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Master at his Craft: Longtime Collinsville Middle School girls basketball coach retires

Greg Craft (center) with his Collinsville Middle School state-champion eighth-grade team in 2013.
Greg Craft (center) with his Collinsville Middle School state-champion eighth-grade team in 2013.

After 30 years and more than 600 victories as a girls basketball coach at Collinsville Middle School, formerly North Junior High, Greg Craft is calling it a career.

Craft, 55, retired in May as a science teacher and coach. More than anything, he will miss the relationships he’s built with players during the last three decades, and it’s that aspect of retirement that has Craft not ready to completely say good-bye.

“I would still like to coach, but I’m retired from Collinsville,” said Craft, a 1979 graduate of Collinsville High School. “When you retire from teaching, you also think you retire from coaching. But I would like to coach again somewhere else. Maybe a smaller school, most likely a private school.

“I’m enjoying my retirement for right now. It’s the first time in 30 years I haven’t had a basketball camp during the summer.”

Craft coached eighth-grade girls for 29 years after one year with seventh-grade girls. He opened his career as a teacher and coach at Prairie du Rocher after graduating from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

What I take from this is a lot of friendships from my girls. Most of them keep in contact with me, and I keep in contact with them. There’s a special bond between coaches and players that we really had at Collinsville Middle School.

Retired Collinsville Middle School girls basketball coach Greg Craft

Craft finished with a 605-206 record, a winning percentage of .746. Collinsville earned the Southern Illinois Junior High School Athletic Association state championship in 2013, finished second during the recently completed season and placed third in 2005, which was the first time the team competed in the state series. Previously, Collinsville was an independent.

Coaching, Craft said, was about much more than the wins and losses.

“What I take from this is a lot of friendships from my girls,” he said. “Most of them keep in contact with me, and I keep in contact with them. There’s a special bond between coaches and players that we really had at Collinsville Middle School. ... I always had good kids that worked hard.”

Among the hundreds of players of players Craft coached were Raven Berry, the fifth-leading scorer in the history of SIUE women’s basketball with 1,499 points, and Courtney Boyd, who as a senior at Wright State University in 2015 was one of five recipients of the Wilma Rudolph Student-Athlete Achievement Award.

The award recognizes student-athletes who overcome personal, academic and/or emotional odds to achieve success in the classroom while competing in intercollegiate athletics.

Craft said he always was blessed with quality assistant coaches, too, beginning with Rich Waller and continuing with Kelly Paarlberg, Toby Knutson, Eric Dettmer, Lisa LaFrank, Amanda Kirksey and Chris Davis.

Loving the game

Like most kids growing up in Collinsville in the 1960s and 1970s, Craft was exposed to basketball at a young age and immediately was hooked. Legendary coach Vergil Fletcher and his boys teams at the high school were hometown heroes to many.

“My mom and dad always used to take me to the games when I was little,” Craft said. “I just grew up around it. Then when I got to be in college, I minored in coaching and I enjoyed it. It just took off from there.”

Craft coached boys basketball one year at Prairie du Rocher, but gravitated toward coaching girls because he believed they worked harder and were more dedicated.

We used the Collinsville ball press, we played man-to-man defense and we did a read-and-react offense. We never ran an offensive play. We reacted to the defense, like a motion offense. You’ve got to give the control up to the kids then. A lot of coaches don’t like to give that control up.

Greg Craft

“They just seemed to have more fun,” said Craft, whose style proved to be a perfect complement. “We liked winning and everything, but that wasn’t the main thing. My main goal was to develop young ladies that could be outstanding citizens in the community.”

Craft was influenced by Fletcher.

“We used the Collinsville ball press, we played man-to-man defense and we did a read-and-react offense,” Craft said. “We never ran an offensive play. We reacted to the defense, like a motion offense. You’ve got to give the control up to the kids then. A lot of coaches don’t like to give that control up. They like to monitor everything that’s done on the court.

“You don’t have to be a dictator over these kids. Teach them how to react to a situation and they’ll learn it. Just let them go. That was a big part of my coaching philosophy.”

Battle of his life

Five years ago this week, Craft and his players were at a team camp in Greenville. Out of nowhere, Craft was unable to maintain his balance.

“I was walking, then tripping and falling,” he said. “Eventually, over the next couple of months, my legs started getting weaker and weaker and weaker. I went to Barnes Hospital (in St. Louis) and met with a neurologist. They were testing me for ALS and Guillain-Barre Syndrome. They finally came up with this terminology, transverse myelitis.”

The autoimmune disease began with an upper-body virus. Craft’s spinal cord became inflamed, and electrical conductivity to his central nervous system was diminished.

I’m going to walk again someday, one way or another. ... I’ll overcome this. It isn’t a big deal.

Greg Craft on his battle with transverse myelitis, an autoimmune disease that has taken away his ability to walk.

Craft no longer is able to walk, although he is undergoing therapy and isn’t giving up. His faith has provided a source of strength.

“I’m going to walk again someday, one way or another,” said Craft, who gets around in a wheelchair. “When I coached, I used my scooter. It was faster, easier.

“I’ll overcome this. It isn’t a big deal. (Doctors) think I can (walk again). I think I can, too. You’ll never recover all of it, because it is an injury to the spinal cord. But it’s not going to throw me down.”

David Wilhelm: 618-239-2665, @DavidMWilhelm

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