Every time he sees David Cohn run up and down the court, Tom Kleinschmidt is reminded of the approach he used to take while playing Catholic League basketball...relentless work ethic, gym rat, throwback, old-school, scorer, student of the game, role model, black-and-blue.
Kleinschmidt took Gordon Tech to second place in the Class AA tournament in 1990, earned All-America recognition at DePaul, then had a 12-year professional career with teams in Japan, Italy and Venezuela. After serving as an assistant coach at York High School in Elmhurst for one year, he became head coach this season.
Cohn, a 6-2 junior point guard who has played for three coaches in three years, didn't need an introduction. In fact, he said he was "ecstatic" when he learned of Kleinschmidt's promotion. Former York star Will Sullivan had filled him in on Kleinschmidt's prior achievements.
"He's always trying to give me tips. The more he told me, the more success I had. I knew he would help me and the team more than any other coach," Cohn said. "I like everything he brings to the table. He knows when to have fun and when to be serious. He corrects the way you should be corrected.
"He knows how to get to certain players. He yells at some when he needs to. He puts his arm around others and tells them what they need to do. He knows what to say, the right thing to say to the right person.
"We'll surprise a lot of people this year. Kids are more excited about basketball in Elmhurst and what we can do once everybody buys into what the coach wants to do. We'll keep looking better and better."
Cohn still isn't sure what Kleinschmidt means when he refers to a Catholic League basketball player. Kleinschmidt's definition is "physical, black-and-blue, knock people on their behinds."
"But I think we'll buy into it," Cohn said. "If someone gets hit, we'll hit them back. It isn't what we are used to but the coach has done a great job in changing the culture.
"We really look up to him. He played basketball at the highest level in college. There are no negatives when you talk about him. I don't know if he works as hard as (legendary York cross-country coach) Joe Newton, who has 26 state titles. But he wants a state title as much as we do. He is a terrific coach and a basketball mind."
How's that for an endorsement? Talk about getting your players to buy into your philosophy, your system, your program, your way of doing things. And Kleinschmidt isn't even running for office. His latest example of salesmanship was ordering new uniforms for next year.
"I was a goal-setter when I was playing," Kleinschmidt said. "My immediate goal is to win the conference. Long-term, it is to win the state title. People look at me as though I'm crazy. Can I coach? I'm confident at what I'm doing. I feel I am prepared and organized. I feel I know what to run and when to run it. I'll be a gym rat as a coach, just as I was as a player, scouting and looking for an edge whenever I can get it."
Kleinschmidt retired from competition in 2008 at age 33. He loved playing but 12 years on the road was a hardship on his family, which remained in Chicago. He spent seven or eight months in Japan, then played in Italy or Venezuela. It added up to being on the road for 10 months a year for seven years. But after four surgeries on his knees and ankles, it was time to come home for good.
"I always knew I would coach. I just didn't know when or in what capacity," he said.
He returned to DePaul, completed work toward his degree, and interned with coach Jerry Wainwright. He served as Wainwright's director of basketball operations, then assistant coach. When Wainwright was fired, he joined coach Al Biancalana's staff at York. When Biancalana left for Illinois-Chicago, he assisted new coach Dominic Cannon. When Cannon left after one year, Kleinschmidt moved up.
"It's a great blessing, a great thing for me," Kleinschmidt said. "I'm still working with special education kids in school. I love working with kids, eight periods a day with autistic kids. I plan to get a master's degree in special education."
He also is getting a master's degree in basketball. He has learned from some of the best teachers in the game, including Wainwright, Biancalana, Dick Versace, Tony Barone, Jim Harrington, Bob Ociepka, Tracy Webster and Mike Bailey.
"Basketball is my life. When I was out of it, I wasn't a very happy man," he said. "Ex-players say that if you can play, you can coach. But that isn't true at all. You must be prepared and organized. It hasn't got anything to do with X's and O's."
On his first day of practice on Nov. 7, he set out to change the culture in a program that has known success over the years, dating to coach Dick Campbell in the 1960s, but has never advanced beyond the quarterfinals in the state tournament.
"We're going to be tough and physical," he told his players.
In the age of Google and the Internet, he figured they knew who he was, what his credentials as a player were, his glory days at Gordon Tech and DePaul. But there still were some things they didn't know.
"The other day, a player made a clean foul on a fast break. I said it was a 1990 Gordon Tech foul. The kid said: '1990?' It puts it all in perspective."
Kleinschmidt understands that he is only 38 years old but he still is dealing with 16, 17 and 18-year-old kids who had to look him up on Google. The game has changed. So have the teaching methods. And Kleinschmidt is the boss for the first time. To feel comfortable, he hired his 26-year-old brother David as his No. 1 assistant.
"My trademark? We're going to be a high IQ team," he said. "You can't have a system. You must adapt to what personnel you have. You have to make it work. We'll try to get up and down the floor. But you can't run a motion offense with five 6-8 guys. And we'll try to play good team defense, man-to-man. I'll puke if I have to play zone but I might have to with our size.
"College and pro basketball is cut-throat. But I have to remind myself that these are 16, 17 and 18-year-old kids. I must teach them. I can't go off on them. I can't expect them to know if I haven't taught it. I think I'm a good teacher.
"But I never had patience before. I lived in a fast-paced society. I wanted it now, worked hard and got it. But 17-year-old kids don't think like I do. I've got to explain it again and have more patience."
Kleinschmidt also knows how important leadership is on the court. And he believes he has one in Cohn.
"You need leaders," he said. "I felt I was a good leader and I was around a lot of good leaders. It's obvious when you don't have it. Now I know why we didn't win in some years was because we didn't have good leadership. It can happen in high school with parents in the crowd and with issues like playing time. Everybody has to be on the same page."
Kleinschmidt will build his first team around Cohn, 6-7 sophomore Frank Toohey and 6-4 senior Mike Despinich. Despite missing a few months with a broken wrist which limited his exposure on the summer AAU circuit, Cohn has received scholarship offers from Illinois-Chicago, Illinois State, Valparaiso, Drake and Colorado State and interest from Penn State and Nebraska. He anticipates more offers.
"My goal is to stay healthy this season. If I do, more scholarship offers will come," Cohn said. "I will play AAU with the Illinois Wolves in the spring, then make a decision in late May or early June."
Cohn insists he isn't a pure point guard, like Jason Kidd, someone who thinks pass first and shot second. "I have a score first mentality," said Cohn, who averaged 16 points per game as a sophomore for a 20-9 team that finished second in the West Suburban Silver and lost to De La Salle in the regional final.
"Some people refer to me as a combo guard. My best asset is scoring," he said. "I'm the kid who can make plays. I'm a playmaker. I love making others better as much as making myself look good. I'm the one who gets the flow of the offense going."
Sounds like he and his coach are on the same page.