COMMENTARY: Former Jackson head basketball coach Mike Fuline, who led the Polar Bears to their first state title in 2010, still has a connection to his former school, which just captured a second state championship. He is also doing just fine for himself now as the head coach at Mount Union.
Head coach Tim Debevec and his Jackson High School boys basketball team, along with their fans, are still celebrating the Division I state championship the Polar Bears captured in March.
That will continue for a long time – a lifetime, really, and even beyond to future generations as the story is passed down. And well it should, for accomplishments like that are seminal moments for all involved.
But what about the head coach of the only other Jackson boys basketball squad to win a state title, back in 2010? How’s he doing?
Just fine, thank you.
"I love it here. I really do," said Mike Fuline, who a month ago completed his sixth season as the head coach of the University of Mount Union men’s basketball team. "I get to work for Larry Kehres (the former Mount Union football coaching great who serves as the school’s athletics director). What a blessing. We talk a lot. We drink a lot of coffee together."
No doubt. After what he did in 27 seasons in guiding the Purple Raiders to a 334-24-3 (.929) overall mark, 23 Ohio Athletic Conference championships, including 21 in a row, 11 Division III national titles and five national runner-up finishes, Kehres appreciates coaching excellence no matter what sport, what level or what school. He sees that embodied in Fuline, and Kehres is thrilled to death because it’s happening at his school in Alliance.
The Jackson Township resident, who served as an assistant coach under Mark Kinsley at Green High School and played at Manchester, took over a Mount Union program that has had its ups and downs in its 120-year history, including suffering through six straight losing seasons upon Fuline’s arrival in 2011. But it took him just two years to get things turned around.
In the last four seasons, the Purple Raiders have finished 20-6, 24-7, 18-9 and finally 15-12 in 2016-17, making it to the OAC Tournament semifinals. The seniors off this year’s team finished as the winningest senior class in program history (77-34, .693).
The 44 combined wins in 2013-14 and 2014-15 are also the most the Purple Raiders have ever had in a two-year stretch. They were 15-3 in the OAC in both of those seasons. In 2014, they won the school’s first regular-season conference title in 17 years, and in 2015, they captured the first OAC Tournament crown in 18 seasons, making the NCAA Division III Tournament, advancing to the Sweet 16 for just the second time ever and finishing as the 14th-ranked team in the country.
Not bad. Not bad at all.
According to his bio on the school’s men’s basketball website, "Fuline has changed the face of the program."
In other words, he has given Mount Union and its fans something to get excited about – something to be proud of – after football season is over. You might say, "Come to Mount Union for the football, stay for the basketball."
"A year ago, we graduated nine seniors," Fuline said. "The key is trying to sustain the success, but it’s hard. But with the younger players we have -- I don’t know if it will be this coming season, but maybe the year after that (2018-19) -- we should have a really good year."
The Purple Raiders got off to a great start this past season, going 8-2.
"It surprised us. We didn’t expect that," Fuline said.
Then they started to slump, losing four games in a row at one point.
"In the middle of January, our freshmen wore down," he said.
But come next year, they’ll be sophomores with a lot of experience – and a much better idea of how to keep the momentum going through an entire season. And they will eventually turn into juniors who, as Fuline pointed out, will be ready to do really big things the following year.
Just like Jackson did this season.
The 41-year-old Fuline is a good guy who makes friends easily and has a lot of passion for people, family, basketball and life. As such, there’s still a part of his heart in every place he’s been, from Manchester to Green to Ravenna, where he also served as an assistant coach, to Rootstown High School, where he got his head coaching start and rejuvenated the program by going a combined 36-10 in two seasons and winning a district championship.
Perhaps that’s why there’s such a local connection to his coaching staff, which includes his father, Joe Fuline; Eric Schlabach, a former coach and current teacher at Lake Center Christian; and Brody Jackson, an ex-Manchester star.
But Fuline’s heart is not more deeply embedded anywhere than it is at Jackson, where his coaching career really took off and served as the springboard in getting him into the college ranks.
He coached the Polar Bears for six years, going 95-42 (.643), including 76-19 (.800) the last four seasons, winning that 2010 state crown and two Federal League championships.
As mentioned, he calls Jackson home, living there with his wife, Amy, and their five children ranging in age from 6 to 13. So the Fuline household, like the other households in that community, were all in on the Polar Bears’ thrill-packed march to their second state championship in seven years.
"I’m so involved with my job at Mount Union and being on the road coaching, recruiting and scouting that I was able to see only a couple of Jackson’ games this year," he said. "But my wife and kids were there all the time.
"I did get to watch the two state tournament games and be with the team down in Columbus. That was one of the most emotional things I’ve ever been involved in.
"There’s never a guarantee you’re ever going to win the state championship or even get to the state tournament, so for them to have won was such a great thing -- such an accomplishment. When I left Jackson to go to Mount Union, the seniors on this year’s team were seventh-graders. We had watched them go through our youth program and we knew they were special.
"In fact, that’s one of the best high school teams I have ever seen. They were so big, so long and so athletic. Once they got past Copley (55-51 in the Canton District semifinals), I knew they had a good chance to get to the state championship game if they could just stay healthy. Really, they could have gotten there even if they got banged up a little because they were so deep."
It didn’t come to that.
Just like the 2010 champions, the Polar Bears defeated Hoover in the district finals (70-42), Toledo St. John (54-38) in the regional finals and Cincinnati Moeller (39-38) in the state finals.
"We were looking at the tournament brackets all the way back in the sectional and laughing because you could see that it was going to play out the same way that it did in 2010," Fuline said.
The other half of "we" is Tim Debevec, who was Fuline’s top assistant at Jackson and ended up taking over for him when he left.
"We talk all the time," Fuline said. "I’m so happy for him.
"I spoke to him when North Canton beat them (for the Polar Bears’ first loss of the season). He was so down. But I told him, ‘It was bound to happen. North Canton played a great game, and the Federal League is tough.’ He was feeling so much pressure. He was thinking that you had to win every game by 20 points. I told him, ‘No, it’s OK if you go to Lake (next game) and win by just two. Two points is enough to get a win. The margin doesn’t matter."
It’s been a progression at Jackson. Head coach Larry Taylor got the Polar Bears to the state semifinals in both 1994 and 2001.
"He got it started," Fuline said. "He broke through and showed that it could be done at Jackson, that it was possible to get to the state tournament."
Then Fuline’s 2010 team took the next step and showed that the Polar Bears could do more than just get to Columbus. They could win it all.
And now Debevec’s team this year has taken the next step after that, showing that Jackson could come back and triumph again with a different coach and a different cast of characters.
And nobody’s happier about that than Mike Fuline, who was already doing great in his new job but is doing even better – much better – now that all the people at his old job – both the coach and the players – have carved out their own championship niche.