Higher math at TRCC

Saturday, February 11, 2006

He's won more games than anyone in the history of college basketball.

Someday, probably sooner rather than later, he'll get his 1,000th career victory. That's exactly 1,000 more wins than Gene Bess ever thought he would have.

In the spring of 1969, after suffering a controversial and heartbreaking loss in the finals of the Class M state tournament, then Oran High School coach Bess made a decision.

"I had all that I wanted of high school basketball," Bess recalled. "I was prepared to go into administration. I was going to be a principal.

"I spent a lot of time praying because I didn't want to become a principal."

Bess never became a principal.

Instead, Three Rivers Community College basketball coach Bob Cradic asked Bess to become an assistant on his staff. When Cradic left the Poplar Bluff campus one year later to become the head coach at Southeast, Bess became the new man in charge of the Raiders program.

"It was an answered prayer," Bess said. "I've been thankful every since."

So have Three Rivers fans.

Since taking over as head coach in the fall of 1970, Bess has put staggering numbers: 998 career victories and two national junior college championships. No one, not Dean Smith (879 career wins), nor Pat Summitt (903 and counting), can match Bess's output.

The former math major at Southeast Missouri State has an appreciation for numbers; a nice round figure like 1,000 has even impressed this humble coach.

"I have usually tried to be low key to the whole thing," Bess said, "but the numbers now are starting to be extremely significant."

Gene Bess has spent his entire life in Southeast Missouri.

Growing up on a farm outside Oak Ridge, he used to tag along with his father to watch area basketball games.

"I watched a lot of basketball growing up," Bess said. "My dad went all over -- Jackson, Cape, we watched those great Puxico teams."

Bess played basketball for Oak Ridge, but his playing days ended after high school.

"I was probably average," he said, "but I played a lot."

While his father, Hobson, turned him on to the game he would turn into a career, it was his mother, Maude, that pushed him to continue his education.

"My dad wanted me to stay and inherit the family farm," Bess said.

Mom's argument carried the day. After Bess graduated from Southeast Missouri State in 1957, he started coaching at Lesterville that fall. He's been coaching ever since.

That's a total of 49 years in the profession -- 48 of them as a head coach. To go along with 998 victories at the junior college level, Bess won 250 games as a high school coach -- for a career average of roughly 26 victories a year for almost a half-century.

A reporter once asked Bess when his last losing season was. It took him a few second to answer. "1962 ... in Anniston," he was quoted as saying.

Bess left Lesterville after two years to become the head coach at Anniston. It was during his time at the Mississippi County school that two important elements of his life converged -- faith and family.

He met future wife Nelda, a Charleston native, and became a Christian.

"I got married down there and started going to my wife's church with her," Bess said.

When Anniston merged with Charleston, he was offered the head coaching job of the Bluejays program. He turned it down and departed for Oran. In his fifth and final season at Oran, he led an undefeated Eagles team to the state finals against Dixon. That ballgame in March of 1969 may be the most famous -- and most infamous -- in Southeast Missouri history.

With 12 seconds to go in the game and trailing by two points, Oran's Fred Johnson was fouled and went to the free throw line. He made his first shot to cut the lead to one point. Johnson never got the second shot off. Official Gene Barth, who went on to referee in the NFL, penalized Johnson for taking too much time at the line. Oran lost the game 76-74.

Memories of that game are still vivid.

"As far I was concerned, it was a horrible call," Bess said.

It's a legacy that's stuck with the coach and player (now Sikeston's girls basketball coach) ever since.

"We got more ink out of that than if we had won it," Bess said.

That game ended Bess's career at the high school level.

The pain of that final game soon was overshadowed by a tragedy in his personal life.

It was June of 1969. Gene and wife had two small children -- daughter Janelle and 17-month-old son Garron.

One day, their son locked himself in the bathroom and turned on the hot water faucet. Nelda had to get help from a neighbor to rescue the child.

"By the time the neighbors had broken the door down and got through a window in the bathroom, he was hanging on the basin and that hot water was flowing over onto him on the front of his stomach," Bess said. "He only lived about a day after that. He had massive burns on over 50 percent of his body."

Garron suffered febrile convulsions and later had a grand mal seizure. It wasn't the first time the young boy had locked himself in the bathroom.

"He had gotten in there once before and locked himself in. My wife talked him into unlocking it," Bess recalled. "I knew I needed to take that lock off, and I didn't."

Those haunting memories lingered as the coach made the transition to Poplar Bluff.

"That was the most difficult thing that you could ever go through," Bess said. "I had a tough year my first year over here."

A tough first year was followed by a new opportunity.

Cradic departed for Cape Girardeau and the coaching position at Southeast. Bess remembers competing for the Three Rivers position against a crowded field.

"There sure were a lot of people who wanted the job," Bess said. "I'm indebted to Bob Cradic and the president of the college for giving me that opportunity."

