It was just another Tuesday for the students at St. Mother Teresa High School. Spring break was four days away, and those who were fortunate enough to have a trip booked to a tropical resort were eager to escape Ottawa’s suburbs and the cruel winter.
For the grade 12 students sitting in Michael Rowley’s english class, the only thing on their minds were the memories that they would make on their final spring break of high school.
But this wasn’t just another Tuesday for Rowley. It was March 6, 2018 – the 10th anniversary of his only provincial championship victory.
It was during his seventh year as a teacher at Ottawa’s St. Patrick’s High School in 2008 when he coached The Fighting Irish to the Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations (OFSAA) AAA boy’s basketball championship.
“I’m not sure it means as much 10 years later as it did when it first happened. It’s there, it’s part of my resume. But when I first won that championship and moved to Mother Teresa, it brought me credibility with the kids at Mother Teresa who I was coaching,” Rowley said.
But since transferring over to St. Mother Teresa in February 2009, championships—let alone winning—have been hard to come by.
Rowley had made the playoffs every year at St. Mother Teresa since arriving at the school, but that hasn’t been the case for the past two seasons.
“The intangibles at Mother Teresa aren’t the same. The environment’s not the same. The culture isn’t the same,” he said.
Despite the glamour that comes with championships, Rowley said that he believes that a successful coaching career isn’t solely defined by wins.
“Even before I won that championship at St. Pat’s, I had the same goal: to ensure that the kids that I taught were graduating, that they loved the game, that they knew that I cared, that they were successful in their lives as they moved forward,” he said.
Since his days as a high school student at Bishop Reding Catholic Secondary School in Milton, Ontario, Rowley said that he always knew that he wanted to become a teacher. But he wanted to do more than just teach. He wanted to have an impact on the students that he taught.
“I wanted to make a connection. I wanted to change lives. One way you can change lives is through getting involved through extracurricular activities,” he said.
Rowley’s first taste of coaching came at 15 years old in the summer of 1990, when he volunteered to coach a local community t-ball team.
Soon after, he took up coaching positions for the volleyball team and basketball team at his co-op placement at Our Lady of Victory Catholic Elementary School. It was here where Rowley discovered his love for basketball.
In 1996, while studying english and history at the University of Ottawa, Rowley saw a job posting in a newspaper regarding a coaching position for the junior boys basketball team at St. Patrick’s High School. Rowley applied and got the job, marking the beginning of a new age of basketball at the school.
“The year before I got there, the junior team was 0-10. What they were lacking was discipline, motivation and some structure. I brought those three things,” he said.
In 1999, Rowley attended Lakehead University for teacher’s college, and found himself flying back and forth between Ottawa and Thunder Bay on weekends to make it to the team’s tournament games. By the 2001 fall term, he was a full-time teacher at St. Patrick’s.
Before winning it all in 2008, Rowley had cultivated the same crop of boys basketball players for four years in a row, coaching them to five consecutive city championships before finishing in second at OFSAA in their final season in 2000.
Then came the 2007-08 season, when Rowley and a new set of boys in grades 10 through 12 finished with a 39-8 record, and took home the provincial championship when they defeated Vaughan Secondary School 63 to 62 in the gold medal game on March 6.
When the final buzzer rang, former St. Patrick’s player Afeworki Gebrekerestos recalled the moment when Rowley ran up to him and embraced him, where he told him that “no one can take this away from you, no one can take this away from us.”
Gebrekerestos was still in his early years of high school when he began to develop a close relationship with Rowley.
“He’s always been there for me and I’ve always been there for him. We just get along really easily. He’s like a big brother to me,” Gebrekerestos said.
Gebrekerestos, who described himself as a student who had a tendency to act out against authority figures, said that Rowley served as his main mentor who taught him how to use his charisma for good.
“He was able to show me how to do things rather than tell me how to do things,” Gebrekerestos said.
Off the court, he said that he would sit down with Rowley and plan long-term goals together for Gebrekrestos’s future.
“That really put things in perspective for me for how I wanted my life to go,” Gebrekerestos said.
Gebrekerestos was raised by a single mother, so it was difficult for her to leave work to accompany him on recruiting trips to Ryerson University in Toronto. Rowley took it upon himself to escort Gebrekerestos and make sure that he didn’t miss out on these opportunities.
“I couldn’t even imagine what my life would be like without him. I can never take that away from him, and I’ll answer his calls at five in the morning or two in the morning. I feel like I owe him the world,” Gebrekerestos said.
The following school-year after his OFSAA victory, Rowley decided to take a break from coaching to focus on teaching. Little did he know that his championship season at St. Patrick’s would be his last.
Problems with a grade 10 student that had been building up throughout the year eventually led to a heated dispute that put Rowley’s safety at risk. For legal reasons, Rowley was relocated to St. Mother Teresa during the second term in 2009, less than a year since winning OFSAA.
Rowley recalls the move being a very difficult one. But looking back on it, he said that he’s glad that the change happened.
“It’s made me a better coach. It’s been a lot more challenging here than it ever was at St. Pat’s,” he said.
In addition to missing the playoffs for the last two years, Rowley’s senior boys basketball team had won only 10 games this season. But the 43-year-old said that this season was one of the most enjoyable in his 29 years of coaching.
“Sometimes winning basketball games isn’t as important as everything else that we do. We went to B.C. and had an amazing opportunity there. I don’t think I’ve laughed more in my life as a coach than this year with this group,” he said.
For Rowley, his success as a coach is determined by the success of his players, where the graduation rate for his players at St. Mother Teresa is 100 per cent and 98 per cent at St. Patrick’s.
“To me, that’s more important than an OFSAA championship,” he said.
The whole point of teaching, according to Rowley, is to build relationships with students and ensure that they are successful in whatever they choose to do.
“The relationships that I’ve built over the years, the fact that I stay in touch with my students means way more to me. Those things matter more to me than winning basketball games,” he said.