When tuition went up and his financial aid package did not, Tim Koenig had to make the tough decision to step away from playing basketball his junior season at Case Western Reserve University in 2004.
The 2002 University School graduate was a two-sport collegiate athlete for the Spartans and decided to stick with baseball, being named a team captain, but concluded his basketball career early to pursue a part-time job to pay his bills.
Koenig found work as an assistant coach at Cornerstone Christian Academy his junior year of college and then at his alma mater University School the following season.
Fifteen years later, Koenig, a guy with a biology degree, is still in the coaching realm and accepted the men’s basketball head position at Division II NCAA Fairmont State University, just 10 miles outside of Morgantown, West Virginia, on June 28.
“Sometimes things happen that you think aren’t the best thing for you,” Koenig said about foregoing his junior and senior basketball seasons at Case. “They upped tuition, and they did not increase my financial aid, so I had to work.
“So, there’s a blessing in disguise to have that happen at Case. I would have stayed on the basketball team and not started coached. That’s how it started. At the time, it felt like a big hurdle to climb, but, in hindsight, it’s a blessing.”
Koenig was named the 13th head coach for the Fairmont State Fighting Falcons by university athletic director Chad Fowler, after former head coach Joe Mazzulla resigned to take on an assistant coaching position with the Boston Celtics. Mazzulla owned a 43-17 record in two seasons at FSU.
Koenig accepted an offer to fill the vacancy after six years as the head coach at Notre Dame College, where he led the Falcons in South Euclid to a 93-88 record, with a 23-9 campaign this past season that included the program’s first Mountain East Conference championship, as well as its first bid to the Division II NCAA tournament.
That success came on the heels of an injury-ravished 6-22 mark the previous year.
“I love Notre Dame College, and I love Cleveland,” Koenig said. “I wasn’t trying to move. This opportunity was something that I felt that we as a family and me as a basketball coach couldn’t pass up. But I’m just so grateful and so thankful for Notre Dame College and the time I spent there.”
While Koenig led the Notre Dame College men’s basketball team to unprecedented heights, he’s no stranger to being a part of program firsts.
When Koenig was a freshman at University School, the Preppers’ varsity program was head coached by Tom Lombardo, who is now the head football coach at St. Edward, before Tony Tucker took over the reins during Koenig’s sophomore and junior campaigns.
In the playoffs those three years, US lost an 81-75 overtime battle against Warrensville Heights in 1999, a 65-62 district semifinal game against eventual Division II state champion Warrensville Heights in 2000 and then a 71-69 overtime battle in the district title game against eventual state runner-up Warrensville Heights in 2001.
“Those were some unbelievable games, and there were just some unbelievable memories,” Koenig said. “We wish we would have been on the other end, but I had great time. I had a great experience in high school, playing and having just great guys to be around. What a great school University School is. I’m just so fortunate I was able to go there for high school.”
During Koenig’s senior campaign, University new head coach Jon Palarz led all-Ohio guard Logan White and the rest of the Prepper cagers to their program’s first district championship with a 61-56 victory against top-seeded Benedictine in the Division II tournament.
White led the maroon and black with 22 points, while Koenig was the Preppers’ second-leading scorer with all nine of his points coming in the second half of that game. Koenig buried a 3-pointer to provide his team a 49-46 lead it never relinquished.
“It’s so special to do something for the first time and leave your imprint,” Koenig said. “University School, my senior year, we were the first team to ever win the district title in the history of the school. And that’s something where maybe we weren’t the most talented group, but we were the first group to ever do that.
“It’s great to win, it’s a great feeling to be the first to represent your school, but the biggest thing is those relationships that were built and have lasted since then.”
Koenig said he still talks to Palarz weekly.
Also during Koenig’s senior campaign, he and his fellow University cagers played against the likes of the St. Vincent-St. Mary Fighting Irish, who had a 6-foot-7 junior by the name of LeBron James.
“Oh, yeah, we did that,” Koenig said about playing against Ohio’s three-time Mr. Basketball. “There was a lot of people that came to the game. It was pretty cool.”
At Case Western Reserve, Koenig played under head coach Sean McDonnell, who is now an athletic director and head boys basketball coach at University School.
After graduating from Case, Koenig began his collegiate coaching career at Notre Dame College as an assistant from 2006 to 2011, stepped away for a year and a half to serve as the director of marketing and admissions at St. Peter Chanel High School in Bedford, as well as an assistant coach at Lake Erie College, before returning to Notre Dame as the head coach in 2013.
Although he’s a lifelong Clevelander, Koenig said the opportunity to take over the helm at Fairmont State was a good fit on multiple levels.
“Fairmont State believed in me,” he said. “Not to say Notre Dame College didn’t, but they believed in me to the point where they gave me a three-year contract, and that was big, you know, with a growing family, my wife and two kids, that was big.”
Koenig said his wife, Nicole, has made sacrifices to allow him to chase his coaching dreams, but the move to Fairmont State also comes with the flexibility of her working part time. They have a 5-year-old son, Kyle, and a 1-year-old daughter, Gabriella.
When Koenig officially accepted the offer on June 28, he jumped in his car and told athletic director Fowler to wait three hours before making the announcement to the players, so he could be there in person.
“I just walked in the gym, and we went from there,” Koenig said. “Whenever you get a job, unless you’re starting a program from scratch, you know, it’s tough on the players. They’re used to a certain voice and a way of doing things, and then there’s uncertainty. There’s chaos when that voice leaves.”
Fairmont State men’s basketball is coming off a 22-9 campaign under former coach Mazzulla, including an 85-67 loss against Koenig’s Notre Dame College cagers in the Mountain East Conference semifinals.
Many of the FSU players, including incoming freshmen, had just arrived on campus for summer school and training the same day that ESPN Senior NBA Insider Adrian Wojnarowski dropped a “Woj bomb” that Mazzulla was taking an assistant job with the Boston Celtics.
“The guys have been absolutely great,” Koenig said of his FSU players making the transition. “They’ve welcomed me with open arms. There are a couple guys who are choosing to transfer out of Fairmont State, but that’s to be expected. That happens with every coaching change. There’s always a couple that will make a move. The vast majority are staying and really believe in the new coaching staff and obviously believe in Fairmont State.”
In particular, coaching changes can be difficult for incoming freshmen.
When asked about Solon 2019 graduate Mike Bekelja, who made his verbal commitment to coach Mazzulla and FSU before his junior year, when the Comets finished as Division I state runners-up, Koenig said the 6-foot guard is going to explore the possibility of playing prep school hoops for a year to reopen his recruitment.
The International Sports Academy at Andrews Osborne in Willoughby announced on social media Tuesday that Bekelja committed to its program for a prep year.
Koenig’s familiarity with the MEC should help his transition to Fairmont State, but he also said that he’s not arrogant enough to think that he doesn’t have things to learn just because of his experience.
“Each year is different; each team is different,” the 2019 MEC coach of the year said. “I have to learn, and we as a group have to learn and get better. Each team just kind of grows and learns together, and each team goes on its own separate journey. So, yeah, it helps, but, hey, every year’s different, so we’ve got to be ready to rock and roll.
“Then from program standpoint, the amount of support and tradition is just unbelievable. I mean, the city is such a great city. I’ve never lived outside of Cleveland my entire life. So, resources, and then the tradition. Oh, my lord, the tradition. The place is so special. I’m just so fortunate to be the next head coach at Fairmont State. There’s a personal family piece, and then there’s a career piece. It all aligned together to fit. The shoe fit perfectly.”