Tom Klusman

The Leader

Tom Klusman ’76 ’78MBA


Sometimes, when you look back on your life, things just seem to have fallen into place. Except you didn’t know it at the time. Back then, the world was a jumble of youth and inexperience and indecision, the future a kaleidoscope of untraveled roads and unopened doors—endless possibilities tempered by the anxiety of uncertainty.

And so it was for Tom Klusman ’76 ’78MBA. In just a few short years, he’d become the men’s basketball head coach at his alma mater, a position he still holds today. But in 1976, Klusman was one of three graduating seniors from Rollins’ basketball team at a year-end banquet. The banquet was attended by Larry Guest, an Orlando Sentinel-Star sportswriter. When asked by Guest what he wanted to do with his life, Klusman replied that he wasn’t sure.

“Would you like to coach?” Guest suggested.

Klusman demurred. “Maybe.”

In the next day’s paper, Guest announced that Klusman, who’d racked up 1,006 points and 352 assists in his collegiate career, wanted to coach. That, at least in Klusman’s recollection, proved better prophecy than accurate reporting.

Following a stint as assistant coach at Winter Park High School, Klusman assisted coach Mark Freidinger at Rollins. Klusman was promoted to head coach in 1980 and won his first game against Webber College, a 95–73 victory.

Thirty-three years and nearly 1,000 games later, Klusman claimed victory No. 600 when the Tars beat Florida Tech 74–62. That isn’t to say it’s always been a smooth ride. In fact, his run almost ended before it began. In April 1982, after his second season, a College committee recommended firing him due to disagreements with the athletic director. Klusman was just 28 years old and very green; he’d made mistakes, sure. But the school rallied behind him, and the College’s administrators relented.

Klusman has never looked back. “I thought I was very prepared to be the head coach,” he says now. “After a year, I realized there’s so much I [didn’t] know.”

His record speaks for itself: 609 wins, 8 NCAA Division II regional tournaments, a trip to the Elite Eight, and five All-Americans. He’s been named Sunshine State Conference Coach of the Year six times and the National Association of Basketball Coaches’ South Region Coach of the Year twice.

It’s not surprising, then, that he’s had offers at Division I schools. But Coach Klusman never made that leap.

“I love basketball,” he explains. “But it’s not my whole life. To go to Division I, it has to be your whole life.”

Klusman prefers a quiet coaching style, employing a gentler method of reproach that more often than not involves wrapping his arm around a player’s shoulder.

Once, a senior asked him why he wasn’t harder on his guys. “In four months you’re going to be out in the real world,” he replied.

“Your boss isn’t going to scream at you to get your work done. You’re either going to do it, or you’re not going to do it.”

It’s not that he’s imperturbable. Of course he wants to win. But that’s not all that matters.

“I’m not just a coach,” he says. “I’m trying to prepare [players] for life after here, after college. This is all part of what we’re trying to teach these kids.”

There are, indeed, some things more important than basketball. Of all the statistics he’s accumulated, this one seems the most important: Of the hundreds of student-athletes he’s recruited and coached over the last 33 years, all but a very few have earned their degrees.

But ask Klusman about his favorite memory, and he won’t single out an NCAA tournament win or the euphoria that comes with an overtime buzzer-beater. Instead, he’ll reply: “They’ve been great games, great players. But there’s no doubt in my mind it’s the relationships that are far and away the best experience I’ve ever had.”

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