Meet Brian Wardle: New coach is family man, fierce competitor

Just moments after Brian Wardle was introduced as the head coach for the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay men’s basketball team his young daughter placed a kiss on his hand, and hugged her daddy close.

Minutes before, a confident and smiling Wardle publicly embraced his new position at the Kress Center news conference April 15, saying he was “honored, humbled and excited.”

In the next few months, the youngest coach in men’s Division I basketball will work to show campus and community that he is the man he says he is — humble, compassionate, a relationships and family guy — and also who others say he is — a competitor like no other and a born leader.

After a brief interview with Wardle, and conversations with family and friends, it’s hard not to believe it already.

Wardle accepted the position with his eyes open. He has worked as the assistant and top recruiter for the Phoenix the past five years. He knows the challenges ahead, not only matching the success of the last two years — including 20-plus wins and knocking off a couple of Top 25 teams — but repositioning UW-Green Bay as a program that can get back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1996.

Also near the top of his “to-do” list is to endear himself, his staff and players to campus and community.

“No head coach will outwork me,” he says. “And no one will be more approachable.”

For current and former Phoenix fans who never questioned the first from the previous coaching regime, but sometimes complained about the second, those were welcome words.

“I believe a team is the reflection of its head coach,” Wardle said. “I am my own person, and I have plans in place that people will notice. You will see us out there in the community and on campus, I guarantee it.”

His philosophy, he realizes, includes “being the heavy,” a disciplinarian if need be. But he also trusts his ability to develop great relationships with players and the student-athletes he recruits. He stresses, that like the Phoenix program under his former boss, Tod Kowalczyk, the emphasis will be on the student first, and the athlete second.

As for his work ethic and no-excuses attitude, talk to his father, Jim, still in Chicago and headed to work when he got the call that Thursday morning that his son would get the job. Jim made a 3 1/2–hour detour north to see his son announced as the next head coach of the Phoenix.

“Brian is very competitive and passionate,” Jim says. “He hates to lose. Always has. When he was a freshman in high school, he was told he’d never be a Division I player. They said there are thousands of guys who are 6-5 that can shoot. They criticized his ball-handling. Brian spent the rest of the summer in the driveway with his right hand taped up so that he could only use his left.”

Four years later Wardle was leading the Marquette Golden Eagles to two NIT appearances, twice as a captain, and he still ranks among the school’s all-time leading scorers (sixth, with 1,690 career points).

Wardle’s competitiveness dates back to his childhood, where in a moment of clairvoyance, or maybe just clarity, he created a work of art that he proudly displays in his accessory-barren head coaching office (there’s little time for unpacking when he has to set up staff and recruit some players) at the Kress Center.

“I was in second grade and the teacher asked us to create something that describes us,” he said. Wardle’s drawing shows a basketball sailing through a net, with words in bold, “Born to compete.”

Both Wardle and his wife, Lecia, know the demands of a head coaching job can be trying on a young family. They have two daughters, 3-year old Mya and 10-month old Emy. Lecia, a former competitive athlete herself, understands the long days, the multitude of social engagements, and the limelight. But she says she’s ready to embrace the lifestyle and happy that it is here in Green Bay, where the couple has built a life together and gained perspective on what matters most.

“Know a good babysitter?” Lecia jokes. She and Brian met in study hall at Marquette and have been together ever since.

“He’s everything he appears to be,” Lecia said of Brian. “He’s competitive (so much so, that the couple has learned their relationship is best when they are on the same team), humble, and he has absolutely no sense of entitlement. I think that once people know him, they will be compelled to support him.”

Lecia says he is also a dedicated father. “He’s a big kid himself, so he’s down on the floor playing with the girls, building them forts, taking them to places like Tundra Lodge (waterpark) and Disney on Ice.”

At the news conference, Wardle seemed especially close to Mya. Theirs is a bond created out of extreme difficulty. Only a year old, Mya spent nearly four months in Children’s Hospital in Milwaukee with a rare case of pneumonia. Brian commuted back and forth from Green Bay to Milwaukee as much as he could while continuing to dedicate himself to the Phoenix.

The Wardles walked away from the episode with a healthy daughter and a bit of debt, but also renewed appreciation that career challenges mean little in comparison to family and relationships.

“It was a life-changing experience, “ Wardle says. “All I do is coach basketball. While I was down there, I spent a lot of time talking to a lot of people and what they’re going through… (pause). I’ve learned not to take myself too seriously and live every day to its fullest. “

Describing himself as a “glass half-full kind of guy” Wardle says he has a plan for those who doubt he can get the men’s program to its former glory. His plan, and his ability to communicate it to UW-Green Bay Athletics Director Ken Bothof, seemed to give him the edge in the interview process over the other candidates.

“I happen to have a different outlook,” he says. “It’s human nature to look critically at things. I’ve learned to do the opposite. It’s like when they told me I couldn’t dribble. I’m a sponge for constructive criticism; I like to be a sponge. I take it in and then find a way to prove them wrong.”

One thing Wardle is confident about is that if he succeeds in doing the things he has promised — keeping the team competitive (which he plans to do with improved defense and rebounding) and reaching out to the community, the community will reach back.

“I find Green Bay much like the neighborhood I grew up in (Willowbrook, Ill.) — a passionate, loyal, hard-working, meet and greet community. Once you’re ‘in,’ everybody has your back.”

More from Phoenix head coach Brian Wardle:

He and daughter Mya: “She’s daddy’s little girl. Very entertaining and fun loving. The experience (her illness), the fact that she was coddled, makes her very loving and trustworthy.”

His competitiveness: “Yes, I’m competitive, sometimes too much. I’ve had to learn to bring it back a bit.”

A nanny, really? “As a kid I worked as a nanny. Diapers and bottles, the whole thing. I suppose that’s where I get my love for kids. People don’t often think of guys as guys who do that, but I loved it. My mom worked two jobs, so I babysat a lot. In fact, there are times I’ve thought about creating a business to help dads connect with their kids.”

Humility: “I think I’m a good guy with a good heart. I’ve heard that even humble guys, when they become head coaches, slowly creep out of that mode, but you can be assured that my wife and family will put me in check and keep me grounded.”

The hiring process:
“I embraced it. I’ve been preparing for this in bits and pieces for five years. I’m invested. It gave me a chance to reflect on exactly what I want to do, and how I’m going to get there, and then communicate that to Ken (Bothof). I’ve been here for five years. I know the (hiring) process. It was stressful, but the job is stressful. I’ve never been a guy who has felt entitled to anything. If I have the job, I want to have earned it.”