WARREN, Mich. – Legendary basketball coach Bernie Holowicki once said, “You’ll know when it’s time.”
Well, that time has come for De La Salle Collegiate basketball coach Greg Esler.
One of the longest tenured and most successful coaches in De La Salle’s 94-year history, Esler announced his resignation as the Pilots’ basketball coach on Thursday.
“Bernie told me that you’ll know when it’s time, and it’s time,” Esler said. “Priorities change and it’s time to move on. I hope I have a lot of life left and things to do.”
The hall-of-fame coach steps down with a 425-199 record, four Detroit Catholic High School League tournament titles, 22 state district championships, and two Final Four appearances. He coached 188 varsity players in 26 seasons at De La Salle.
Two years ago, Esler joined the school’s Advancement Department as its major gifts officer. But he says the time to step away from the sideline feels right.
“I think the advancement job – when you have so many alumni – it takes a lot of time and it’s hard to create balance when you want to see your family,” he said. “I saw my granddaughter play (basketball) three times at Regina last year. Most times, we played the same nights. I’ve been taking my grandsons to golf lessons and we shoot baskets. It’s just fun. But I think I’m leaving the program in good shape with the freshman and JV teams going 20-0 last year.”
Plus, stepping down will allow Esler the freedom to travel more with his wife Renee.
In March, the Pilots were poised to win a sixth straight district title, but the state tournament was canceled by COVID-19. The night before the Pilots were to face Warren Woods-Tower in the championship game, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer closed all state K-12 schools and shutdown all school-related athletic activities.
“My goal was to win a state championship at De La Salle, but we didn’t do it,” Esler said. “We were undefeated and in the top five (in 2011) with Connor Tava when Bryan Mitzner went down with the injury. That was probably the biggest disappointment.”
For a former team captain, who played basketball at Hazel Park with Bob Welch and Terry Thomas – the two went on to play for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Detroit Pistons, respectively – coaching became a passion that Esler knows he will miss.
“I’m going to miss the competition,” he said. “I always got a thrill out of the preparation. It’ a tremendous thing to win, but that factored into my decision because it takes so much out of me to lose. A lot of it consumed me and the losses were getting tougher and tougher.”
Esler began coaching at the youth level with stints at Webster Elementary School and St. Anne Catholic School before arriving at De La Salle to coach sub-varsity basketball. In three years, he coached freshman (1985) and junior varsity (1986-87) squads. He also coached varsity tennis for two seasons.
But in the fall of 1987, Esler was given an opportunity to coach varsity basketball at Saint Clair Shores Lake Shore. There, he enjoyed a highly-successful run that concluded with a Class B state championship in 1994.
The next year, Esler returned to De La Salle as the varsity coach.
His 33 varsity seasons produced a remarkable 558-235 record, 27 district titles, and eight regional crowns. He is also one of a handful of basketball coaches in Michigan high school history to earn State Coach of the Year three times. According to the MHSSA website, Esler’s wins total ranks No. 15 among all-time boys’ basketball coaches.
The highlight at De La Salle, Esler says, are the Pilots’ Final Four appearances in 2007 and 2018.
“Quite frankly there was a time when we dominated the Catholic League,” he said. “We won 11 league championships and won the schools only Operation Friendship game over Detroit King. We had solid coaches. We ran a clean program. Our student athletes always were of the highest character. A lot of our kids have done extremely well. The biggest thing is that these guys have been great family guys and the fact that so many come back for the alumni tournament. It shows me that we did something right.”