Not An X Or O

I was really fortunate to spend 28 years coaching college women’s basketball at two different schools.  During those first years, it was my impression that any success or failure depended on an understanding of the X and O’s of the game.

One of the new hot defenses back when I started at Doane College in 1986 was a match-zone defense.  I bought every book and read every article I could about match-up zones.  The more I read, the more confused I became.

What I was reading reminded me of a college geometry course I had struggled to pass.  The proofs of “if this, then that” seemed like the core of a match-up zone defenses, just like geometry proofs.  I would hear coaches talk about what a great match-up zone defense certain coaches ran.  I had watched their teams play and I never realized they were match-up zone gurus.

The day I realized that only the really elite minds could teach all the complicated rules of a match-up zone defense came with a phone call.  A coach I knew a little called me and was saying nice things about our zone defense.  After a couple of minutes, he asked if I could send him drills for our match-up zone.  I had no idea I was running a match-up zone.  That was the moment that I realize coaches were compensating for their lack of understanding of that defense.

Soon after I became the head coach at Doane College, one of the Nebraska college women’s coaches reached out to welcome me to the club.  That coach was Ken Rhodus, the women’s coach at Hastings College.

You would never find a coach like Ken today.  Ken had a second job at the college.  He wasn’t just a professor, although I think he taught a class or two every semester.  Ken was the Dean of Students at Hastings College.  He also was one of the most genuine people I ever met.

My teams really struggled to win those first three years at Doane College.  Ken’s Hasting College team was one of the top teams in the league every year.  He never had a down year.  I thought I was swamped at Doane College, teaching a few math classes.  I had no idea how Ken could develop a winning basketball program while leading the student body at Hastings.

I talked a lot to Ken those first three years.  He took his team on some great trips.  His team would travel over the Christmas break every few years to Europe.  It was just like that match-up zone defense, I had no idea how to go about setting up a great trip for our players.

What made Ken different than those supposed match-up zone defense coaches is he knew what he was talking about.  The great thing about Ken was he was willing to share.  He showed me how to fund-raise and put me in touch with the man who could set up the Europe schedule.

During my third year, I was ready to take the dive into major travel for my team.  With the help of the company Ken told me about, I set up a 10-day trip into Germany and Belgium.  Not everything went smooth, but Doane College women’s basketball was ready to take adventures into foreign countries.

Ken had limitless energy.  One of his really successful fund-raisers was a haunted field over Halloween.  His team set up scare stations on a route through an abandoned outdoor movie theater.  His women’s team had Hastings youth scared to death and they had money to travel.

Hastings College was much more than just a team that took a lot of trips.  Ken could really recruit.  I don’t remember a single player that Ken and I both recruited where I won the recruiting war.  It was never truer than with a high school power-house, Sandy Creek.

Russ Ninemire, the head girl’s coach at Sandy Creek, always brought his team to my team camp.  Sometimes, he would bring them to more than one camp during the summer.  I had a great relationship with Russ and his players.  It didn’t matter.  If Ken wanted one of the Sandy Creek players, he got them.

It just wasn’t true at Sandy Creek, either.  There was one great player at Sutton that I lost to Creighton.  At the time, I thought I had finally got the upper hand on Ken for a kid he was recruiting, but neither of us was able to land her.

After one year at Creighton, one of Creighton player’s best friends told me she was going to leave Creighton and transfer to Doane.  She had a great visit after the basketball season and was ready to sign, but first she had promised a visit to Hastings just to make her parents happy.  I could tell I was in trouble.

When she didn’t immediately sign, I knew she was re-thinking her decision  Finally, after a couple of nervous weeks, she announced she was headed to Hastings College.  Ken had pulled it off again.

Ken gave me more help than just on travel for my team.  He taught me how to recruit.  He must have left something out, because I could never get the best of him.  Despite the intense recruiting rivalry, Ken and I became great friends off the court.

If you were anywhere with Ken, it was almost impossible to buy a drink or a meal.  He had a cabin near large lake in western Nebraska and invited me out there several times.  I even took some of my players to his cabin when we had basketball camps in the area.

Ken had great basketball teams, too.  His teams won three conference titles after winning the recruiting battle for the Creighton player.  He made several trips to the NAIA National Tournament.

I also learned how to treat my players off the court from the Hastings head coach.  Ken taught me how to treat them as adults, but still hold them accountable.  I never saw a coach with such a good relationship with his players.

Times were changing, though.  Almost all schools had coaches that only had coaching duties.  Coaches like Ken, the Dean of Students, were becoming very rare.  Also, Ken was getting close to the time to retire.  Like with most things Ken did, he did it with class and to the benefit of Hastings College.

Ken hired a new assistant coach.  It was Tony Hobson, a very successful junior college coach and a Hasting College graduate.  Everyone knew that Tony would take over the head coaching duties after one year as an assistant coach.

Tony, now the Ft. Hays head women’s coach, was a great pick to follow Ken at Hastings College.  He helped recruit a couple of great players, but the bulk of his first team were Ken’s recruits.

During Tony’s first year, Hastings College won the NAIA II National Championship.  Ken never missed a game and never took any credit for Tony’s success on the court.  It might have been Ken’s greatest accomplishment in coaching and he wasn’t even on the sideline to enjoy it.

Ken ad I are both long gone from the coaching ranks.  Ken and his wife Jane are always traveling somewhere or enjoying their grandkids.  I’m not sure anyone could have a friendship like I had with Ken and still battle each other tooth and nail in today’s game.  When I think about Ken, I realize that coaching is a lot more than X and O’s.