David Balza’s passion for basketball landed him a student manager job for the Michigan Wolverines. That passion increased when the 1989 Wolverines won the national title.

He worked as a graduate assistant and video coordinator for Michigan. He was an assistant coach for Cleveland State and Ashland (Ohio). His first head coaching job was at St. Joseph’s (Ind.), in the Division II Great Lakes Valley Conference.

“It was a coach’s cradle in that conference,” Balza said. “There were a half-dozen of us who wound up coaching in Division I.”

St. Joseph’s was at the bottom of the league when Balza was hired in 1998.

“We also were going on probation,” he said. “The previous coach was paying players. I thought, ‘If you’re going to pay players, at least pay good ones.’ ”

Balza turned St. Joseph’s into a threat over the next three years. In 2000-01, he was the Coach of the Year in the conference and region. The GLVC’s commissioner, Carl McAloose, took notice.

McAloose had been hired to start a Division II sports program at Florida Gulf Coast, an almost-new university in Fort Myers, Fla. He convinced Balza to make a visit to a school without a gymnasium yet.

“We had a very good team coming back at St. Joseph’s, but I got there and saw what a beautiful place it was, and said, ‘Oh, yeah, we can have a powerhouse D-II program here,’ ” Balza said.

The men’s basketball team first played in the winter of 2002-03.

“We applied to D-II conferences all over the Southeast part of the country,” Balza said. “We even applied to a historically black conference. No one would take us.

“Finally, the Atlantic Sun, a Division I league, called and invited us to join. I guess when you’re looking for a date to the prom and suddenly the prettiest girl asks you, you say, ‘Of course.’ ”

FGCU announced in the fall of 2006 that it would be moving to D-I the next year. There was a four-year waiting period for postseason eligibility.

Balza’s Eagles went out and won 27 games in 2006-07 … their last chance to play in a national tournament before the D-I transition. The Eagles were passed up for the D-II tournament.

“Obviously, it was politics — they are going to D-I, so why invite ’em — but it’s hard to accept that when your players are in a room, crying,” Balza said.

Balza’s teams averaged 23 victories for eight seasons: five in D-II and three in D-I. He was working under his third university president and third athletic director in 2010-11, when the total fell to 10 victories.

“The first couple of years of the transition to D-I, it was tough to recruit with no chance at the postseason,” Balza said. “We had some good young players on that last team, but I got called in and was fired.”

Laughing slightly Balza said: “Better than getting a text like Tubby [Smith], I guess.”

Balza took a job at Bethany Lutheran, a Division III school in Mankato. On Wednesday, he taught a class as part of his duties. Meantime, his FGCU replacement, Andy Enfield, was preparing the Eagles for Friday night’s Sweet 16 game against the Florida Gators.

“Of course, I’m enjoying it,” Balza said. “It’s Andy Enfield’s team, I have nothing to do with it, but there are five players who are living that dream that I recruited.”

The group includes Chase Fieler, the 6-8 junior who has become a national sensation with his dunks.

“The first two kids I signed were Bryan Crislip and Ryan Hopkins, both from Parkersburg, West Virginia,” Balza said. “I drove four hours through a blizzard to watch them and I said, ‘I gotta have them.’

“They were great players for us. In 2009, they called me and said, ‘Coach, you have to go to Parkersburg again. There’s a player named Fieler. You have to see him.

“I went to Parkersburg. Same reaction: ‘I gotta have him.’ ”

One question lingered, with Balza’s connection to FGCU as the only head coach before Enfield.

“Are you married to a supermodel?” he was asked.

Balza’s response on his wife Karrie was immediate: “She is to me.”

 

Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500. preusse@startribune.com