It’s one of those great stories that sticks with you. Years and years ago, when they both were in the NAIA, rivals William Jewell and Rockhurst were playing a best two-of-three conference basketball tournament that would decide which team would go to the NAIA national tournament.
One of Rockhurst’s best players was a senior All-American and 1964 NAIA tournament Hustle Award winner named Ralph Telken, who was a tenacious defender. Crazy might be a better word. Telken wore goggles and always had a crazy look on his face to match his flailing arms and legs when he defended.
Early in this game with William Jewell, Homer Drew was inbounding the ball for the Cardinals to a freshman reserve guard, who was about 5-feet-9 and 140 pounds. As soon as the Jewell player received the ball from Drew, he turned around and there was Telken, all over him “like a cheap suit,” as my dad used to say in our driveway games.
“I think I peed my pants,” the freshman guard said more than 40 years later. “I threw the ball right back (to Drew) because I knew that if I kept it, Ralph was going to take it away from me. He scared me to death.”
On Thursday night, that freshman reserve guard, Larry Holley, became just the 10th coach in men’s college basketball history to win 900 games, when his William Jewell Cardinals won 80-65 at home against – you guessed it – the rival Rockhurst Hawks.
Even before Thursday, calling Larry Holley legendary would be an understatement. That’s like saying Elvis is just another singer. Or pizza with Canadian bacon and pineapple is just another slice of pie. Holley, who’s in his 39th season coaching at William Jewell, is in five Halls of Fame: the Greater Kansas City Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame, the Missouri Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame, the William Jewell College Athletic Hall of Fame, the NAIA Hall of Fame and the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame.
As impressive as all of that, during his time at William Jewell, 145 of Holley’s 151 fourth-year players have graduated. (For the mathematically challenged, such as me, that’s 96 percent. That’s light years beyond the average.)
See, Holley is one of those rare coaches who could be a poster child for any of the 10 Cs that make up our foundation: Care, Character, Coach, Commitment, Competitor, Composure, Comprehension, Concentration, Confidence and Courage.
So his reaction on the William Jewell radio broadcast after win number 900 shouldn’t be surprising.
“I didn’t make any of those points,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of great players and a lot of great assistant coaches. I’ve been so blessed to coach at my alma mater.”
900!!! 💯🔥💯🔥💯🔥💯🔥💯🔥💯🔥💯🔥💯🔥💯🔥 pic.twitter.com/8ClAajzATM
— Jewell Men’s Basketball ♦️🏀 (@JewellHoops) January 12, 2018
In 2011, when I was writing for a local sports TV station, Holley allowed me to sit in during a pregame talk with his team before their first game at the NAIA national tournament at Municipal Auditorium. I walked away thinking that if I were 20 years younger — and could actually play basketball — I would love to play for Holley. Besides knowing x’s and o’s, it was obvious that he had a genuine care for his players.
“Play your best and whatever happens, so be it,” he closed the talk to his last William Jewell team to play in the NAIA national tournament. (Jewell moved to the NCAA the next season.) “I’m proud of you. I’m proud to be your coach. … We have a special group here. Now let’s go see what happens.”
I’ve had a chance to sit in numerous times as a coach delivered a pregame or postgame talk to his or her team. Many of them sound similar, but the delivery is different. Holley sounded more like a wise father sending his son off to college or for the first day on the job.
This year’s William Jewell team is off to a great start, perhaps its best since moving to the NCAA. Thursday’s win moved the team to 14-2 overall. Who knows what’ll happen during the next two months, but we do know this: Larry Holley’s demeanor will remain the same. Oh, he’ll fired up for good or bad, or both, but he’ll continue to love his players and want to do what’s best for them on and off the court. For coaches like Holley, it’s not about reaching 900 wins. It’s about how he’s developing his players into men of character who’ll do good things after school. That’s how coaches reach 900 wins.
Incidentally, how did that best two-of-three tournament in 1964 turn out between the Cardinals and Hawks?
“I will say that we took them to overtime in the first game,” said Holley. “The second game, they had their way with us, and then they beat us again and went to the NAIA national tournament, which they won.”