Larry Holley could only laugh when asked after William Jewell’s 91-72 victory Feb. 1 against Missouri S&T if he’d considered donning a sweater vest for the game as an homage to former Army, Indiana and Texas Tech men’s basketball coach Bob Knight
Instead, Holley — who took over sole possession of ninth place on the all-time men’s college basketball coaching wins list, breaking a tie with Knight — wore his customary gray suit with a silver tie for win No. 903.
Still, Holley offered a proverbial hat tip to Knight.
“It’s taken me a lot more games to get to 903 than it did for him to get to 902, but that’s somebody I looked up to when I first started coaching,” said Holley, who’s never met Knight but absorbed a lot of lessons from his books “Let’s Get a Good Shot” and “Let’s Play Defense” as a young coach. “I don’t necessarily agree with all the things he’s done, in terms of throwing a chair or whatever, but the way his teams play and the way he gets his teams to play together and play smart, I love that style of play.”
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Holley, who reached an elite stratosphere for men’s basketball coaches Jan. 11 during a home win against Rockhurst in joining the 900-win club, has no illusion he’ll be remembered alongside Knight, Duke’s Krzyzewski or Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim.
That doesn’t make Holley’s journey — he’s in his 39th season coaching at his alma mater after brief stints at Central Methodist and Northwest Missouri State to start his career — any less remarkable.
“When the season’s over, I’ll probably reflect a little bit on it,” Holley said. “But it means I’ve been blessed with a lot of good players and a lot of great assistant coaches, certainly a supportive family and all the things that go into it.”
He’s also in the midst of a career renaissance.
Holley boasted a career .686 win percentage at Jewell (735-336) before the school’s transition from the NAIA to NCAA Division II in 2011-12.
It’s been a rough transition for the Cardinals — who’ve gone 64-95 (.403), including a 39-69 record (.361) in the Great Lakes Valley Conference, during those first six seasons at a more competitive (and expensive) level of play.
But this year Jewell, which improved to 17-5 overall and 7-5 in conference with its win against the Miners, is guaranteed its first winning season since moving into the NCAA.
“I’ve never coached a team like this,” Holley said of his guard-dominated roster and starting lineup, “… but it’s a marvelous group. We don’t have a lot of margin for error, especially at the defensive end, but when we’re clicking offensively and shooting the ball well it makes us a tough matchup for other teams.”
Traditionally, Holley’s been a basketball traditionalist, so he’s deploying a new playing style and bucking the adage about old dogs and new tricks.
“It’s been kind of fun watching video of Villanova and watching video of the Golden State Warriors, anybody that does a five-out (offensive system),” Holley said. “Certainly, we don’t play at that level, but I’ve just been trying to ideas on what to do when you have five guards on the floor.”
That’s not the only change for Holley, who exhibits more of a slow and steady burn on the bench now compared with his younger days.
“I may not get quite as excited,” Holley said with a deep, long laugh. “I’ve had a resurrection, so to speak.”
The Cardinals’ lead assistant, Jimmie Williams, does much of the barking at officials and players during games. He even delivers the message during some timeouts.
But Holley, 72, will drop to a knee during timeout huddles when he needs to deliver a particularly forceful message, cajoling the Cardinals about defensive lapses emphasized by rapid and demonstrative claps.
Still, these days he’s more likely to share a laugh with rather than glower at an official. He also held up the postgame handshake line to check on Missouri S&T’s Dulan Scott, who left the game late in the second half holding his shoulder.
Blessed with good health and buoyed by the program’s revitalization this season, Holley hasn’t ruled out the chase for 1,000 career wins either — though the appeal of his grandchildren’s rec-league games also holds a certain sway.
While Holley, who remains fourth on the Cardinals’ all-time list with 236 career steals, may not be as nimble as he was during his playing career at Jewell in the mid-1960s, he hasn’t lost much of a step in other respects.
The morning after breaking a tie with Knight for ninth on college basketball’s all-time list for coaching victories, Holley flew to Denver and drove 11 hours round trip on a recruiting visit in Wyoming.
“It’s still fun and we’ll see where this leads,” Holley said.