From worst to first: Bowen Court dedication reflects how far UWRF has come
Rick Bowen arrived on the UW-River Falls campus in 1986 to look at the men's basketball head coaching job. According to Bowen, he enjoyed the community and the campus and took the job expecting to be in River Falls for maybe two years before moving on.
"Before the remodel at Karges (Center), I wouldn't even take kids on recruiting visits and show them the locker rooms they were so bad," he said. "Six (wins) and 17 (loss) seasons were the norm, and we usually shared the bottom of the conference with UW-Superior."
This year the Falcons are coming off a school record 25-win season and their second WIAC championship. UWRF also has some of the best Division III facilities in the country with the opening of the Falcon Center.
Instead of a two-year stay, Bowen continued as head coach for 19 seasons and amassed a school record 265 wins. He also served as UWRF athletic director from 2002-10, allowing him to play a part in the athletic department after his coaching career ended.
Bowen guided the Falcons to their first WIAC basketball championship in 54 years when they completed a 20-7 season in 2004.
The turnaround from a bottom feeder to a WIAC contender led to the dedication of Rick Bowen court at the recently completed Page Arena. The arena saw volleyball action this fall, but an exhibition game Nov. 4 against Division II University of Minnesota-Duluth was the first time the team played a live game on the new court.
Page Arena was packed with over 800 fans for the dedication of the court, with dozens of former players returning to partake in the festivities and cheer on another year of Falcon basketball. Bowen's son Matt is the head coach for UMD, and Bowen's family was able to participate in the honor. The previous year's team also received their 2016-2017 WIAC championship rings, replicating the gesture that Bowen helped fundraise to get his players rings back in 2004.
"It was fantastic to have all the alums back," current head coach Jeff Berkhof said. "Some of them I hadn't see in a long time. It shows the admiration they have for Rick."
Berkhof knows Bowen better than almost anyone around the program, playing two seasons for Bowen in 1992-94 and being named all-conference his senior season. Berkhof was also an assistant on Bowen's staff for 12 years before taking over as head coach before the 2006-07 season.
"Jeff has done a tremendous job moving the program forward," Bowen said. "He's got a good basketball mind and is hard working ... and I've watched him grow so much as a coach."
One thing Bowen stressed in his job was "recognizing what you're good at and what you're not." For this reason, he had Berkhof draw up out-of-bounds plays and end-of-game situations because he believed Berkhof was better at that aspect of the game.
"A lot of people talk about the conference championship in 2004, but I think I'm most proud of our seven consecutive winning seasons," Bowen said. "(Coaching at UWRF) has gone from a decent job to a great job."
Berkhof has used the lessons he learned from Bowen and implemented them in his own program. He described Bowen as a pretty high energy and fiery coach that stressed doing things the right way.
"He always tried to do things in a Division I manner with a Division III budget," Berkhof said. "We had up-and-down years, but we were always competitive."
Berkhof especially admired the way Bowen was able to get his players to play hard for him year after year. This was one of the key things that Berkhof took away from his years as an assistant on Bowen's staff.
Rick Montreal played for Bowen from 1987-91, right after Bowen took over the program. Montreal is the fifth-highest scorer in UWRF history with 1,795 points and is now the head basketball coach at New Richmond High School and a sixth-grade teacher in the New Richmond School District. He stressed how much of an emphasis Bowen put on education at UWRF.
"(He) hung his hat on the fact that you're going to be a student and then an athlete," Montreal said. "He took a great deal of pride in that and for a long time every one of his recruits graduated."
Montreal said Bowen recruited him twice: once for basketball and once to return to UWRF to finish his teaching degree. He credits Bowen with being invested in the "student" part of "student-athlete" and looking out for his best interest.
Montreal came into the program at a time when it was going through a complete rebuild. Bowen was able to sell him on the future and through his personality.
"Coach had a way about him that was kind of magnetic," Montreal said. "He doesn't mince words and is a straight shooter. You know what he's thinking, and that's one of his endearing qualities."
Montreal was able to attend the court dedication for Bowen and felt very connected to the event.
"He doesn't necessarily want the limelight or look for that kind of (public) opportunity, but he did a great job," Montreal said. "He shared the credit with players and his family, and that's just one of those things that draws people to Rick. It's one of those memories I won't forget."
By the time the 2005-06 season was over, Bowen was ready to be done coaching. He wanted to leave the program in good shape, and lobbied to give Berkhof a chance as the interim coach before a final decision was made.
"I was ready to quit when I did and had been coaching for over 40 years," Bowen said. "But I really enjoyed (the athletic director position). It kept me involved and I didn't have to recruit."
Bowen has received numerous awards over the years, including being named to the Wisconsin Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2009 and to the UWRF Athletic Hall of Fame in 2015. However, the recent court dedication still had a powerful effect on him.
"It's overwhelming and humbling when something that big happens," Bowen said. "You begin to ask yourself, 'Do I deserve this?'"
According to fan reaction and player and program support, the answer seems to be a resounding yes. After watching the Falcon's 61-60 win over his son's Division II UMD team, Bowen said he thinks Berkhof might have another 20-win team on his hands.
"I hope to see (Berkhof) at UWRF for a long time," Bowen said. "Maybe in 30 years, they can put his name on the floor."