Kuwik times his return from duty for Ohio's game
Kevin Kuwik thought his time in the service was up -- until he was called back for a year in Iraq. But a year later, he decided the timing and returned to his Ohio Bobcats minutes before game time.
CINCINNATI -- Kevin Kuwik's life recently has been all about timing.
A year ago, the Ohio assistant coach thought he'd completed his time in the service. But then he was suddenly called off the inactive reserve list -- six years after his last active service -- and, without notice, re-enlisted in the army. He was off to Iraq with an Indiana National Guard unit just as the college basketball season was beginning in 2004.
Throughout his tenure in Mosul, a city in Iraq, Kuwik did routine sweeps of roads for IEDs (improvised explosive devices). In this line of work, timing can make the difference between life and death, all within a split-second.
So it was classic Kuwik that he was able to time his most recent release for early December -- out of Iraq on Dec. 5 and off to Kuwait for a few days before landing in Indianapolis in the early morning hours Wednesday. He called head coach Tim O'Shea during a stopover in Ireland to let him know he would be back for Wednesday's game at Cincinnati.
O'Shea didn't tell the team. Just as in the MAC tournament, Kuwik wanted to time his appearance as a surprise for his team.
Ten minutes before seeing his players for the first time since his leave in March, Kuwik sat down with ESPN.
"It's an unbelievable feeling, it really is," Kuwik said of being home. "The one word to describe the year is long. I felt like I spent 10 years there. When we touched down on American soil in Indianapolis, it was a big sigh of relief."
Kuwik said his unit of 400 soldiers had 29 Purple Hearts.
"Everybody made it back,'' Kuwik said. "The hot thing in Iraq is for the insurgents to place IEDs along the road. Someone could be watching you and trigger it as you go by. You can't be paranoid because you drive hundreds of thousands of miles through the city, but all it takes is one time."
Kuwik said the shock of being re-enlisted was hard to get over at first, and the extreme of being in Iraq shortly thereafter only made it more difficult to handle. Throughout the past year, he said he continued to appreciate "how good we have things here and how getting stressed out about some things in the big scheme" isn't worth it.
Throughout the day, O'Shea said he was so thankful that Kuwik made it back alive and without injury. And he had a plan for surprising the team. He had Kuwik stashed away in a side locker room at the Shoemaker Center, so he would be ready to come in for the team's pregame talk. He arranged chairs in a circle for Kuwik to walk into when he entered the main locker room, with two empty chairs -- one in honor of freshman forward Jerome Tillman's father, who is seriously ill, and another that O'Shea said was reserved for someone special.
"I've got a surprise for you guys," O'Shea said. Kuwik then burst through the door and the players spontaneously clapped.
He slapped hands with each one of them and then proceeded to tell them how much he missed them, and how he had converted hundreds of soldiers in his unit into Bobcat fans.
He was emotional and got choked up when he talked about his time in Iraq and how thankful he was to be back with his players.
"Nothing would make me prouder than to walk back to [the Indiana unit on Thursday] and say we won this game for them," Kuwik said.
Well, the Rockne-esque speech worked for a half as the Bobcats stayed within one of Cincinnati. But the Bearcats ran over Ohio in the second en route to an 86-58 rout.
Still, Kuwik was on the bench and, after more debriefing in Indiana over the next few days and a trip to his native Buffalo for some family time, he will join the team for good as an assistant coach on Dec. 26.
"The last 24 hours have been amazing," Kuwik said.
Even after the disheartening loss, O'Shea said, "I've been happy all day that he made it back."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.