Loyalty

Dave Grothen and Jim Moore.  Not big in names in the coaching ranks.  Both were head girls’ coaches in Nebraska, but both left coaching to either concentrate on administration or classroom education.  They didn’t leave because they were poor coaches.  It was just the course they wanted to take.

Dave Grothen and Jim Moore were big names in the coaching ranks to me.  They were my assistant coaches and most importantly, they were very loyal.  Head coaches just can’t function unless their assistant coaches have their backs.

That was never truer than in December of 1982.  Dave, Jim and I had a real good girls’ basketball team at Wilber-Clatonia High School.  We had a scare at Diller High School that December night.

Larry Shoof, a crafty coach at Diller, had thrown a triangle and two defense on our two all-state post players, Angie Miller and Penny Thompson.  It was pretty close at halftime and Angie and Penny both were in foul trouble.  What was saving us was our defense.  Diller just couldn’t score either.

I started four seniors and one of the seniors was having a poor shooting night, so I put in a junior, Ginger Zajicek.  Ginger was probably good enough to start but she was more valuable coming off the bench.  This night she threw in 12 second half points and we won going away.

The benched senior, Robin Broz, had a father that wasn’t happy I had benched her in favor of the junior despite the fact we had won the game.  After the game, he had Dave and Jim cornered, reading them the riot act.  Both stood their ground.  Both were very loyal to the program.  When I broke up the heated discussion, the father told me he would have Robin quit.  Thankfully, Robin knew better.  She didn’t quit and started all of the rest of the games, including the state championship game, which she scored the first points with a 20-foot jump shot in a 26-point win.

Two years later, I was at Doane College.  The first three years at Doane were tough times, losing more games than we won.  In year three, I hired a new assistant coach.  Her name was Karen Downing.  She was the wife of the Nebraska freshmen football coach, Scott Downing.  She found out early in the year she was expecting the couple’s first baby.

Karen had plenty of reasons to desert that team loaded with freshmen that thought they were smarter than the coaches.  They had all come from winning programs and that year we only won 10 games.  Karen’s loyalty never waived.  At the end of the year, she suggested I ask certain players not to come back.

She was right.  The next year we won 24 games and never won under 20 games for the 12 seasons.  She only was my assistant that one year, but to me she was as big of part of all those wins as anyone.

After Karen, I was blessed with several one-year assistant coaches that not only were good basketball coaches but loyal and smart.  I couldn’t have had the successes I experienced if not for Stacy Imig, Pam Fiene, Paul Reichers, Kim Crider, Dennis Nelson, John Moody and Tracee Uldrich.  I’m sure I left someone out and I apologize.  They all were very loyal.

In 1999, I moved to Northwest Missouri State University.  After observing the talent on the floor, I knew it would be tough to win that first year.  I could now hire a full-time assistant.  After interviewing several people, it was pretty obvious that Angie Griffith was the best choice.

What she did for me at Northwest is what Karen Downing did for me at Doane. That first year, we were 4 – 4 at Christmas, then promptly lost 18 games in a row.  That was a tough stretch of conference losses.  Angie and I both knew the only way to turn things around was through recruiting.  I never had an assistant hit the road so hard in search of talent.

Angie assisted me for two years, then health problems forced her to limit her role at Northwest to running the Fitness Center.  Angie Christensen picked up the slack and had one good year, despite not having a great won/loss season.

After Angie left during the summer, I decided to take a chance on assistants.  I had hired Lori Hopkins as my graduate assistant earlier in the spring.  I promoted her to assistant even though she was a graduate student.  I was allowed to hire another graduate assistant.  I struck gold when I found Jenny Putnam.

Those two were fantastic as we began to turn the program around.  All three of us knew their second year would be our program’s turning point.  Lori was now my full time assistant, but I lost Jenny to her college coach.  Robin Pingeton asked Jenny to become her assistant coach at Illinois State.  Now both of them are leading the highly successful Missouri women’s basketball team.

I couldn’t have asked for a better assistant coach than Lori.  She was able to put up with me for eight years.  During that time, we won two MIAA championships, breaking a 20-year drought.  We also qualified for three NCAA II Tournaments, mostly due to Lori’s tireless recruiting.

She turned to administration just before our 2011 Final Four team, but her mark was on the team.  It was her constant encouragement that led to an amazing transformation of Gabby Curtis.  The guard was just average as a junior but became the program’s only NCAA II first team, All American in 2011.

Some of these assistants had great minds for X’s and O’s.  John Moody, never a head coach, was the best example of a great basketball mind.  He devised a press break that helped defeat a 37 – 0 team in the National Elite Eight game.

Some of these assistants were great with the players.  They took the pressure off me when the players needed an extra pat on the back or kick in the butt.  Most players find it easier to talk to an assistant coach.

There was one thing all these coaches had in common.  They were very loyal.  I had a smart and loyal graduate assistant by the name of Addae Houston.  He came to me from the men’s team and was there for the Final Four team.

I bring up Addae because Austin Meyer is beginning his first year as the head women’s coach at Northwest Missouri State.  He was a men’s assistant and had all the great qualities I mentioned for an assistant.  Now he has Addae and they will bring women’s basketball back to prominence in a big hurry.  All it takes is loyalty.