Naugatuck native finds coaching success with Florida Southern

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By Mark Jaffee, Republican-American

Florida Southern associate head coach Mike Makubika, right, a Naugatuck native, talks with his players during a game last season. -COURTESY OF FLORIDA SOUTHERN

It’s been quite a coaching path for Mike Makubika.

From team manager to volunteer coach to associate head coach, the Naugatuck native and Holy Cross High graduate has worked his way up the ladder in college basketball over the past 12 seasons.

Makubika, 37, is in his sixth season with the Florida Southern College men’s basketball team, which went 29-2 overall last season and captured the Sunshine State Conference before the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly ended the team’s quest for an NCAA Division II national title.

While Florida Southern has been practicing in recent months, it has yet to play a game because of the pandemic and is awaiting a set league schedule, hopefully beginning in January.

“We signed five players basically virtually and need to be willing to adapt,” Makubika said. “Navigating through these unprecedented times has been a challenge. But we’re taking it day by day.”

Makubika became the associate head coach last year.

“I was very thankful to get that promotion and recognition,” Makubika said. “I’m at a great place. Every day is a charm. I feel lucky, blessed and fortunate to have been around very good people.”

Among them is Mike Donnelly, the head coach at Florida Southern. It was Donnelly who hired Makubika, first at Post University as a volunteer, and then he brought him to Southern Connecticut to join his staff for five seasons.

They moved on to Florida Southern after the 2015 season.

Makubika’s coaching career all started thanks to his high school coach at Holy Cross, Ed Generali, who made a call to Donnelly.

“I only hired Mike and gave him an opportunity because I received a phone call from coach Generali who spoke very highly of Mike,” Donnelly said. “I have always admired coach Generali, so his endorsement of Mike really sealed the deal for me to give him a shot.”

What stood out in Makubika’s interview?

“What stood out was his intelligence and passion for the game of basketball,” Donnelly said. “Mike was a young and local guy who had a lot of energy and a very charismatic and engaging personality. He’s an impossible guy not to like, and I felt that those special qualities he possessed would be very beneficial in recruiting, but it would also mesh well with my own personality as well. Mike proved himself to be extremely hard working, loyal, smart, organized and really cared about the success of our program. It was evident that his strengths were not necessarily my strengths, so when I had the opportunity to take over the program at Southern Connecticut, I did not even consider interviewing anyone else for the assistant position. Mike was my only consideration.

Florida Southern associate head coach Mike Makubika, a Naugatuck native, cuts down a net after the team won the Sunshine State Conference championship in 2020. -COURTESY OF FLORIDA SOUTHERN

“Looking back, I’m very fortunate that he has been with me over the last 12 years.”

When Makubika was an undergraduate at Central Connecticut State, he became the team manager to stay involved with the game for then head coach Howie Dickenman.

“Howie gave me an opportunity, and looking back, I’m glad I did that,” Makubika said.

After two years at Central, Makubika transferred to Syracuse University to complete his undergraduate degree, when he also became a team manager for the Orange, and worked closely with then assistant coach Mike Hopkins, now the head coach at the University of Washington.

“I saw Mike Hopkins’ energy and the way he approached every day,” Makubika said. “He’s a player’s coach and that was something I wanted to emulate. He is very loyal. I saw that infectious energy and passion every day. That captured my eye. I wanted to help people and be involved like he was.”

As a role player at Holy Cross, Makubika was a high-energy guy and the ultimate teammate. He has used those qualities as a coach.

“I bring enthusiasm and am able to get players to be ready for the game,” Makubika said. “I’m able to be a positive voice and a shoulder to lean if they need it.”

After Makubika graduated at Syracuse with a master’s degree in high education, he caught a break with Donnelly, who taught him the ropes of recruiting and everything in between.

“I remember the first day we talked on the phone, we met the next day and the rest is history,” Makubika said. “Mike and I are co-workers, but we’re also like family. We’ve spent a lot of time together over the years. Every day, I enjoy the journey of coaching and recruit good guys.”