During his first season as a starting point guard on the Muskego boys varsity basketball team, Craig Kroupa didn’t yet have his driver’s license.
He needed a ride home from practices and games during the 1999-2000 season. Every day, he'd climb into the passenger seat of his dad's car, glance to his left and see his head coach sitting right beside him.
The coach — Kent Kroupa — was also Craig's dad.
“Some rides home were better than others,” Craig joked earlier this week.
Craig, now 28, played three seasons for his dad on the varsity team, as did his older brother Brad, 30, during Kent’s eight-year tenure with the Warriors, sandwiched between runs at Whitnall High School.
For the last three seasons, Craig has rejoined his father, this time on the sidelines as an assistant coach for the Falcons, whose remarkable 2011-12 season came to a close Thursday in a WIAA sectional semifinal.
The memories they have shared wearing Falcon blue rival those made a decade ago at Muskego.
“To have that experience of coaching both of them and then to have Craig on the sidelines is invaluable,” Kent said. “A lifetime memory, something that can never be taken away and something that our family can live with forever.
“Each day is like a blessing to watch him grow as a coach, to do what I love to do.”
Kent, 63, said coaching with Craig has completed the cycle of what he wanted to do personally as a coach, as well as that of the job he and his wife Linda have done as parents. That cycle began nearly three decades ago.
During Kent's first stint with the Falcons from 1984-94, the team claimed the 1988 state championship. Realizing he’d have to move on in order to coach his sons, Kent left Whitnall and thanks to a little bit of fate and luck, wound up in Muskego. During Kent’s eight-year run there, Brad and Craig were all-Southeast Conference point guards for the Warriors.
Kent returned to Whitnall in 2004, and three years ago added Craig to his staff as a volunteer assistant. The last two years, Craig has been Kent’s right-hand man as the varsity assistant coach.
Craig, who was a water boy on the 1988 state team and still refers to his dad as “Coach,” has served as a bridge between the old school head coach and teenage boys. The two Kroupas complement each other in ways that go beyond Xs and Os.
“We work well together because I get a little excited and he stays extremely calm,” Kent said. “That’s a nice balance throughout the course of a game. He knows me in and out.
“He’s helped me see things in different lights. I’m old school. I don’t have a cell phone. I can hardly use a computer. He’s helped me come into the modern world a whole lot more and (with) seeing kids feelings, understand where they are coming from, knowing what’s going on in their lives. He’s done an awful lot to make me a better coach.”
Craig’s experiences as a player give him a unique perspective he’s been able to share the last three years. He knows how intense his dad can get and how that intensity can be misconstrued by fans, parents and players. But he knows every angry shout or stern lecture has a meaning behind it.
“As a player, he used the game of a basketball to teach about life,” Craig said. “He does want to win, but his main goal is to make them better people. … As a coach, I see the life lessons and get it a lot more. He’s direct, in your face, very blunt. You might not like what he has to say, but he’ll say it to you and hopefully it will make you a better person.”
And how does coach Kroupa compare to dad Kroupa?
“Totally different,” Craig said. “As a dad, he’s very laid back. Lets you make your own mistakes and choices in life. If you screw up, he’d sit you down and talk to you: This is what you did, this is what you should have done. … He let you live your life and if you needed anything, he was there for you, and he still is always there for us.”
If given the opportunity, the elder Kroupa said, Craig's coaching career could be even better than his has been. That is saying something, considering Kent has won 355 career games, including more than 300 at Whitnall.
It could take decades to determine whether or not Craig matches his father’s success, but what is clear today is how valuable the last few years have been to this father-son duo.
“I always felt that time is the most valuable gift you can give anybody,” Kent said. “Being able to have this time, 2 hours a night at practice and games, it’s just been a wonderful experience, to see him every day, to watch him grow as a coach.”
And perhaps without even realizing it, Kent has passed on yet another lesson to his son.
“I’m older and I’m cherishing each game and each moment with him,” Craig said. “He’s getting toward the end of his coaching career. As a kid, I was just playing and didn’t really grasp how significant it was and how lucky I was to have him as a coach. I didn’t really get it unit it was too late. I always thought there’d be tomorrow.
“But coaching with him, it’s been an honor. I’ve enjoyed it and I’ve realized life is so valuable.”