February 7, 2013
Quiet evenings in Flying Horse are occasionally shaken with loud shouts. The residents need not be alarmed, it just means Dave Pilipovich is on the way home.
“He’ll text me when he’s leaving here, and then it will be 20 minutes later when he gets here,” said Kelly Pilipovich, the wife of the Air Force men's basketball coach. “I know he’s somewhere.”
Such releases of tension might shock those who know Pilipovich solely for the sense of humor and laid-back demeanor that he shows publicly. But those releases are what allows that personality to remain unchanged one year after finally assuming head coaching responsibilities after a 26-year career as an assistant.
“About a month ago my daughter said ‘You need to be less mad all the time,’” Pilipovich said. “So now when I’m driving home I’ll go around the block a couple of times and scream out the window so I’m not going home and yelling at them.”
In retrospect, Hans Mueh wishes he’d made the move earlier.
Jeff Reynolds just never worked out at Air Force. Under his watch the program sank from its all-time peak – two trips to the NCAA Tournament and a semifinal run in the NIT – to the bottom of the Mountain West. They didn’t win a league game in the 2008-09 regular season and won just once the following year. The players weren’t enjoying their experience and the fan base had largely disappeared.
Mueh finally pulled the trigger last year after a 22-point loss at Colorado State dropped the Falcons to 0-6 in the conference. Pilipovich, a longtime assistant, was brought in as the interim coach Feb. 8.
A road win at Wyoming soon followed, followed by an upset victory over San Diego State – just the program’s second win over a ranked opponent.
Mueh then removed Pilipovich’s interim label and gave him a three-year contract. An instant turnaround has followed. Air Force (14-7, 5-3 MW) had a five-game winning streak snapped Wednesday in a game at No. 15 New Mexico that could have put the Falcons in a first-place tie in the league at the midway point in the season.
The team is scoring more points, playing at a faster tempo and more than 5,000 fans showed up for their most recent home game - a third win over a ranked opponent.
“I love Jeff Reynolds,” Mueh said. “But there’s no way to not say this coach is doing better than that coach.”
Todd Fletcher came to Air Force after being recruited by then-assistant Pilipovich.
“It was hard not to like him,” the senior point guard said. “He sold himself.”
Fletcher has been relieved to see that Pilipovich hasn’t lost those traits under the strain of leading a Division I program.
And there are certainly strains.
Pilipovich’s long road as an assistant – including stints at California (Pa.), Robert Morris and Michigan among others – gave him a feel for in all that goes into coaching. But it’s been different to be the one with the final call on game plans, recruiting, scheduling, academy responsibilities, strength and conditioning and to do it all while juggling media obligations and projecting a positive face in public and around the base.
The decisions go well beyond basketball strategy.
When Taylor Broekhuis suffered a rough bout of the flu in Las Vegas, it was Pilipovich’s call to get him an IV in the hospital and ultimately bring him back that night’s game.
The trick is learning what to let go, and that’s where Pilipovich is still struggling. As an assistant, for example, Pilipovich would watch every game film on the opponent he was assigned to scout. As a head coach that’s just feasible, but it’s hard for him to draw the line.
“At the end of the year I’m going to want to throw that computer out the window,” Pilipovich said from his obsessively organized office. “You’re just watching DVDs all the time. Every minute you get you’re watching another game.
“How do you balance that? You’re always thinking you need to watch one more.”
One night Kelly Pilipovich silently slipped out of the house, drove herself to the hospital and passed a kidney stone.
She returned just as quietly and her husband didn’t realize she’d been gone.
A coach’s wife is generally asked to endure a nomadic lifestyle and tolerate an erratic schedule. Kelly takes it a step further, deflecting as many responsiblities as possible so that her husband isn’t distracted.
“I don’t know what bills we pay, I don’t know what we owe – thank goodness, probably,” Dave Pilipovich said. “I’ve never written a check at home, paid light or electricity, car payment, I don’t any of that.”
The reward for Kelly may be to finally settle into one place. The couple’s son, Kyle, attends Colorado State and their daughter, Kelsey, is a junior at Discovery Canyon High School.
Perhaps out of habit, the family still doesn’t own a home despite being in Colorado Springs since 2007. That might soon change. Mueh said he would give thought to extending Pilipovich’s deal when the financial situation at the academy is settled in the coming months.
Extension or not, the coach’s wife is happy for her husband.
“He has known what to do the whole time,” she said. “To be putting it into place right now is like a dream come true.”
At dinner a few weeks ago, the Pilipovich family was dining at a restaurant when Dave noticed a woman staring his direction.
“I’m wondering, OK, something’s wrong here. Did I pull in front of these people in the parking lot? I said something to my wife. ‘Are they our neighbors?’ she said no, they’re not our neighbors,” Pilipovich said.
He was checking his face for mustard, trying to figure out what could be drawing attention.
Turns out, it was just him.
“You’re the coach,” the woman said to him.
Perhaps that’s been the biggest difference between being an anonymous assistant and being the face of a program.
“You’re still the same person,” Pilipovich said. “But the platform is different.”
Air Force hockey coach Frank Serrator jokingly lectured Pilipovich early this week, warning him not to let the recent success go to his head.
“We don’t want to see the Rick Pitino suits or the Pat Riley slicked back hair,” Serratore said.
So far there are no signs of that happening. Pilipovich still lightens the mood in the locker room with “corny jokes,” as Michael Lyons describes it. He still doesn’t scream at officials (“It’s just not my personality to start yelling at someone,” he said).
Maybe it’s those private moments of release, maybe it’s the unwavering support from the administration and at home and maybe it’s simply the product of winning. Whatever it is, Pilipovich remains unchanged in a position that has certainly altered others.
“He’s waited so long for this,” Kelly Pilipovich said. “He’s just loving it.”
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