Summer 2024

Indiana Wesleyan's Greg Tonagel fastest coach to 500 wins: 'God’s grace has changed me'

The list of men’s college basketball coaches to collect 500 wins in their first 20 seasons is a short one. It includes five names who accomplished the feat at the Division I level: John Calipari, Mark Few, Bill Self, Jerry Tarkanian and Roy Williams.

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Indiana Wesleyan University head coach Greg Tonagel did it faster than all of them. Saturday’s 97-83 victory over Cornerstone University was Tonagel’s 500th in just 629 games, making him the youngest coach in men’s college basketball history to reach the milestone.

“I’ve never been a ‘numbers’ guy so reaching a certain number of wins has never been a focus,” Tonagel told Sports Spectrum on Monday. “Reflecting over the 500 was sentimental as I thought about all the players I have been blessed to coach. Many now are coming back to campus with their families and that is special to me.”

Redshirt freshman forward Caedmon Bontrager led the Wildcats with 19 points in the win over Cornerstone (Grand Rapids, Michigan), and five players finished in double figures. The victory moved Indiana Wesleyan (Marion, Indiana) to 1-1 on the season.

A three-time NAIA Division II national champion (2014, 2016, 2018), Tonagel has experienced a tremendous amount of success since taking over the IWU program at the age of 24. What matters even more to him, though, are the opportunities he’s had to invest in and serve his players. Driven by his strong faith in God, Tonagel views his job as a ministry opportunity.

“Looking back at the previous 500 wins, I have learned that I don’t coach basketball; I coach people,” he said after Saturday’s game. “I firmly believe that a person’s maximum potential lies in their spiritual development. Here at Indiana Wesleyan, God has given us a clear call to use the game of basketball as a tool for discipleship.”

Tonagel played for Homer and Scott Drew at Valparaiso University and began his coaching career at his alma mater.

“I’m thankful for the patience Christ has had with me as a coach,” he told Sports Spectrum. “Coaching involves a great amount of power and responsibility. In one sense we are entrusted with the destinies of young men. I guess what I am saying is that the stakes don’t get any higher than they do in coaching. There have been times where I have been less than faithful with that responsibility for His Kingdom. But, as I look back over the past 18 years, God’s grace has changed me through both the successes and failures of coaching.”

Under Tonagel’s leadership, Indiana Wesleyan has embraced a motto of “I am third,” encouraging everyone in the program to put God first, others second and themselves third. The longer Tonagel has spent in the coaching profession, the more he’s realized that living a Christ-centered life and performing well on the court go hand in hand.

“People will rarely rise above the level of spiritual maturity of their leaders,” he told Sports Spectrum. “You cannot take somebody to a place you haven’t gone yourself. My best chance to becoming successful and leading well is to become more like Christ. When I was young, I wanted to win above all. As I’ve gotten older, I simply want to be like Christ. I tell my wife this all the time: I might have the best job in America. It’s Christ-centered, I rarely miss my kids’ activities, we win a ton, and on top of that, I still get to fish and hunt!”

Back in 2018, Tonagel came on the Sports Spectrum Podcast to talk about his faith journey and career in basketball. He said that he can reflect on each season and see the ways in which he’s grown.

When Tonagel experiences change, he believes it has an impact on his players as well.

“The greatest thing coaching offers me is the transformation,” he said on the podcast. “Every year I look back and I can identify the year of coaching by the way it transformed me. As a leader, if I’m the one being transformed, those who follow me can’t help but, I think, experience the same thing. That to me is the joy in coaching.”

Indiana Wesleyan opened the 2023-2024 season ranked No. 9 in the NAIA coaches’ preseason poll, and returns to the court Thursday against No. 12 Union College (Barbourville, Kentucky). The game tips off at 6 p.m. ET.

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