Tony Coaxum remembers a moment in fall 1996 during his freshman year at West Point, he says fully embodies Jets special teams coach Ben Kotwica.
Coaxum, now the secondary coach at Army, was a member of the scout team and as he recalls it, the unit was having a bad day. A senior linebacker and captain, Kotwica ran over to the scout team and stuck his head in their huddle, and simply said, “Hey, let’s pick it up,” then jogged back over to the defensive side of the ball. The scout team looked at each other and according to Coaxum, responded with one of their best practices of the year.
“He never used to say much. He was a guy you always used to look up to. He commanded respect; you never wanted to disappoint,” Coaxum said. “I was on the scout team at the time, and going up against him, you never wanted to disappoint. Even now as a coach, it is still the same way, he still has those same attributes.”
Such is the way of Kotwica, a coach who has foregone the fire and bluster of many of his associates and instead shows a quiet and understated leadership forged by his time at West Point and in the Army, where he retired in 2005 with over seven years of military experience.
Being a loud, rah-rah guy has never been Kotwica’s style — not now and not when he was captain of the Black Knights. In his senior season, Army went 10-2, with their only losses to a Donovan McNabb-led Syracuse team and Auburn in their bowl game.
Kotwica was the quiet leader of the defense, but his actions spoke as loudly as any fire and brimstone speech in the locker room.
As a senior in high school outside of Chicago, Kotwica wanted to play Division I football while still pursuing a top education. With his father’s military background, the opportunity to play under head coach Bob Sutton — now defensive coordinator at the Chiefs — and have a career as an officer after graduation combined to create an appealing package for Kotwica.
He was a systems engineer in the military upon graduating in 1997 and spent a year as a graduate assistant coach at a military prep school. Then came flight school and assignments overseas in Bosnia-Herzegovina and in South Korea. He came back stateside in late 2003 and was assigned to the 1st Cavalry division at Fort Hood, Texas.
“There's a lot of emotions, a lot of check the block emotions during those 13 months. I hit a broad brushstroke of them during that time. Fortunately we were able to execute our mission,” Kotwica said. “The overall mission was to provide overall stability to the area. As an Apache helicopter pilot, we had a multitude of missions. We provided air reconnaissance and convoy security for the vehicles moving in and around the theater, to help interdict against IEDs [improvised explosive devices]. We provided air security as well.”
He saw action during his time of deployment in Iraqi Freedom, part and parcel of 1,000 hours of combat flight time. He was a natural leader, even in stiff combat.
“There were bullets going each way,” Kotwica said. “They were shooting at us, we were shooting at them.”
Kotwica returned to West Point for two years, then left the military and joined the Jets in 2007 as an assistant.
The past two seasons, he’s been a quality control coach on defense and special teams before becoming special teams coordinator this year, replacing the retired Mike Westhoff.
“He’s light at the right times and stern at the right times, when you need to kick it into gear,” linebacker and special teams player Nick Bellore said.
The members of the special teams unit chuckle a bit at “Kotwicaisms” — loosely defined as the blending of special teams language and the verbiage of the military. The other team is “the enemy” and he refers to things such as “exposures” which Bellore is “pretty sure that's a military term because I haven't heard that one from any other coaches before.”
“It helps that he can relate,” Bellore said. “He knows what we're going through — not only was he a player but he was also a leader, a leader of men in the military. He is a natural leader and that's very apparent.”
Follow Jets beat writer Kristian Dyer on Twitter @KristianRDyer.