Queens College men’s basketball head coach Kyrk Peponakis sits in his office after suffering a tough defeat to LIU Post. His Knights’ winning streak had just been snapped at five games. He is unhappy, but as players dart in and out of his office, you can see the connection he has established with them.
Sports figures are often judged by wins and losses. In sports, there is more pressure to win than ever before.
Peponakis certainly has plenty of wins; his 241 are the most in program history. But, a down year last season has caused his career record to dip below the .500 mark. Despite recent struggles, his 23 years with the program — four years as an assistant coach and 19 as the head coach — have helped to create a lasting impact on both his players and the program.
“Coach is a man who gives young adults the chance to succeed in many ways,” said former QC Knight Michael Liander. Liander played for Peponakis from 2006-10, and views him as a father figure. “During the school year you are probably spending more time with him than your family.”
Unlike many big name universities, or even other schools in the East Coast Conference — which Queens College is a member of — Peponakis cannot just recruit the most talented players.
“You can’t just say he scores 20 a game. That isn’t enough for me,” said Peponakis. “He has to fit the box; has to be a good student. If he’s good and fits then you get excited.”
As he puts it, he “has to get to the nuts and bolts right away.” In other words, he has to receive the potential recruit’s SAT scores and GPA right away to make sure he is a good student. “They [recruits] have to get into the school,” said Peponakis. “None of my guys get in for anything less than what everyone else does.”
QC requires students to have a B average and a 1,110 SAT score in order to be accepted.
This may hold back the talent level, added Peponakis, but it is up to him to be more creative with recruiting. That is the approach he took while recruiting Liander.
“At the time he saw me I wasn’t anybody yet, I hadn’t put up big numbers and he saw the potential in me,” said Liander. “He was the first coach to notice me. After we established that connection, every coach that came after didn’t have the same rapport.”
He has to develop the players over their time in the program, but the ultimate goal is for the kids to graduate. He is not worried about his players meeting the NCAA’s requirements to play, but rather his own.
“The NCAA says you can play if you’re a qualifier which is a certain amount of core credits (14), a 2.0 GPA and an 820 SAT score,” says Peponakis. “To play you have to be eligible, but my goal is a 3.0 as a team not a 2.0.”
To maintain this, Peponakis makes his players attend an extra hour of study hall on top of the mandatory time set by the athletics program. He also credits a great support system set up by the school and having mature guys on his team. The coach calls all the QC student-athletes “legit students,” and it shows as they earned a 3.08 GPA last year.
Bad grades are one thing Peponakis does not take lightly.
“You don’t want that call from him saying he got a bad progress report,” said Liander. “You are definitely going to get chewed out, and receive some form of punishment.”
While having the players do well in class and graduate is the ultimate goal of the program, winning is a close second.
“I’m always self-motivated,” he says in a stern voice. “I set goals, I want to win.”
Even coming off of one of his worst seasons, in which his team went 4-22, he says he is just as motivated as he was 23 years ago. As he says, losing motivates you to do better; you always feel you can do better. Where you feel you can improve, you go out and work hard to improve. This seems to be apparent as the Knights have already doubled their win total from last season, holding an overall record of 9-15.
“His teams are always very prepared. Good coaches, always have their teams well prepared,” said LIU Post head coach Christopher Casey. When asked about going against Peponakis, Casey said it always makes for a difficult game to win.
“He did a good job with the guys he had this season,” added Casey.
Peponakis has had his fair share of success as head coach of the men’s basketball team. Three times his teams have won 20 games, most recently in 2010-11. Four times they have eclipsed the 18-win mark. Twice he has taken a team to the NCAA Division II Championships, in 2001-02 and 2002-03. He has also won the New York Collegiate Athletic Conference championship twice, most recently in 2004-05.
Since 2011, six head coaches have either been fired or replaced at Queens College; such as former women’s basketball head coach Tom Flahive. Flahive also had past success with the program, even winning an ECC championship, but was still terminated. Coming off of a 4-22 season, Peponakis does not feel he is on the ‘hot seat.’
“You think I’m afraid of losing my job? No. I put pressure on myself and my team. I don’t ever worry about my job, I want to win,” he said.
Peponakis certainly does not lack confidence and he has set his own expectations for himself and his team.
“She [Athletic Director] came in once expecting rings; that was amusing,” he said with a chuckle.
While it is expected for both he and his athletes to be involved in the community, raise funds, and sell the program, ultimately the expectation is for his athletes to perform well in school and graduate.
After a 2-12 start, the Knights have now won seven of their last 10 games, including a five game winning streak. After a tough loss to LIU Post, QC senior forward Daniel Watson said he believes this team can compete with anyone in the conference.
The Knights are in fifth place in the ECC standings at 9-7, and appear to be in a prime position to make the playoffs.
But if you ask Peponakis his goal for the rest of the season, it remains the same as it has throughout his entire tenure, “win the next game.”
In a ‘what have you done for me lately’ world, Peponakis’ career provides some consistency. As Liander puts it, “He stays true to his style, besides the occasional match-up change. The way he ran practice and talked to us, always remained the same.”