It can be difficult, at times, to gauge exactly how a coach feels about one of his players. After all, words spoken to the media do not always align with those being used behind closed locker-room doors.
A coach’s emotions, though, paint a clearer picture.
Billy Gillispie struggled to bottle his on Thursday afternoon inside United Spirit Arena, where his lone senior Robert Lewandowski, will play for the final time at 3 p.m. today against Missouri.
“I would hate to think about this year if he hadn’t basically agreed to do just anything we asked him to do,” said Gillispie, fighting back tears as he reflected on his year as Lewandowski’s coach. “He’s just fantastic. I’ve never seen anything like it. We’ll remember Lew for a long time, and we owe him a lot.
“You can tell I get emotional, because he just means a lot. As far as wins and losses, he probably hasn’t gotten what he deserves.”
Lewandowski won’t end his Tech career with a winning record (the Red Raiders are 53-74 in Lewandowski’s four seasons), and his scoring prowess (his 8.5 points per game as a junior were a career high) won’t put him among the school’s leaders. But coaches and teammates say the 6-foot-10 forward from Overland Park, Kan., has still managed to leave a profound impact on the program.
“He’s been the glue guy,” said assistant coach Bubba Jennings, who has been on the Tech staff throughout Lewandowski’s career. “He holds everything together for our team. To have a guy with an attitude like his, we’ll really miss having ‘Big Lew’ around.”
Change has been a constant during Lewandowski’s career in Lubbock. He was recruited out of high school by Bob Knight, but the legendary coach retired before Lewandowski ever reached campus, handing over the reins to his son, Pat Knight. Lewandowski honored his commitment anyway — “I didn’t commit to Bob Knight, I committed to Texas Tech,” he said — and played under Pat Knight for three seasons.
“With so many changes going on,” Lewandowski said, “I’m lucky to have been able to stay here for four years and push through some challenges to kind of see this whole thing through. I’m glad I did because I don’t think it would have been quitting on my part if I had decided to go somewhere else, but at the same time, I think I would have really regretted that decision.”
After Knight was fired following the 2010-11 season, Tech hired Gillispie, which meant even more change for Lewandowski. Gillispie challenged his lone senior to change his body and take on a greater leadership role, tasks that required Lewandowski to step far outside of his comfort zone.
The veteran responded by dropping 30 pounds and becoming the player who organized voluntary workouts and texted players with reminders of meeting times, all while taking on a more vocal role in practices. Lewandowski, a mainstay on the Big 12 all-academic team, even moved out of his off-campus apartment in the offseason so he could live closer to his teammates.
“He’s always been a great leader,” said freshman Jordan Tolbert, whose introduction to the college game began with summer pickup games against Lewandowski that often ended with bloody lips and noses for both players. “No matter how we’re doing, he’s always positive, always trying to motivate the team. He just wants the best for the team, so whatever he needs to do, he does it.”
Lewandowski admits that maintaining that positivity this season — Tech’s 16 Big 12 losses are the most in program history — hasn’t always been easy.
“When you’re losing it’s hard to wake yourself up and go to the next day and try to practice and get better,” he said. “If you play bad that day, too, it’s even harder.”
But even in throes of the adversity this season has wrought, Lewandowski has shown up every day, Gillispie said, with a selfless approach. When a player or staff member has faced the loss of a loved one over the years or suffered through other adversity, those around the program say Lewandowski has often been the first to reach out with a consoling phone call.
Lewandowski said he has simply tried to put effort into the relationships that he counts as the most rewarding part of his college experience.
“It’s a brotherhood that you form, and it’s not something that I’ll ever take lightly,” Lewandowski said, “and it’s not something that I’ll ever dismiss. Even if they were freshmen or whatever, they’ll be my brothers forever.”
As he aims to rebuild the Tech program, Gillispie has hit the recruiting trail hard, and the simple truth is he will likely find players with more talent than Lewandowski.
But Gillispie’s emotions made it clear on Thursday that few are likely to mean as much to the coach as the lone senior who embraced change in his final college season.
“There’s no way that anyone could have ever done more than him,” Gillispie said. “It’s impossible to do more. Maybe some people tie him for first, but there’s no way that anyone surpasses what he’s done. You can’t say enough about the person he is.”
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