As his team’s lead slowly boiled down from eight to four to two points late in the second half Sunday at the Towson Center, the toothy, gray-headed, pigeon-toed Hofstra University basketball coach was a grimacing, gum-chewing, ref-baiting dervish.
His face grew redder, his voice taut. Bucknell students shouted at him in a manner you would not wish on your ex-wife’s divorce lawyer.
He endured that not because he needed the victory or the thrill, or because he had a point to prove. He is 64, old, a content grandfather, and this was the 29th game of his 35th season as a coach, including the years he coached Bill Bradley and Princeton to the Final Four, coached Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West and the Los Angeles Lakers to the National Basketball Association championship series, and, later, coached the girls team at a little Mississippi high school.
This is a man who could walk away from coaching with nary a regret, which, even he would admit, is an idea with some merit. Certainly, his patient, halfcourt style is an anomaly in the fastbreaking, three-pointing modern game. He also has trouble with an irregular heartbeat, most recently during a game 13 months ago. And if he walked away, he wouldn’t have to spend the winter in campus housing, as he has this season.
But at this point, no body of evidence is powerful enough to persuade Butch van Breda Kolff to retire. Sure, he will be the oldest Division I coach when Oregon State’s Ralph Miller retires after this season. Sure, he thinks about spending his winters crabbing and clamming off the Florida coast. (“It has to come to that sooner or later.”) But it is no use. Inside him somewhere is a driving, lively spirit that keeps him from doing it.
“You do what you like to do,” he said after the game Sunday, wearing the wry smile that governs his countenance away from the court. “This is fun. I like the game, the competition, being around kids. That keeps you young. When you come across good kids, that’s why I’m still here.”
Here, after all this time, is back where he started years ago, literally at the same schools, coaching before small crowds in little college gyms, waiting for bigger schools to recruit the best players so he can pick over what is left. He could be excused for longing for brighter lights, bigger cities and an occasional television timeout. But that is no longer the lure.
“I like this,” he said. “I like the other, too. You have to like the pros on the first and 15th (paydays). I liked (coaching) the girls, too. It’s all the same. The reward is teaching them a style and watching them learn it. Winning is important, but not as much as when I was younger. For me now it’s almost more important to see them playing well. Not that I don’t like to win once they are.”
Such was the lure of Hofstra, which was 6-21 a year ago. Van Breda Kolff arrived from Lafayette, where he developed a conference champion in four years, but was discouraged by the administration’s attitude toward athletics. “Majoring in mediocrity,” he called it, as blunt as ever.
Some thought that he was growing daffy with age, for he also had moved from Lafayette to Hofstra 33 years earlier, in the first of his many career changes (he has been hired 12 times, coached in three pro leagues, including one for women, and won 726 college and pro games). But he was not exercising some bizarre desire to duplicate his career decades later. He just needed a new challenge.
At Hofstra, he found one. He inherited the same players of 6-21 fame, minus the star, Frankie Walker, gone for the season with broken bones in his feet. The first practice was horrifying. “I thought we were in big trouble,” van Breda Kolff said.
As always, he applied his patient style. Modern players are accused of wanting to fastbreak and fastbreak only, but van Breda Kolff found players anxious to embrace his ways. “Why should they resist?” he said. “They were 6-21. And anyway, if you take the time to show them this way, they find it’s fun.”
The Flying Dutchmen, as they are known, lost six of their first nine games, steadied, then lost four in a row to fall to 7-13. Then they came together, winning six of their last seven regular season games and defeating Drexel in the first round of the East Coast Conference tournament Saturday at the Towson Center.
That brought them to Sunday’s semifinal with Bucknell, the ECC regular season champion. The Flying Dutchmen fell behind 17-4, but shot well and rallied. They took the lead before halftime and held it through much of the second half. Had they maintained it, they would have been one game from a National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament berth.
But Bucknell slowly bit into the lead, finally caught up in the last minute and forced overtime. The Flying Dutchmen hurried some shots, fell behind and lost. The season was over. Van Breda Kolff’s face was a portrait of dismay late in the game, but he smiled easily afterwards. After 35 years, no game is too galling.
“We lost a little discipline (at the end),” he said. “But it’s hard to be upset. The kids played like hell. They’ve come so far since October it’s unbelievable. I’m lucky to come to a new school and find such a good group. I feel bad for them (losing). Me, I’ve won a lot and lost a lot.”
After the recruiting season, he will spend his summer at his house on the Jersey shore, taking long walks on the beach in the morning. He has lost 30 pounds since his last episode of heart trouble, mostly from cutting out beer. “I might start jogging,” he said.
Unless a whim grabs him, he will be back in campus housing and back for another season in October. Frankie Walker should be healthy, and the notion of beating teams with patience in 1989 is the kind of challenge that keeps him interested. How long can he keep the fire lighted? “I don’t know,” van Breda Kolff said, “and I don’t care. I play everything by ear.”