The youngest college basketball coach in America stood on the sideline next to the Northwest College bench in Cabre Gym, hands stuffed in the pockets of his black slacks, intently watching the Trappers’ pre-game lay-up drills.
As the starting lineups were introduced, Robbie Nowak was the Trapper coach who greeted visiting Sheridan College starters with the traditional sportsmanship handshake or fist-bump.
He played it casual, like coaches on ESPN at those big-time schools, but inside he glowed.
It was a first for Nowak in a season of firsts, a whirlwind several months during which Nowak was essentially promoted from Lovell High School manager to student assistant coach at Northwest, and for one February game against Little Big Horn he was listed in the program and announced to the crowd as “honorary head coach.”
Head coach? From picking up towels to carrying a clipboard, wow.
“I can’t believe it,” Nowak said.
Much about Nowak’s life is unbelievable. He is a walking made-for-television movie, complete with the lowest of heartbreaking lows to a comeback ending.
“Robbie hasn’t had an easy life,” said Brian Erickson, the official Northwest men’s head coach.
Nowak, all 5-foot-1 and 98 pounds of him, barely looks old enough to attend high school. He is dwarfed by 6-foot-5 players when he steps into a huddle.
His light-brown hair is shaped in a semi-bowl cut and his blue-eyed, innocent-appearing face makes him look much more youthful than his 19 years.
Fans may wonder why this kid – he must be someone’s son – gets to sit on the bench.
Actually, there is no clearinghouse for college hoops coach stats to unequivocally prove Nowak is the youngest of the breed in junior college, NAIA or NCAA, but odds favor the freshman.
One thing about that innocence, though. It is perceived by the onlooker. Childhood innocence died for Nowak a long time ago.
Instead of idyllic memories of playing with Lincoln logs, Nowak recounts a scorched-earth compilation of terrors: sexual abuse, witnessing life-threatening physical abuse, an attempted murder, being diagnosed with a heart problem and now he is coping with his mother’s cancer battle.
“So athletics is my second chance at living,” Nowak said.
The little guy
At the start of each season, Erickson and his Trappers bus to Salt Lake City, where he grew up, for early games. They stay with Erickson’s family and share get-to-know-you activities.
Except for forward Marshall McArthur of Powell, Nowak’s cousin, the players knew little about the little guy.
Viewing it as a gesture of trust, Erickson asked each player to tell a story from his past. Some were funny, some from games. Nowak’s story silenced the room.
In part, this is what they heard.
“I had a rough childhood when I was growing up in Longmont, Colo., because I had witnessed life-threatening domestic violence between my mom, my mom’s boyfriend at the time and my real father,” Nowak said. “Then a few minutes after my real father tried to kill my mom, my real father kidnapped me. In the summer after third grade I was sexually abused (by a babysitter) and sometime after that I witnessed someone being assaulted with a metal pipe or metal bar.”
Probably a minute after everyone exhaled, the Trappers adopted Nowak.
“It really opened everyone’s eyes,” sophomore guard Seth Bennett said. “It was pretty shocking. It was really rough on him.”
While the 18-10 Trappers approach the end of the regular season, off the court Nowak’s coaching role has expanded and the team’s fondness for him grown.
Before enrolling at Northwest, last spring Nowak took the initiative to visit the Trapper basketball offices seeking the job of team manager starting in the fall.
Erickson said sure. He figured Nowak would show up a couple of days a week for practice and on game days.
Nowak came to practice daily. He bought his own whistle. He helped design practice uniforms. He helped run drills and invented one after reading a book on basketball strategy. Originally, he was too shy to shout at players if they made mistakes, but Erickson made him speak up, even if they could barely hear his voice.
Some coaches have a bark, Nowak’s yell makes you think you still have to turn up the volume on the radio.
Guard Blake Hinze said early in the season Erickson would turn to Nowak in front of the team and say, “‘Got any words, Robbie?’ He wouldn’t say anything. Now he has the confidence to say what he thinks. He has some great ideas. We know to respect what he says. He’s just a great guy to be around.”
A common sight among the Trappers is some big dude who could probably pick Nowak up and throw him over his shoulder instead walking along with an arm draped over Nowak’s shoulder.
Before the Sheridan game forward Carter Baxter, who is 6-3, and Nowak, entered the court, each with an arm around each other. Baxter regularly affectionately talks trash to Nowak.
