December 31, 2005

Positivity: College Coach, #1 on Wins List, Does It Right

Filed under: Positivity — Tom @ 7:10 am

Chances are you haven’t heard of him (Harry who?), which is just fine, as far as he’s concerned (but we need more like him in all walks of life):

College hoops’ biggest winner

LEBANON, Ill. — Walking down St. Louis Street, it is apparent this is the type of town where Harry Statham would be found coaching basketball. The two-block main drag includes a barbershop, a dentist’s office and the chamber of commerce, but no McDonald’s.

You can get a beer at Brewers or Ron’s Lounge and a banana split at Dr. Jazz Soda Fountain & Grille, but don’t look for coffee at any Starbucks.

Most important, being 26 miles east of St. Louis, it is just outside the limelight.

A unique coach needs a unique town.

And the McKendree College coach is a singular act.

As in No. 1.

Statham (STATE-um) has modeled his teams the last 40 years on the up-tempo offense and aggressive defensive style of Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky teams.

“I liked that as a young kid so I incorporated it,” said Statham, 68, a native of Brookport, Ill., on the Kentucky border. “More good shots win. I am very conscious of shot selection. Go down. Attack. Get something good.”

Only two men have won more basketball games at four-year colleges than Rupp’s 876.

North Carolina’s Dean Smith won 879.

Statham is 903-351 at the NAIA school, where enrollment is 1,500 and a ticket is $3 for general admission or $5 for a reserved seat.

Rupp and Smith are two of the most famous coaches in any sport. Outside of basketball junkies and almost everyone in Lebanon, Statham has achieved his records with no spotlight.

The McKendree coach has a word to describe that phenomenon: Perfect.

For Statham, the best of all worlds would be for his team to continue to win and for nobody to talk about him.

“It is not a ‘me’ thing,” says Todd Reynolds, vice president of student affairs. “He will go out of his way to defer his personal achievements to everyone else. It is always about somebody else. Of course, everybody knows Harry has done remarkable work on his own.”

Kent Zimmerman, the radio voice of McKendree basketball, said Statham was “almost dreading what was about to happen” when he broke Smith’s record.

“But when it finally did happen, he kind of realized the significance of being the winningest coach in college basketball,” Zimmerman says. “I hope he was able to appreciate that a little bit.”

Former broadcaster Bruce Veach says: “Every game has equal meaning to him. The only difference was after 900 we ate cake.”

….. His only contradiction is to be presumptuous enough to think he knows what it takes to mold players into winners. And then, when it turns out he’s right, he is surprised that anyone — say, Smith — would notice.

“I figured he probably didn’t know who we were,” Statham says about receiving a phone call from the man whose record he broke. “We talked for about a half-hour. Then he wrote me a nice note. He was very gracious.”

A McKendree lifer

In 1966, Statham, who spent five years as a high school coach, came back to his alma mater for “a few years” in hopes of ultimately landing “a really good high school job” where he could win a state title.

Four decades later he is the college’s athletics director, the basketball court bears his name and his teams win at a milestone rate.

In 2002, his team was 34-4 and advanced to the NAIA Final Four, the school’s best finish. In his first 39 seasons, his teams have finished with a losing record once, in 1983-84 when the Bearcats were 18-19.

“Harry never got DI-ized,” Veach says about why Statham never moved to a larger school. “He found a level that fit him and stayed 40 years. You can see the genuine affection he had for his kids, and some are 60 years old now.”

James Dennis, president of McKendree, knows the impact of intercollegiate sports, having spent 27 years at Southern California, where he was vice president of student affairs. He marvels at Statham’s accomplishments but chooses to praise his style.

“He is the kind of coach I would want my sons to play for,” Dennis says. “The record speaks for itself. How he has done it is what I would want to convey.”

Early success did lead to thoughts of bigger jobs. But after 15 years at McKendree, Statham knew he was a lifer.

“He was happy doing what he was doing. For some people, you don’t need to do anymore than that,” Zimmerman says.

….. As the PA announcer for 15 seasons, the Rev. Louis Youngs, who drives 124 miles one way to attend games, has had a front-row seat to watch Statham and his players interact.

“It is amazing how he can relate to these guys,” Youngs says. “He becomes almost a father figure to them. I think he has been able to bridge any generational gap.”

Always a team game

….. His players rave about his personal reach off the court.

“He made me a better human being,” says Fischer, who is a management and marketing major. “I was a shy guy, and he taught me how to become a man. These five years are probably the best five years of my life.”

Even after 40 years they remember the lessons taught.

“It’s neat as a young man to see someone who has that type of integrity,” Funkhauser says. “He has certain principles that he adheres to. He lives a life of grace. I think there is a lot of John Wooden in Coach Statham.”

Their devotion is shown by the number of players who return for games and how they are quizzical when asked how a 68-year-old man can still recruit 17- and 18-year-olds.

“Why would you not want to play for a coach who has proved over his many years that he has the ability to blend players and to make them better?” says Dennis Korte, who played on Statham’s first team in 1966.

“You couldn’t play for a better person, someone who will treat you with respect and when you are gone will still be concerned about you.”

Although no one can fathom McKendree basketball without Statham, the coach is clear that he won’t need to be asked to leave.

“I like to succeed, I like for things to go my way,” he says. “I like to play my style. I like my teams to play together. That is fun.

“When it comes to the point where I can’t get players to play for me, that I can’t win games, I can’t recruit and it’s no fun, I’ll walk out, and I’ll walk out quickly.”

Right by his side

LEBANON, Ill. — Rose Statham does not stand behind her husband, Harry.

She stands right next to him.

“His best decision was when he said, ‘I do,’ ” says Woody Derickson, a friend of the Stathams for four decades. “She is the backstop. She is the strength. They are a great team.”

The Stathams have no children — but hundreds of kids.

No player or anyone connected to the McKendree team talks about the longtime coach without slipping in a compliment about his wife.

“Rose plays a big part in this,” says Paul Funkhauser, one of Statham’s first players and a former assistant. “She is the soft side that he doesn’t expose.”

McKendree President James Dennis adds: “There is no question Rose is an integral part of our basketball program. She is a gracious and wonderful lady.”

She prefers not to speak to the media. Although her husband is hesitant to talk about himself, he has plenty to say about his wife.

“She has been just a wonderful asset for me and McKendree,” Statham says. “It is amazing the insight wives have about things.”

Most might look at her as the den mother to the players and her husband’s social director, but Statham believes she is an underrated recruiter.

“Way back when, she would see a nice-looking kid and say, ‘Boy, I could watch him for four years.’ Now she says, ‘He’s not quick enough’ or ‘He’s not a good enough shooter.’ She is usually right,” Statham says.


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