Charlie Ernst is a fan of Ohio State football. Each week, the first-year coach of the Findlay men’s basketball team watches as Luke Fickell does his best to juggle the issues the Buckeyes are dealing with off the field while trying to get his team ready to compete each week on the field.
Ernst brings up OSU football because it reminds him of how lucky he is to be able to take over a program that is one of the most successful and most stable hoops programs in NCAA Division II.
The Oilers haven’t had a losing season since the 1982-83 campaign, they went wire-to-wire as the No. 1 team in the nation and finished 36-0 en route to the 2009 national title and Ernst is only the fourth coach the program has had since 1947.
Labeling the Findlay program as stable might be an understatement.
“Every Saturday, when I watch Ohio State, I am reminded of how good I have it,” Ernst said. “I watch Luke Fickell, who is probably a good coach, but has inherited a mess, and I’m thankful I am not in his position. I don’t care if Knute Rockne was in charge of Ohio State right now, it would not be an easy situation to deal with for any coach. I am lucky to be in a great position.”
Ernst was named the head coach in March after Ron Niekamp announced his retirement after 26 seasons on the bench. Niekamp won nearly 600 games in his career and built Findlay into one of the marquee programs in Division II.
The logical choice for his replacement was Ernst, who spent the last 20 years as an assistant at Findlay. He also played for Niekamp during his college hoops career.
Ernst had other offers along the way, including some from Division I schools. But as the years rolled by, he realized Findlay was the best fit for him and his family.
“In college, I didn’t really see myself as being a coach, but Ron and (then assistant) Al Baker did, which is why they asked me to stay,” Ernst said. “Five years in, I realized I liked coaching and felt like I had a lot to offer. I had a lot to learn, too, but was willing to do it. I wasn’t sure if my future in coaching would be here or somewhere else, but as our success continued to mount, I knew I was in a good situation.”
Job security played a role in his decision as well.
“The one common denominator in coaching is that there is little stability,” Ernst said. “I knew I had one of the few positions in the country where, if I didn’t screw up, I would have job security. I figured why leave Findlay and do something bigger when my ego didn’t need that. It has never bothered me that I stayed here and it never will.”
The Oilers started practice a few weeks ago and will enter the year with high expectations. They are ranked No. 5 in the preseason Division II Bulletin poll and return five of their six top scorers.
Findlay is coming off of a season in which it went 24-4 but did not make the NCAA tournament, ending a streak of nine consecutive appearances.
It doesn’t appear as if Findlay will miss a beat as it prepares for the new season. After all, Ernst has slowing been given more responsibility throughout his career, including handling the defensive responsibilities for the team.
It has helped make the transition a smooth one, according to junior guard Aaron Robinson.
“We already know what ( Ernst) expects from us, and we have tremendous respect for him,” Robinson said. “My teammates and I believe in him and have bought into his philosophy. Coach Ernst is a great motivator and a great basketball coach who brings a lot of energy and passion to the game day in and day out.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean there won’t be challenges. Ernst used to be the one that merely came up with ideas. Now, he will be making all of the final decisions. Learning how to deal with players and game situations will be a challenge as well.
“I am going from the guy who would fire out ideas and thoughts to Ron, to being the guy that receives all of those ideas and has to decide what is best for the team,” Ernst said. “The other thing is Ron was great at was managing a team and knowing when to jump on the case of a player and when to back off and be more of a positive influence. You have to learn to pick and choose your spots. It will take time to figure it out, but the good thing is I have learned a lot from Ron.”
Ernst is confident it will all work. The key, he believes, is to never try to make anything too complicated, be it preparing a game plan or making a decision during a game.
“You have to keep it simple,” Ernst said. “All coaches possess a wealth of knowledge. I’ve been coaching for 20 years and I have seen a lot of games, watched a lot of tape and have been to a lot of clinics. I have a lot of experience, but I don’t want to fall into the trap of trying to do too much. I’ve had to remind myself of that a few times.”
One thing is for certain, Ernst will push his players to get the maximum effort out of them.
“He’s all about competing everyday and challenging us on and off the court,” Robinson said. “He knows how to bring out the best in every player on our team. Those are the qualities that make him a good coach.”
Ernst said he is anxious about his first game as the head coach. He was even asked earlier this year if he would stand or sit during a game. Niekamp typically sat down, although when he stood up, his players knew he meant business.
Ultimately, Ernst just wants to be a successful coach and live up to the expectations that have been set at Findlay.
“The expectations are very high. Our fans expect us to win every game,” Ernst said. “I feel good about the fact that I am in a good situation, but I understand I have a large responsibility in front of me. Ron led this program to depths no one thought was possible. I want to keep it that way and elevate it even more. I’m excited about the opportunity.”