The Intelligencer  July 10, 2007

Former H-H boys basketball coach Ostrowski dies

By DOM COSENTINO,  The Intelligencer

Brian Schneider was just a little guy at the time, a ninth grader who walked into the gym at Hatboro-Horsham on his first day of high school basketball practice, his innocent eyes and ears not at all ready for what he was about to see and hear.

But there it was: One grown, older man and one grown, younger man angrily shouting at one another, a torrent of verbal jabs that echoed off the walls. This went on for a few minutes or so, and before long the younger man stormed away from the older man. But just then, the older man picked up a basketball and fired it in the direction of the younger man, barely missing his head.

Schneider also couldn't help but notice the strange behavior of his future teammates: They were gathered around the gym, stretching and warming up and getting dressed as if nothing was going on around them.

He soon would learn the older man, Walt Ostrowksi, was H-H's head coach. The younger man? That was Mike Ostrowski, Walt's son and one of his assistant coaches.

What was happening was business as usual, and Schneider began to shudder.

“I'm freaking out,” Schneider said. “I'm so scared. I'm just this little freshman coming in. I mean, I never met a guy who could throw a basketball at his son. I never dealt with something like that. I just thought, "What am I getting myself into?' ”

He really had no idea.
The news spread pretty quickly on Monday, making its way to guys playing summer league baseball in upstate New York, guys in Las Vegas, guys down the shore, guys in Mexico — all guys who played for or coached against Walt Ostrowski, the colorful former H-H boys basketball coach who died Monday from complications related to a malignant brain tumor. He was 57.

Just three years removed from his retirement from teaching and coaching, Ostrowski was first diagnosed with the tumor last summer. He had surgery to have it removed, and, according to Mike Ostrowski, he seemed to be in the clear for a while.

Then, in April, the illness hit him again. He had a second surgery, but his body wasn't responding well to chemotherapy. He was administered an experimental medication, but the side effects were brutal. On June 24, he attended a barbecue with about 15 former players at the Doylestown home of Jim Reichwein, one of his former players and assistant coaches. Two days later, he became ill again and was taken back to the hospital.

The cancer had returned, and at this point it was inoperable. He was eventually sent back to his Warrington home, where he received hospice care. For the past several days, he had been unresponsive, and on Sunday night, Margo, his wife of 36 years, and his grown children, Mike and Christa, slept with him in his room. He began having trouble breathing on Monday morning, but he held on until Monday afternoon at 1:30 p.m.

“He fought as hard as he could right to the end,” Mike said. “He didn't suffer, though, and we're all grateful for that. It was typical "Coach O' fashion — he was just stubborn. It was tough to see, but it was nice because you knew that he was fighting in spirit up to the end.”
Affectionately called “Coach O” or “Ozzie” by virtually all who knew him, Ostrowski coached at Hatboro-Horsham for 33 years, the last 22 as head coach. He retired in 2004 with 375 wins, seven league titles, one District One championship and nine PIAA playoff appearances.

Many of his players went on to play in college — at all levels — including Matt Carroll of the NBA's Charlotte Bobcats, and Matt's younger brother Pat, who plays professionally in Europe.

A dapper dresser with an outgoing, bigger-than-life personality that could be as irascible and profane as it was warm and engaging, Ostrowski took the Hatters to tournaments around the country, often presenting his program as something more than a high school basketball team. He endured rumors that he tried to recruit players from neighboring school districts, but the whispers and accusations were never proven — and ultimately nothing stopped Ostrowski from doing things his way.

But his true impact, as conversations with many of those who knew him indicated on Monday, was in what he did for his players, in ways people never saw.

“People in the stands who come to a game and watch him and see him yell and berating players when they come off the court, they think, "Why would he play for the guy?' ” said Dennis Steinly Jr., a former Ostrowski assistant who is now the team's head coach. “But they don't understand. They just get one glimpse.”

Jamie Abercrombie, a 2003 H-H graduate and former player, said Ostrowski came to one of his baseball games at Temple University's Ambler campus in May. Even though he wasn't feeling well, and even though the Owls were getting crushed, Ostrowski stayed until the end of the game just to say hello to Abercrombie.


“Coach Ostrowski was one of the most important people in my life,” Abercrombie said. “You were family to him.”*Dave Torresani, the former North Penn and Abington coach whose son, Bryan, played for Ostrowski, remembered the team camps at Lehigh University as hot, sweaty affairs that involved long hours — but they were always made easier by Ostrowski's ability to entertain the coaches' lounge with his many jokes and stories.

“Ozzie was like the entertainment director,” Torresani said. “He made those summer weeks really fly by.”

Jeremy Kircher, a former player who succeeded Ostrowski for two seasons, said Ostrowski was the reason he wanted to coach, period.

“I loved him,” Kircher said. “He was the best. I would have done anything for that guy.”

Reichwein decided to throw that barbecue in Ostrowski's honor two weeks ago, and he encouraged each player to write down a memory of Ostrowski that would then be read by another player. The result was a flood of fondness — and a heckuva lot of laughter.

“He was bent over laughing, crying,” Reichwein said. “It was a great night.”
Born in Pittsburgh and raised in the Beaver County suburb of Ambridge, Ostrowski was a senior on the 1967 Ambridge team that is still considered the greatest in state history. The team featured three Division future I players in Dick DeVenzio (Duke), Dennis Wuycik (North Carolina) and Frank Kaufman (Purdue). They won their games by an average of 25 points and beat a Kenny Durrett-led Schenley team by 18 before thumping Chester, 93-61, in the state final.

Ostrowski went on to play for three years at West Chester before getting a job at H-H, where he taught health and physical education and driver's education until his retirement.

Mike Ostrowski said Chuck DeVenzio, the legendary Ambridge coach who died last fall at age 85, was his father's biggest coaching influence. As Walt told The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review last November, just after DeVenzio's death, “There's no way parents today would tolerate some of that stuff, having their kids yelled at. We all wanted it. If he wasn't yelling at you, you weren't a part of it.”
The son of a single mother, Brian Schneider would have his share of rows with Ostrowski long after that fearful introduction when he was a ninth grader. He would yell back and he would even leave practice in a fit of anger. But he also had a tendency to run with the wrong crowd, to be susceptible to the kinds of influences that can grab a child without a father figure.

“I kind of went down the wrong path,” Schneider said, “and he was a guy that never really gave up on me.”

Not long after their shouting matches, Ostrowski would always call, just to talk. He would take Schneider aside, when no one was around, and he would let him know he cared.

He took him to dinner. He told him to use his head. He gave him driving lessons with his own car. When the players were told to wear shirts and ties to games and Schneider told Ostrowski he didn't have any, Ostrowski went into his closet and gave him some.

He let him borrow his Mustang on the night of his prom. He helped him get into the Pennsylvania College of Technology so he could get his grades up, so he could go to a four-year college.
Brian Schneider graduated from Millersville in May 2006.

“If it wasn't for him,” Schneider said, “I probably wouldn't have graduated.”

Walter James Ostrowski is survived by his wife, Margo; his children, Mike and Christy; two grandchildren; a sister, Barbara; and his mother, Norma.

There will be a viewing from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. and from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Thursday at the Schneider Funeral Home on York Road in Hatboro. The funeral is at 11 a.m. Friday at Lehman Methodist Church on York Road in Hatboro.

In lieu of flowers, donations are encouraged to be sent to PNC Bank, c/o Coach Ozzie Ostrowski Memorial Fund, Attn: Marcia Ozbeki, 398 North Main St., Doylestown, Pa., 18901. The newly established scholarship will be awarded annually to a courageous male and a female student-athlete from Hatboro-Horsham.