It seems like a long time ago, but this Wednesday marks exactly one year to the day that our women’s basketball team clinched their first ever MIAA regular season championship. This year hasn’t exactly gone by the script I wanted to write for my Bearcat team. A few people have asked me if this is the toughest year I’ve had in coaching.
I can honestly answer them that it’s not even close. Despite our record and the failures of this season, I’ve had a really great group of players. Of course, it hasn’t been all smooth sailing. No one could expect that when you don’t achieve your goals. For the most part, the players have hung in and I will shoulder the blame.
After Saturday’s loss to Central Missouri at Bearcat Arena, I threw on a pair of jeans and headed for West Nodaway High School in Burlington Junction. My son, Sam, was participating in a sixth grade tournament. There’s nothing like licking your wounds while watching your sixth grader trying to set screens on kids twice his size. Sam can embellish charges and shoves as well as anyone. The trouble is the officials usually don’t buy it.
I hoped no one would recognize me and ask the question asked the most the past couple of months, “What has happened to your girls this year?’’ I was ready to pay my $3 admission when a nice lady taking the money asked if I coached the Northwest women’s team. I pled guilty and waited for the obvious. She looked up and asked how the season was going and I admitted it wasn’t the most successful.
I had never met this woman, I have no idea what her name was, and I didn’t see her again in my four hours in the Rocket’s gym. However, what she said next made me want to send her flowers. Her words were something to the effect of, “I have seen what you have done and I’m sure good things are in the future.” Burlington Junction just became my favorite small town, next to my home town of Clatonia, anyway.
Those words made me think back to the toughest season of my college coaching career and the person that helped me survive in the coaching profession. The absolute toughest season was the 1987-88 basketball campaign at Doane College. It marked my third year of collegiate coaching and almost my last.
My first couple years at Doane College were average at best. The first year, the Tigers barely finished over the.500 mark and the second year we crept below the .500 mark. I had a couple of really good players that combined volleyball and basketball. When they showed up in December, we became a fairly dangerous team. After that second year, I had what I considered a great recruiting class. My problem was they would all be freshmen.
Year three at Doane College was the first year I coached a college team with entirely my own recruits. There might have been one or two still hanging around from the team before I arrived, but all the significant playing time was owned by my recruits and most were in their first year.
My starters that year included four freshmen and one junior. The junior was my first ever recruit, Dena Gosch (Bartlett). Dena had to play point guard. She was a great shooter, but just wasn’t a point guard. We struggled all year trying to find some offense. I desperately needed a point guard and spend the entire recruiting season looking for one.
My assistant that year was Karen Downing. Karen was married to Scott Downing. At the time, Scott was the freshmen coach and an assistant coach at the University of Nebraska under Dr. Tom Osborn. Karen had been a player and agreed to help me at Doane for some huge sum of money, maybe $700. Karen and Scott didn’t have any children yet, but that was soon to change.
Karen and I tried our best to get our young team ready for tough NAIA competition. Little did I know that Karen had other things on her mind. Our first games of the season were in a tournament in Hastings, NE. I decided to save on a very small budget, so we stayed in a seedy motor lodge on the south end of Hastings. It was a throw-back type motel where you had to go through the front desk to make a call, even locally.
After pulling into the gravel parking lot and hearing a lot of objections from my team on my choice of lodging, I jumped out to check in. The old lady behind the desk took my college check. I found out earlier they didn’t take credit cards. She seemed put out that a rose had arrived for my assistant coach. Karen flushed a little, read the card, and started to shed a tear or two. The flower was from Scott and the message was short, “its positive.”
There were no home pregnancy tests on the market in 1987. Karen had visited a doctor before she left with the team and Scott had to pick up the results. Karen would spend the next six months bouncing all over the countryside with me and a very unhappy basketball team while getting ready for the birth of her first child.
We won 10 of 31 games, not counting a rough trip over Christmas. I had set up a Christmas trip to Europe and several parents were joining the team. We traveled to Amsterdam and various cities in Germany, playing games and touring a couple of countries, all in 10 days. It would have been a great trip, but the team was just too young and the team’s moral slipped very low.
After returning for the second semester schedule, one loss piled on another and a player revolt wasn’t out of the question. That’s where Karen came to the rescue. She must have gotten her degree in psychology. She kept my head above water, while being firm and positive with my immature team.
At the end of the year, Karen suggested I ask a few of the “bad apples” to leave the program. My first two individual meetings with the players were the two I asked to leave. I heard rumors of players wanting to transfer. However, now that they knew they might be asked to transfer, the opposite attitude prevailed. Not only did they all want to stay, but they went to work in the gym. I even let one of the two I had dismissed come back to the team.
That spring Karen left the program to have her first of three sons. Mathew was followed three years later by Andrew and three years after that, Zachary was born. Knowing Karen, that’s perfect family planning. Karen and Scott left Nebraska that year for Wyoming. Scott coached 10 years at Wyoming, followed the head coach to Purdue, all as an assistant. He came back to Nebraska under Bill Callahan. Osborn, now the athletic director, convinced Bo Pelini, the new Nebraska football coach, to keep Scott after Callahan was fired. Scott and Karen now live in Tulsa where Scott is the assistant head head coach at Tulsa.
I only have run into Karen once since that fateful 10-21 season. The following Christmas, I took my family to San Diego over Christmas break. Karen was in town with the Wyoming football team. They were playing in the Holiday Bowl. I wish Karen could have stuck around. The next year I got my point guard and we won 24 games. It might not have happened if not for Karen Downing.