Matt Mazurek didn't wait for his baseball career to stall before he considered a career life in coaching. The idea first entered his mind while playing football for Silver Creek High under longtime coach Archie Bradley, who pulled the senior quarterback aside and told him he was a natural for the profession.
Little did Bradley know, he made a profound impact on a young man's life. Mazurek was a terrific baseball player, a shortstop and outfielder who played two seasons at Jamestown Community College before earning a scholarship to Canisius. But with the seed planted, he had a singular goal.
He reached into his childhood and began gathering information that could someday apply when running his own program. He sponged from coaches he played under in all sports, taking with him tidbits that would guide him through situations and teach him how to get the most from his players.
Mazurek rattled off names of numerous coaches who made an impact on his life at one point or another. They were teachers, mentors, disciplinarians, friends, counselors and psychologists. Often, they were wrapped into one. In a way, Mazurek getting hired as Canisius' baseball coach in September was a tribute to all of them.
"You take a little bit from each of them," Mazurek said. "You really are a product of your environment. You definitely wear all those hats. I've said that if you've been in coaching for more than 10 years, you should get an honorary psychology degree. You're managing players. You're managing minds."
Mazurek didn't have grandiose aspirations about the big leagues or anything. He majored in physical education at Canisius because he figured it would lead to coaching. He was intent on shaping young people the way his coaches shaped him, confirming he's in the business for the right reasons.
Many college graduates fantasize about some great job waiting for them. They become so consumed with making big money and the idea of a lavish lifestyle that they ignore their true passion. Years later, they kick themselves for not pursuing a profession that would have led them to happiness.
Mazurek embraced an old cliché: Do what you love, love what you do and you'll never work a day of your life. He was paid peanuts as a part-time assistant while doing landscaping on the side to help pay the bills. He was a full-time assistant when he married and started a family. His wife, Sara, was pregnant with their second child before he was promoted to head coach seven months ago.
"You get young assistants that work on a staff, and they think after one year that they're going to get a full-time job," Mazurek said. "It doesn't work like that. You do have to serve your time if you want to get into this profession. I cared about the program and the players. It was something I had a hard time walking away from. I wouldn't be able to sleep well at night if I was chasing a paycheck."
Baseball coaches from mid-major programs like Canisius aren't getting rich. They generally pocket between $60,000-$70,000 per year, plus incentives and a portion generated from baseball camps. Assistants earn about half as much. If he was looking to strike gold, he would have taken a different path.
Of course there were times when the money was tight that Mazurek questioned his own resolve. He sniffed around for other jobs along the way, but he never seriously considered leaving the program. Canisius gave him an opportunity as a player, allowed him to become a graduate assistant and earn his master's degree. It gave him a steady paycheck. Athletic Director Bill Maher called it "our get-rich-slow scheme."
Ultimately, he persevered.
"I worked my way up," said Mazurek, 34. "It definitely tested my mettle a little bit. I grinded through it and prepared myself every day knowing, one day, I would have the opportunity to become a head coach. That's what I working toward. It wasn't easy, but you have to have a positive outlook and know it was going to get to that point."
Mazurek's message – working his way up, grinding it out, preparing every day – defines baseball's mentality and filters to his players. He had a .355 batting average over his two seasons at Canisius and served as their hitting coach for eight seasons. He watched seven position players get drafted while developing his own craft.
He never lost faith. He knew his opportunity would come, that the years recruiting and developing players would lead him to his dream job. It was a matter of time before Mike McCrae, who won three MAAC titles over his 14 seasons, would head for the exit in an effort to boost his career.
On the first day of the fall semester, McCrae was named pitching coach at Virginia Commonwealth. Maher, who found honor and value in someone who had spent more than a decade paying his dues, wasted little time before offering the job to Mazurek and making him the fourth coach in 40 years.
" 'Maz' had gained the respect of everybody that he worked with and other coaches he knew as well," Maher said. "I don't take any coaching search lightly, but I wish they were all that easy. The team has really responded to him. They appreciated and respected the job he did. For him to move into that role, he had instant credibility."
It wouldn't have happened if not for Sara, an elementary school teacher who encouraged her husband to pursue his career while keeping up with their finances. She understood the idea that he didn't choose a coaching career so much as a coaching career chose him. Their hard work was rewarded.
Canisius lost its first two games before winning six straight and nine of 10 in nonconference play, including a 5-4 decision over Ohio State for Mazurek's first victory. Last month, they beat No. 25 North Carolina State. Last week, they swept Saint Peter's by a combined score of 37-5 over three games.
The Mazureks are just getting started. He and his wife have two kids, a 21-month old and a 2½ month old, and have no intention of leaving any time soon. Their dream was to build a life together in Western New York. Mazurek finally landed his dream job – 17 years after Bradley saw something special in a 17-year-old kid.
As usual, the coach was right.
"I remember it so vividly," Mazurek said. "It just made sense. I think back to that day every day."