William Jewell basketball coach Larry Holley’s Thursday began with teaching his class in fencing, which turns out not to require “our own tractor and posthole digger” as one of his would-be students once wondered.
“He puts as much passion into that as he does coaching,” said Darlene Bailey, the Jewell athletic director. “He’s truly a teacher.”
All through the day of the game against McKendree at the Mabee Center, Holley would cling to regimens in the making since 1969, when he became a 24-year-old head coach at Central Methodist.
After an afternoon of final preparations, same as always, he would go home to get gussied up in a suit laid out by his wife, Linda.
“I don't trust him to dress himself,” she said, laughing.
Yet this was no routine day for Holley, who entered the game with 852 career victories, and for McKendree coach Harry Statham, whose 1,077 wins coming in were the most of any coach in the history of four-year schools.
Add that up, and no two men’s four-year college basketball coaches ever had met with more wins between them.
“Thanks for dragging me into history,” Holley playfully told Statham earlier in the day as they stood on Larry Holley Court.
The duo came in with 10 more wins than the better-known combination of Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, who had 1,914 between them when they met earlier this month and have 1,919 now.
Reflective of the difference in the spotlight:
Hours before the game between the two schools that recently moved from the NAIA to NCAA Division II, Holley was explaining to Statham the maze of math he had gone through to verify the numbers on Wikipedia.
“Anyway, to cut to the chase, we’re 10 ahead of Krzyzewski and Boeheim,” Holley said, laughing.
The 76-year-old Statham jokingly chimed in: “We’re 10 better!”
And, Holley added, “The good news is somebody’s going to get a win tonight.”
It was William Jewell, 83-79.
Really, though, the good news is this:
These two true gentlemen honor their profession not merely with this fine heap of victories but with their infinite investments in their alma maters.
Over their 91 combined years as head coaches, they’ve touched the lives of, what, 1,500 players or more?
“It’s rare to see coaches at one institution for so long any more,” said Bailey, adding, “Sentimentally, that means a lot to me. They define the institution.”
Surely, they’d be better paid and better known if they had gone on to bigger schools. But that never was what moved either of them about coaching.
When Holley thinks about the meaning of his career, he brings up not the five Halls of Fame he’s in but the six weddings of former players he has been invited to this summer.
Sure, there were moments he wondered about the next level at times since taking over here in 1979 following six years as head coach at Central Methodist and two at Northwest Missouri State.
After all, he had only interviewed out of courtesy when Jewell asked him back.
But then it just felt too right.
Besides, he said, laughing, he was stuck after Kansas betrayed its heritage with Jewell.
That link goes back to being Jewell’s first collegiate basketball opponent, in 1899, and it included hiring then-Jewell coach W.O. Hamilton between Phog Allen’s stints and former Jewell coach Dick Harp to assist and then succeed Allen.
“So when Roy Williams left for North Carolina, I stayed by the phone. And I never got a call,” Holley said, laughing. “Still waiting on the call.”
More seriously, there was a time he was intrigued by the UMKC job.
But that came and went the more he became not just associated with William Jewell but enmeshed with it.
Through the years, Holley came to feel the same sense of fit in coaching here that he did in choosing to attend Jewell from the northwest Missouri village of Jameson (pop: 133 today) and a school so small that being “in the top 10 percent of my class” was the same as being valedictorian.
From Jameson, he was able to go to state high school competitions his senior year in basketball and track and with his trumpet and vocals and even poetry reading skills.
So he knew at a school the moderate size of Jewell, too, he could have more opportunities, not fewer.
He could be in athletics, but also in choir and pep band and be president of his fraternity. He could become who he was and pursue a well-rounded life that he believes is what he should be instilling as a coach.
It hasn’t always been simple.
At 9-13, Holley is on his way to a third straight losing season in the realignment to NCAA Division II after suffering only two in the previous 32. He had to contend with prostate cancer in 2008. And 2006 was endless trauma.
His first wife, Ann, died of acute respiratory distress syndrome. His “brother I never had” and top assistant, Lee Kariker, died from cancer. Barrett Wepler, a recruit from Liberty, collapsed and died.
From all this, somehow, Holley learned even more to appreciate what he does have. And he realized that he still has the say in how he views every day.
“I chose to look at it as 31 years with the love of my life who became my best friend, and how many people get 31 years with the love of their life and their best friend and have three marvelous children?” Holley said.
Those children, and then grandchildren, sustained him as he grieved his wife.
And Holley, who has remarried, kept a seat open next to him on his bench the next season to feel near Kariker, a poster-sized photo of whom still looms large in Holley’s office.
Also in the office is a wall of pictures of his Jewell teams, artistically aligned by his wife, Linda.
Looking over the panorama, he said, “Check out my hair styles. Good Lord: I had long hair, I have colored my hair, I have permed my hair, and then finally I cut it off.”
Spaces are allocated for frames through 2019.
“But,” he said, “we’ll see how far it goes.”
However far it does, there was a pause to remember on Thursday. It was just another day, yes, among the thousands that define a career and a life.