Former Pilots coach passes away

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The 1969-70 Pilots team: Front row - Rich Smetanka, Karl Rogers, Chris Nacu, Guy Kebbe, Mike McGinnis, manager Frank Anderson. Back row - Coach Bernie Holowicki, Tony Bertoni, Rich Pawlak, Mike Yankovich, Bob Kus, Gary Swirski, John Bernard, Les Skalski, Bill Parse, Cass Wisniewski and moderator Brother Gabriel.

The 1969-70 Pilots team: Front row – Rich Smetanka, Karl Rogers, Chris Nacu, Guy Kebbe, Mike McGinnis, manager Frank Anderson. Back row – Coach Bernie Holowicki, Tony Bertoni, Rich Pawlak, Mike Yankovich, Bob Kus, Gary Swirski, John Bernard, Les Skalski, Bill Parse, Cass Wisniewski and moderator Brother Gabriel.

WARREN – John Bernard will never forget the time he first met Bernie Holowicki.

An encounter that took place in the gymnasium at St. Gregory on Detroit’s northwest side ignited a 50-plus year friendship that lasted until this week when Holowicki – who coached basketball and baseball at Detroit De La Salle for two years – died at his home in Livonia. The legendary Detroit Catholic High School League coach was 86.

Bernard, who played four varsity basketball seasons for Holowicki – three at St. Gregory and one at De La Salle – said above everything else, his coach was aboveboard with everyone.

“He would work your butt off, but he taught fundamentals, and he was always fair,” said Bernard, a member of De La Salle’s Board of Trustees. “He only got mad in a game once. He always kept it together until we got in the locker room. He tried to never embarrass a kid out on the court.”

As a young athletic administrator, doing the right thing mattered to Holowicki. A graduate of St. Hedwig in southwest Detroit, Holowicki wasn’t afraid to terminate a subordinate in 1964 when he learned that the coach refused to integrated black players onto St. Gregory’s grade-school team.

Bernard, who is African-American and lived near Fenkell and Dexter, was a sixth grader when he approached Holowicki about being the ball boy for the Cherokees’ varsity squad.

“He asked me if I was on the fifth and sixth grade team and I told him, ‘No, the coach told me I couldn’t try out’,” Bernard said. “We went down to the coach, and Bernie, who was the athletic director, said, ‘Why couldn’t this kid tryout?’ He said, ‘because we already have one of him on the team.’

“Bernie fired him on the spot.”

Five years later, before Bernard entered his senior year, St. Gregory High School closed.

Holowicki got a job coaching at De La Salle, and Bernard was headed to Brother Rice to finish his high school career. But that was before Holowicki persuaded the prep star to join him on the east side.

Coach Holowicki coaches up the Pilots in a timeout during a game in the 1969-70 season.

Coach Holowicki coaches up the Pilots in a timeout during a game in the 1969-70 season.

“When Bernie got the job at De La Salle he said I should come with him, and that’s where I ended up,” Bernard said. “I had to take four buses to get to De La Salle. Bernie said, ‘come over here with me.’ He picked me up and I worked out with those guys in the summer. They were big, and Les Skalski was such a good person, but I knew I could play with these guys. I just didn’t know they were 3-17 the year before. I was just following Coach Holowicki.”

Holowicki started coaching at his high school alma mater in 1953. But he’s best known for his more than two decades at Detroit Catholic Central, where he coached the Shamrocks from 1971-94.

In more than 40 years of coaching, he compiled an impressive 612-216 overall record, which still ranks seventh all-time in wins among boys’ basketball coaches in Michigan high school history.

During his two seasons at De La Salle, Holowicki coached the Pilots to a 30-11 combined record and reached the Class B quarterfinals against Saginaw Carrollton in the 1970 state tournament.

At least three school records fell that season, Holowicki’s first at Connor and Gunston. That year, the 16-7 Pilots went on an amazing 12-game winning streak, scored a school-high 94 points in a 32-point blowout over Redford Bishop Borgess, and capturing the school’s first-ever Class B state regional championship.

“He loved our team because we had a lot of Polish kids,” said Bernard, laughing. “We had Les Skalski, Chris Nacu, and Bob Kus, and Mike Yankovich, Gary Swirski and Cass Wisniewski, and me.”

Then, in the spring of 1970, Holowicki coached the Pilots to a division baseball title.

“We didn’t have anything in terms of baseball at De La Salle, but Coach Holowicki willed us to win,” said Bernard, who also starred on the Pilots’ football and baseball teams. “He put us in the right spots. He wasn’t a good baseball coach. He was a great baseball coach. He could see things … he was brilliant with baseball.”

But following his second year at La Salle, Holowicki made a family decision, accepting the CC job, which was closer to home. 

“It was just too far for him to come here,” Bernard said. “He taught in Dearborn and lived in Livonia, so it was a long way for him to the east side.”

Holowicki was a nine-time Catholic League Coach of the Year, and was honored as Midwest Basketball Coach of the Year by the National High School Coaches Association in 1986. He coached the West team in the 1994 McDonald’s High School All-American Game at Nassau Coliseum in New York.

He also was the head coach at Madonna University from 1995-2004 and served an additional 13 seasons as an assistant coach for the Crusaders’ program.

Holowicki is survived by his wife of 56 years, Barbara Jean; five children, Kevin (Dorian), Mark (Tina), Gregory, Stephen (Jennifer) and Beth (Will Diebel); siblings, Frances Francavilla, Mary Ann Nadolski, Richard and Raymond; and six grandchildren.

Visitation is planned for Monday and Tuesday (June 18-19) from 3-8 p.m. at The Heeney-Sundquist Funeral Home, 23720 Farmington Road in Farmington, Mich.

The rosary will be prayed Tuesday evening at 7 p.m.

A funeral mass will be celebrated on June 20 at 2 p.m. at Detroit Catholic Central High School, located at 27225 Wixom Road in Novi.

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