His first team went 27-10 and finished fourth in the junior college national tournament. His teams have made it back to the tournament 12 more times, including the 1979 and 1992 national championship squads.

His 2005-06 edition of the Raiders will be his 36th straight team with a winning record.

It's a different game at the junior college level than when Bess first arrived.

"When I first took the job here, I got all the good Southeast Missouri players and we could compete," Bess said. "It was kind of a well-kept secret."

No doubt aided by Bess's success, that soon began to change.

"The four-year schools started wanting my guys, and then they started moving in on the potential freshmen that I was getting so I had to branch out," Bess said.

What began as an annual recruiting effort in one corner of the state is now a global enterprise.

"We had to have what I call the 'national/international' recruiting philosophy," Bess said. "We just have to go where the players are."

That has led Bess and his staff to Eastern Europe and Africa in recent years. He recalls one particularly frustrating trip to Nigeria in the mid-1990s.

"I spent eight days over there. I had two guys coming out of there; the two best kids in Lagos -- 6-[foot]-8 and 6-9 -- and couldn't get them out," Bess said. "All of a sudden, [the government] just tightened things up and wouldn't let them out."

Junior college teams can have four international players on their roster. That's the goal Bess sets for his team each year.

"We're allowed four international kids, so we try to keep four international kids because we can get a better athlete there than we can get over here," he said.

Bess is aided in his recruiting efforts by his two assistants, both former players: Dominic Okon from Nigeria, and Brian Bess, the coach's son who was born in 1971.

Brian Bess played for his father at Three Rivers from 1989 to 1991.

Father and boss is effusive in his praise.

"He has just been such a help, such a blessing to me," Gene Bess said. "My other assistant, Dominic Okon, just a super person. I've never had it so good as I have it right now."

Bess is coach, athletic director and teacher. He's a deacon in the First Baptist Church. With his wife, two kids and four grandchildren, he has well-established roots at Three Rivers.

But more than once, Bess has confronted tempting offers that made him ponder his future in Poplar Bluff.

He remembers the time Norm Stewart and the University of Missouri came calling. Stewart wanted Bess to be his assistant after watching Three Rivers battle Moberly's Mitch Richmond, who went on star at Kansas State and the NBA.

"He couldn't believe the job that I had done with pretty average talent," Bess said. "He said if he lost one of his assistants, he was going to hire me. I was honored by that."

Stewart's assistant coach didn't leave, and the offer never materialized.

But the one offer that really gave Bess pause to consider the possibility of a larger stage was Southwest Missouri State back in 1980.

"The AD called me and said I didn't act like I wanted it," Bess said. "I was kind of relieved I didn't get it. A month later, I wished I had gone at it.

"Ideally. you need to move up. That was probably as close as I ever came to leaving here."

Dave Porter was the high school basketball coach at Poplar Bluff at that time. The two teams shared a gym back then.

"Gene's ego didn't demand the highest levels," Porter said. "He didn't need to be called a D-I coach. He just needed to be called coach."

Porter left Poplar Bluff for St. Louis in 1985, and has coached at Lafayette High School ever since. The Caruthersville native has compiled more than 550 victories in his coaching career. He was deeply influenced by his time observing Three Rivers' practices and games.

"The thing that helped me the most was the eight years of watching Gene Bess doing his magic," Porter said. "He's one of the best coaches ever -- at all levels. One of the greatest sins, educationally, is that Gene Bess has never written a book."

That book would include chapters on all the great players that have come through Bess's program over the years: University of Alabama and NBA player Latrell Sprewell, Mizzou's Marvin "Moon" McCrary and Kansas State's Anthony Beane to name just a few.

It would also feature the Bess coaching tree -- prominent on high school basketball courts every winter in Southeast Missouri. Notre Dame's Paul Hale, Kelly's Cory Johnson, Kennett's Sam Weaver and New Madrid Central's Lennies McFerren all played for Bess at Three Rivers.

"Everything I learned about the game of basketball, I learned from Gene Bess or Coach Bess," said McFerren, whose teams at Charleston won nine state championships. "I don't call him Gene Bess. He's always Coach Bess, you know. I see a lot of coaches that I respect, but as far as an influence, he is the only one."

That influence extends beyond the court.

"We have great expectations of our players," Bess said. "We try to deal really closely with them. We try to make them understand we love them even though sometimes we don't treat them like their mother would."

The daily regimen includes weight training. Bess has employed it since his earliest coaching days. He got the idea while attending college from future Southeast baseball coach Joe Uhls.

"He convinced me that strength goes right along with quickness," Bess said.

In addition to the countdown to 1,000 victories, one of the capstones to his long career will come this weekend. Bess will be inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame on Sunday.

When the names of other honorees are mentioned -- including St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa and former Kansas State football coach Bill Snyder -- the coach's face lights up and he flashes a broad smile.

"I'll be in tall cotton," he said.

Gene Bess, the son who chose college over the family farm, has been in tall cotton for a very long time.

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