VINCE LARA: Hi, this is Vince Lara in the Communications Department of the College of Applied Health Sciences at the University of Illinois. Today I spend a few minutes with Matt Buchi, coach of the men's wheelchair basketball team, following the National Intercollegiate Wheelchair Basketball Tournament, which was held at the State Farm Center.
You know, when I was reading your News-Gazette interview, you had said that you attended a lot of summer camps at several colleges, but you always went to Illinois. And I was wondering why.
MATT BUCHI: Well, one, a convenience factor. I grew up in Michigan, so it was the closest one to it. But also the prestige of Illinois being one of the oldest, the oldest program for wheelchair basketball. And also, the coaches that were here. Coach Mike Frogley was the one that was kind of running everything. And when you look back at the time that I played and before I played, Coach Frogley was like the godfather of wheelchair basketball when it came to the States. So you wanted to come in and learn from him for sure.
VINCE LARA: Yeah. You know, you mentioned Coach Frogley, and I spoke to Stephanie Wheeler, of course, the women's coach, and she mentioned Coach Frogley as well. And what was it about Coach Frogley that had the biggest impact on you and made you want to coach?
MATT BUCHI: Yeah. We always joke around as athletes and say that Coach Frogley ruined watching basketball for us because when we would try to watch the NCAA March Madness, every game that you watch, you're analyzing all the plays and trying to figure out, OK, so what would the coach want to run here? What would I run in this scenario? So you never got to sit back and watch it as a fan.
And that was one of the things that was frustrating as a fan to watch basketball, but also just really appreciate it as a coach that he was very much detailed about the X's and O's, and also positioning of wheelchairs and how to make certain plays happen that were so detailed. That came from the camps and then also came from just day-to-day training, being one of his athletes that really made us students of the game. And we constantly were learning and trying to figure out what was the best way of going about doing things. So it was a lot less about overall talent and more about knowledge of the game.
VINCE LARA: You did an interview with the News-Gazette in which you talked about getting hooked on wheelchair basketball when you saw the chairs collide.
MATT BUCHI: Yeah.
VINCE LARA: So were you surprised both as a player and now as a coach about the physicality of the sport?
MATT BUCHI: Yeah. I guess when I first was introduced to it, yeah, I was definitely blown away by the physicality. And then obviously, getting into it more and more, the further you get into your league-- so I was in middle school, high school, and then kind of into college-- the contact and the physicality gets more and more, to the point where you are trying to use the physicality to gain advantages on your teammate. So it's not just the fact of the game is physical, but you also want to use advantages to that.
Yeah, I think a lot of people don't really realize it. And I know I mentioned in interviews past about how some people will come in and will recognize about the smell in the gym and like, what is that smell? And usually it's smell of burning rubber in the chairs colliding, sparking up and whatnot. So it's a unique environment, for sure.
VINCE LARA: Yeah, that's interesting. You know, was having DRES at Illinois a factor for you? Did you know about it before you came here?
MATT BUCHI: Yeah, it was definitely a part of the recruiting process. And also, when we were at camps we understood what the services were. I don't think that many of the student athletes, even when they come here to university, realize the full scope of what is available to them until they may get in a situation where they're like, well, I'm kind of struggling in a class, what do I have available to me? And then it just opens up.
We do the best we can in our recruiting and just in bringing people in to understand what it is. But there's really no place other than Illinois like that.
VINCE LARA: That's interesting. You know, I didn't realize there was even a recruiting process with wheelchair basketball. But tell me a little bit about how you find players and what that process is like.
MATT BUCHI: Sure. So we're always building relationships with athletes. Illinois and the majority of the college programs, what we tried to do is a follow in I would guess a pseudo way of doing the NCAA rules because we understand that a lot of the recruiting rules for NCAA are built to protect the student athlete. So there is restrictions on when you can speak with a student athlete. After June 15 between their sophomore and junior year, that's when you can start to talk with them. And then after that, June 15 between their junior and senior, you could talk to them more and talk about different things. So we'll build relationships.
At summer camps is always a big one because you can have them come on campus and you can freely talk with them there. We'll go to junior tournaments in the Midwest. So we always go to a tournament in Whitewater, Wisconsin. There there's usually one in Rockford, Illinois, that we'll attend, maybe a few others. And then nationals. And nationals for us will be not this weekend, but next weekend. And it's being hosted in New Lenox, Illinois. So just outside of Chicago.
So we'll take four days and just be in the gym from 8 AM to 10 PM, just watching kids, taking notes, making conversations with parents and kids. I've got a long list of running players that I follow from year to year until they become to the point where I can talk to them, and we go from there.