“He makes sure I’m OK,” Nowak said.
So does Erickson, 32, who is married and the father of three young children.
“He’s my best buddy,” Erickson said. “He’s almost become like a son.”
McArthur said he didn’t know his cousin well until he moved to Wyoming at 12 and has always thought of him as quiet. He has definitely blossomed in recent months.
McArthur watched in amazement when Nowak stood up in the locker room to exhort the team during a halftime “‘This is your game,’” he said. “This is something I’ve never seen from him before. Robbie wreaks some havoc in the locker room.”
During a recent game Nowak sought to jump-start the players after a sluggish first 20-minute performance by chalking a Thor-related metaphor on the locker room board.
“Let’s work together and get our Mjolnir back,” he wrote.
Erickson had no idea what Nowak meant. The reference is to the hammer of Thor of Norse mythology and the recent Chris Hemsworth movies.
The Trappers did make thunder in the second half and won.
Not every coach would throw open the doors of the operation to a young stranger and graciously add responsibility.
“Brian has a caring soul,” said Denise Kobbe, the official in the Northwest athletic department who handles sports information.
A cornerstone of Erickson’s coaching philosophy is to develop responsible men.
“I have an immense amount of respect for Coach Erickson,” Baxter said. “He will welcome almost anybody in with open arms. His number one priority is for us to be good people off the court. He lives that way.”
Nowak calls Erickson “a father figure.”
Out from the shadows
Basketball has always been Nowak’s sport. It was the first one he followed and he wanted to play, but his heart condition benched him.
In Lovell, his uncle Craig Lundberg is the boys basketball coach and Nowak worked as team manager, helping with drills and filming games.
“Robbie is really passionate about it,” Lundberg said. “He really enjoyed our camaraderie. We needed Robbie and he needed us. In Lovell, everybody knows Robbie. He’s that guy.”
Lundberg is impressed how much opportunity Nowak has received at Northwest.
“Maybe he’ll come back and teach us some stuff,” Lundberg said.
Nowak plans to study physical education and athletic training and said he wants to give “other people the same experiences I have when I am with athletics and I want to help athletes get better when they are ill or injured.”
Maybe it is not surprising Nowak wants to be a healer. It took some healing for him to make it this far and he credits athletics for what he calls “a second chance at living.”
Nowak compared his life to characters in the reality TV show “Pit Bulls & Parolees,” where “they give parolees and pitbulls a second chance because no one would give them a second chance.”
Coaches and players understand Nowak has emerged from a dark place.
“We want every day to be the best day of his life,” said Greg Bennett, another Northwest assistant coach.
Coach for a day
Much like the old television show “Queen For A Day,” the Northwest basketball team threw a Robbie Nowak Day.
Erickson wanted to reward Nowak for his time-consuming assistance and suit him up for the Feb. 9 Little Big Horn game, hopefully sneaking him in for 30 seconds of playing time.
Nowak fit all the eligibility criteria, but the National Junior College Athletic Association informed Northwest it missed the deadline for 2016-17 eligibility requests.
Instead, the student coach became honorary coach. Nowak’s mother Teri Pine could not attend because she was too ill. She is one of three sisters, including McArthur’s mother and Lundberg’s wife.
“It’s not a good situation,” Lundberg said. “She’s not doing well.”
As he has always done, Nowak perseveres.
“She’s proud of me,” he said.
Ironically, the coach dressed like a player. Coach Nowak always wears a black Northwest windbreaker and he had it on over a non-game-day Trapper uniform.
When the Trappers gathered on the court for a pep huddle, Nowak was in there leading cheers. Only fans could not see him. He was completely obscured by the big guys.
During a second-half time-out Nowak was again in the midst of the players. He urged them to take control. And then he ripped off his windbreaker, Clark Kent-like, to reveal a No. 12 jersey, albeit from an outdated uniform.
Northwest fended off Little Big Horn 86-73.
“He’s 1-0,” Trapper guard Jonathan Koud said.
Bennett walked the undefeated coach off the court with an arm over his shoulder.
“It was a blast,” Nowak said of his coaching status for a day. “I want to be around and involved in athletics for the rest of my life.”
For Robbie Nowak, inspired by the brotherhood of team, this sweet taste of coaching will be something to savor for all-time.