 500 victories in the process.

“Whatever stories out there that are bad about things, you could find in every one of our guys a good story,” says, Pivec, a 52-year-old father of four, looking out the window of his home on Penn Avenue at the hockey rinks of Armatage Park. “We don’t have failures. We have guys who might go south for a little while, but we tell them if they work hard in our program and do what we tell them to do, after they leave here we’re in their corner for the rest of their lives. And when you make that kind of contract with people, and you deliver on that, it’s all good, man.”

The fact is, Pivec would rather talk about all the kids (or “knuckleheads,” his favorite term of endearment) he’s coached over the years than himself, which is part of the reason his story remains somewhat underground. MCTC has no sports information director, no publicist, and Pivec was raised not to blow his own horn. Still, he’s got a lot to say — about basketball and life, as so many great coaches do.

“A lot of our guys have never been told the truth,” he says. “And, as most of our players can attest, I can get in their faces. Painful honesty. No problem at all. And when you vest in someone’s life like I do, they become more than a point guard. They become more than a power forward.

“These are city kids with city problems. Now, what does that mean? Health care. Transportation. Finances. Economics. Shelter. Food. Family. We tell these kids, 2 (o’clock)-to-4, that’s your utopia. That’s practice time. It’s gotta be the best time of your day.”

Over the years, several of Pivec’s knuckleheads have gone on to play Division I, II and III ball. And while the temptation here is to weave a feel-good story about hard-luck kids who find a Father Flanagan figure in Pivec, the fact is that he’s a hell of a coach who has a connection to every Minnesota (and beyond) basketball coach on every level. Many of whom are on his cell phone speed-dial.

“The other night when the Timberwolves lost (blowing a game at Denver), I left a voice message for (Wolves head coach) Randy Wittman. I said, ‘I was all set to congratulate you on a great win, and then … That wasn’t your fault. You’ve got some knuckleheads.’ He texted me back, ‘I appreciate it.’”

Pivec attended St. Thomas The Apostle grade school and Southwest High School, and got his start in basketball at the KCYO. After a stint coaching at Northern Montana University, he has been at MCTC for the past 18 years. He and his wife of 26 years, Mary Louise, raised their kids in the city, because they believe in it and because they wanted their kids to know people from all walks of life. Which is why to this day, Pivec doesn’t pine for the bright lights of a more high-profile coaching job.

“It’s odd,” he says. “My family all lives in the Twin Cities. My mother’s [been in] Catholic Elder Care for the last nine years with Alzheimer’s. Father Michael O’Connell at the Basilica is a good friend of mine, and a spiritual leader. I get paid very well. I work for a wonderful administration at the college that understands what we do and has been very accommodating and doesn’t get in the way. I work in one of the greatest cities in America, maybe the world, even on a 3-below day.

“So when I get the scale out and weigh it all out, and when jobs come along — and they have come along — none of ‘em are better than the job I’ve got.”

Now comes the pay-off; a milestone rare for any coach at any level. But to hear Pivec downplay it is to hear a guy who obviously knows the secret to the universe: not individual success, but people and connections.

“This is my 500th win, it’s my 25th year as a head coach, and you just sort of go back over your life and … it’s been every winter in a gym. Wouldn’t trade it for anything. Sometimes you get tired of the road, or the weather, but you never get tired of the kids. What’s more important to my team is winning the next game. These kids are aware of it [the 500th win], but I make it clear to them: they’re not playing for me. Nor should they be. That’s not how our program operates.”

And how many fans will be in the stands for the coach’s milestone?

“It’s not the quantity, it’s the quality,” he says with a laugh. “I’ve got brothers and sisters in the city, and they come to as many games as they can get to. I have no idea. Some ex-players, maybe. Then there’s the hardcore [basketball] junkies who are looking for a good game. And that’s what they’ll get. They’ll see good basketball.”

Not to mention — shhh — a slice of Minnesota basketball history.

Jim Walsh lives and grew up in the East Harriet neighborhood of Southwest Minneapolis.