VINCE LARA: So what makes a good wheelchair basketball player?
MATT BUCHI: Yeah. You want to see a lot of basketball intelligence. I'd love to see guys that give effort with their communication and just overall push.
One of things that I always carry with me from a coach that I worked with when I was at Alabama, he had mentioned to me that he recruited, when he first started coaching, he recruited talent. Brought a bunch of talent in, and then that talent caused a lot of problems. They were not doing well in school or had issues outside of basketball. And when he changed over and started recruiting character over talent, everything changed for him. And I really take that to heart. I'm always trying to find the guy that, if I can see some kid that gets subbed off the court and goes the bench and puts his head down and pouts, that's not the same kid as one that comes out and immediately starts cheering on his teammates and really pushes the bench. That's the guy that I want.
VINCE LARA: You know, you mentioned Alabama. So you coached briefly there. Was it odd to have them in this tournament and ultimately win both halves, if you will? Is that a strange feeling for you?
MATT BUCHI: Yeah. Well, it's mixed feelings because, obviously, just the success for Alabama has been great for them, and there's a lot of great guys and ladies in that program, to be able to have relationships with them and communicate with them at basketball.
When I was there at Alabama, that was a very interesting transition because Coach Wheeler was here and Mike Frogley was here as well. So we still had that friendship-coaching relationship, but then was like on the enemy team when it came down to it.
And then it didn't really work out, pan out for me when I was down in Alabama and I was really looking for something that was much more like here at Illinois. So I left Alabama, went to Vancouver, Canada, Oklahoma State University, and then eventually came back here. And just really happy to be back home, when it comes down to it.
VINCE LARA: Now hosting a tournament like this, I talked to Coach Wheeler about it and she mentioned it can be kind of overwhelming, even though there's an excitement about hosting it. But are there things that make it, like the ancillary activities around it, difficult to make winning the priority of the tournament, I guess?
MATT BUCHI: Sure. I think for the event itself, being at State Farm Center was such a big deal for the entire college division because it was really cool to see a couple of posts from certain athletes after the event saying that you had these individuals that grew up in wheelchair basketball and adaptive sports and always had dreams of being on a big court with a big crowd and everything, but knew that that probably would never happen, and then got the opportunity to play at State Farm Center, which is just an incredible facility. So we knew when we had the opportunity to play at State Farm that we were going to have to do the best of everything that we were going to do, and just kind of really blow it out the best possible.
Also, knowing it was the 50th anniversary of our 1969 team winning their national championship was really important for us. So I definitely had to wear two different hats, one that was a tournament organizer and one that was a coach. But I'm really fortunate that Maureen Gilbert is our director there that helps us and organized everything for us. And she definitely helped out when I had to be a coach. She had everything under control.
VINCE LARA: Yeah, she sure did. So this is an AHS podcast, so I'd be remiss to not ask you about your RST.
MATT BUCHI: Yeah.
VINCE LARA: So you're close to getting your master's in--
MATT BUCHI: I am.
VINCE LARA: --the Recreation Sport and Tourism Department. Do you see it-- why is it important to you, first off? And do you see it leading to something beyond coaching? Like what are your aspirations beyond that with this degree?
MATT BUCHI: Yeah. When I originally came to Illinois, I came in for education. So I was trying to be a high school history teacher. And then shortly after that, realized that I didn't want to teach history at all or teach any of those subjects, but really enjoyed basketball and had a niche for being able to teach the sport.
So I got directed into RST and did my undergrad here and graduated in '08, and then hopping around with the coaching jobs. Coming back to it, I always, at the colleges I went to I was always trying to finish my RST master's because that's progressively what I wanted to be. And then coming back to here, it was really cool to have the life experience and the job experience to also share with the students that are in the class. Obviously, I'm the older one that's in the classroom with the experience, but to share that knowledge has been a lot of fun.
And I'm just looking forward to taking what I've currently learned and what I'm gaining from the RST classes now and what I have left to more develop a more consistent pedagogy of how to teach wheelchair basketball on a global scale. I would love to create something that people that may have never seen wheelchair basketball here in the States or internationally, take some product that we've developed here and send it out. And we've done that with some DVDs and some instruction in the past, but just taking it to the next level with the use of technology would be fantastic.
VINCE LARA: Well, thank you, Coach. I appreciate your time.
MATT BUCHI: Yeah, thank you.
VINCE LARA: My thanks to Matt Buchi. This has been A Few Minutes With.