How Mike Gawlik uses his process, culture to build volleyball program
Kori Moster remembers it well.
A three-time All-American and two-time Big Ten defensive player of the year at Michigan State, Moster is well known throughout the volleyball community. From 2011-2014, she was a fixture at libero for the Spartans.
But through all the accolades, there was one moment during Moster's freshmen year with the Spartans that she remembers vividly.
Moster was struggling in a home match against Indiana and needed a psychological lift. While many of her teammates offered her advice on how to fix the mistakes she had been making during the match, it was the advice given to her by an assistant coach that helped her get through the struggles.
“Koko, play like a turkey sandwich. All you need is some bread, turkey, and cheese. Simple, but good every time,” Moster recalls Mike Gawlik telling her. “It was his way of telling me to relax and play my game.”
This moment happened on October 26, 2011. Almost eight years later, Gawlik’s approach to coaching remains the same as the head coach at Central Michigan.
He came to Mount Pleasant in 2016 after eleven seasons as an assistant at Michigan State. He has made it his goal to build a program that can compete every night in the Mid-American Conference.
If the players continue to buy in, Gawlik believes he's well on his way to building a powerhouse.
And he’s doing it his way.
A culture of constructiveness
When reminded of the fact that she has spent the same amount of time at Central Michigan as her coach, Jayla Wesley smiled.
“Kinda crazy, been here a long time,” Wesley said.
Wesley, a senior middle blocker from West Bloomfield, has been named to the Academic All-MAC team two years in a row and has made significant contributions on the court. Wesley entered the program at the same time as Gawlik.
He’s the only head coach she’ll have at the college level, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“He’s like a dad to all of us,” Wesley said, citing the ability to communicate off the court, as well as his ability to slow things down to keep everyone on the same page as reasons for the close-knit relationship of this year’s squad.
“He’s very constructive,” the senior added.
Wesley noted that, above all, Gawlik wants to see growth. The team’s message is to “keep working hard and grow from there.”
It just so happens that Gawlik has made growth the basis of this program.
'We’re looking to win matches while growing'
Gawlik is in his fourth season at Central Michigan. Before coming to CMU, he was an assistant coach at Michigan State for eleven seasons. He was named to the American Volleyball Coaches Association “30 under 30” list in 2010.
He also played collegiately at Pacific from 2002-2005. He left the program as the career record holder for games played (382) and digs (849).
Gawlik has made winning a priority in his program. However, winning is best for him when paired with growth.
“We’re looking to win matches while growing,” Gawlik said. “It’s easier to watch a match after a win and say yeah we won, but we could get better here.” He added that it can be tough to analyze a loss due to the difficulty of having to revisit the defeat on film.
“If you lose, you gotta make sure you grow.”
Gawlik won’t guarantee a MAC championship. He has immense belief in his team but doesn’t want to look far past the next match.
When asked about expectations, Gawlik stressed taking a smaller view than simply a MAC title. He wants his team to develop, learn from mistakes and build as the season goes on.
“Hopefully today is the worst we play all year,” he frequently says to the Chippewas.
Gawlik wants his squad to play their best when the conference tournament rolls around. The goal is to “peak in November.”
His vision is a team that plays competitively and consistently. Whether or not that results in winning is a completely different story.
Gawlik knows his team is physically capable of competing with the opponents in the MAC. However, he knows that they won’t be able to keep up in the score column if they don’t prepare and play consistently.
“On any given night our goal is to be prepared,” he said. "It’s gonna come down to consistency, we can play with anybody."
Winning is a result that is the defining factor when judging a coach’s ability to develop a program. However, wins and losses aren’t the only things that former college athletes remember when their careers are over.
Just ask Moster.
'One of the most influential people in my life to date'
Moster doesn’t just remember matches. She also remembers games.
As an assistant, Gawlik would play games with the team at the start of practice or during pregame warmups. There’s one game that Moster remembers well. The game is known as pepper, and it involves the players standing a fixed distance apart while they pass the ball back and forth, the intensity increasing as the game wears on.
“Both of us were still hitters at heart so we would let it rip, and both being solid defenders, we’d be able to pepper forever,” she said. “I don’t think there’s anyone in the world I‘d rather pepper with than Mike.”
She also stated that coach Gawlik’s creativity and competitiveness helped to fire up the team and prepare them for an upcoming practice or game.
With all that said, Moster shifted her tone.
“Mike is one of the most influential people in my life to date,” she said.
The former All-American added that Gawlik helped her become multi-dimensional, as both a defender and a passer. She remembered him emphasizing believing in herself and her ability to read the game.
“Whatever you got to do to get the ball up,” he would often tell her.
Despite having immense talent, Moster believes her assistant coach played a huge role in her ability to obtain all these accolades.
“I wouldn’t have had the experience or success in college without Mike as my coach – I fully believe that," she said.
'An incredible mentor'
Kristen Kelsay also played four years for Gawlik. After that, she was an assistant on the staff at Michigan State with him for one year.
Kelsay is now an assistant at Northwestern, but she’ll never forget her time with Gawlik.
It started when she was a senior in high school. She had just decommitted from Nebraska and was looking for a place to continue her volleyball career after high school.
Along came Michigan State, led by recruiting coordinator Gawlik. It was the start of a connection.
“Mike has become an incredible mentor to me in not only the coaching profession but in life," Kelsay said of her former co-worker.
Gawlik impressed her with his approaching to coaching and life. Kelsay also stated that while he was demanding, it was in a way that related to players and “put the mission first.”
"What also makes Mike really special is his ability to connect with people,” Kelsay said. “Mike has an uncanny way of bringing out the best in his players and teams."
The tenured coach made everyone on the team feel important and valued through his sense of humor and storytelling ability.
But for all the humor, Kelsay said there’s no issue he won’t try to resolve.
“Mike always had time to answer a question, contemplate life questions, and make sure his players were not only growing as volleyball players but as strong, independent young women," she added.
Once again, it's easy to see the importance Gawlik places on growth.
Whether it be on or off the court.
Building the future through the present
Only one team will win the MAC volleyball championship this season. Gawlik is aware that his team may not be crowned. However, based on his mindset, one can tell that he won’t evaluate the overall success of his team’s season based on hardware.
When asked if he believed if his team could win the MAC title, Gawlik stated that he was more focused on the present. He has goals to be prepared and compete every single night. Obviously, the goal is a conference championship, but Gawlik is content with taking the season match by match and improving day to day.
Gawlik has been around the game for a long time, and he certainly has a long future ahead of him.
With consistency, preparation, and competitiveness, three separate ingredients emerge that could build a championship contender.
When you combine them they’re simple, but good every time.
Just like a turkey sandwich.