Tasked with rebuilding the Owens Community College men’s basketball program, new head coach Mike Llanas is trying not to get ahead of himself.
While there are visions of a highly successful program and building back a national brand at the junior college level, all that can wait. The primary focus right now is simple: build a roster of 10 to 15 players before Sept. 1 for a team that did not play last season because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“When I signed on, there were zero players on the roster,” Llanas said. “So we are literally starting from scratch. As we stand here we have six that are signed, sealed, and delivered. In the next seven days, I’m hoping we have the 15 that we want with signed letters of intent, registered for classes, and ready to go to class on August 30.”
One thing that Llanas will have working for him in this rebuild is his familiarity with Owens and familiarity with the area. Llanas, who grew up in Bowling Green, built a dynasty of sorts in his 14 years as head coach of the women’s basketball team at Owens.
Llanas is the program’s all-time wins leader, compiling a 351-103 overall record. He averaged 25 wins per season and in his past five seasons at Owens, Llanas led the Express to three top-10 finishes at the NJCAA Division II national tournament.
“Building relationships in the region was very important on the women’s side,” Llanas said. “The coaches that I knew regionally and nationally just knew myself and my coaching staff as hard-working and attentive to our players. That’s what really separated us from the other junior colleges in the area. We wanted to be the No. 1 team in the country and that was a dream of mine and my staff. We were knocking on the door, especially those last eight years or so.”
Llanas spent the past three seasons as the women’s coach at Division II Wheeling University. Owens athletic director Shelley Whitaker thought this was the perfect time to bring Llanas back to the school to take on a program in need of a shot in the arm.
“Mike has a proven track record of excellence both on the court and in the classroom,” Whitaker said. “He holds his student-athletes to standards that successfully assist them in matriculating to the next level after receiving their degrees from Owens. One of the most important aspects of this hire was to ensure we brought in someone who could provide a high level of student-athlete experience and someone that is familiar with the rich tradition of basketball in the greater Toledo area. Mike was the perfect person to provide both. I have no doubt that he will build this program’s future on hard work, high expectations, and integrity.”
The past three years at Wheeling were eye-opening for Llanas, as the school was struggling with financial challenges.
“I was there for three years to rebuild the program,” Llanas said. “Not only were we rebuilding the program, but Wheeling was rebuilding itself. When I got there, it was Wheeling Jesuit and then for financial reasons, the university had to make some moves in order to be sustainable for years to come. There was a name change. There was a challenge to build a program, but there was also a challenge in supporting and promoting a university that was struggling.”
Llanas wants to be a mentor and a father figure for his players at Owens and he hopes to help shape them on the court and in the classroom so they can move on to play at four-year colleges or simply be attractive to potential employers.
On the court, Llanas is a self-described player’s coach who wants to give his team the confidence they need to be at their best.
“We want to give our guys freedom,” Llanas said. “We want to allow their athleticism to reign on the floor, but there are going to be times that we have to control the tempo and take good shots. We have to learn shot selection. There’s a time to have some freedom and there’s a time where we are going to need a more controlled offense. I love the new-school open offense and I still love the old-school, textbook basketball philosophy of good, hard-nosed defense and team-oriented basketball.”
Llanas is focused on the process right now and says if he urges his student-athletes to do the right thing on and off the court, the wins should follow down the road.
“Right now I want our kids to relish the opportunity they have and get things done in the classroom and be a recruitable athlete to a four-year school in two years,” Llanas said. “Then we can build those wins. Shelley Whitaker is nowhere near putting a victory goal up on the board. What she wants is stability and sustainability of this basketball program. We want our kids to be able to move on, if they choose to, to play basketball at a four-year school or just simply be employable.”
With many challenges ahead, Llanas said some of his players haven’t played in two years because of the coronavirus pandemic and they are itching to get back on the court in game action.
“I’m about as excited and nervous as the day I walked into Owens to be the women’s coach,” Llanas said. “I have to be ready for these guys because they are hungry to get on the floor and hungry for school to start. Some of these guys haven’t played for two years, and up until my hire, this Owens team was not an option for them. They are hungry for this opportunity and it’s exciting to have guys that cherish the opportunity.”