College Sports

33 years of covering Statham started with lunch. I'll miss covering him.

Harry Statham is the winningest coach in college basketball history, but he was also as down-to-earth as you could get.
Harry Statham is the winningest coach in college basketball history, but he was also as down-to-earth as you could get. News-Democrat file photo

Harry Statham entered my life in November 1985.

Statham, his wife, Rose, and I had lunch at a restaurant on North Illinois Street in Belleville that is long gone.

I had arrived in the metro-east less than a month earlier, hired as a sportswriter at Journal Newspapers of Southern Illinois. It was a getting-to-know-you type of meeting. Statham paid for lunch, which was a huge deal for a financially challenged kid.

Statham was about to begin his 20th year as the men's basketball coach at what was then McKendree College. He still had dark hair. So did I.

McKendree, and sports in Lebanon, was one of my beats, and over the next few years, I became better acquainted with Statham. His 1987-88 team was 35-1, and I remember squeezing into any seat I could find to cover a game at old Bearcat Gymnasium.

The place was so small, and the fans were so jazzed up about that fast-paced team, that Statham eventually recommended I sit in the loft in the corner of the gym.

Statham became legendary. He completed that 20th season at McKendree. Then his 30th. His 40th. His 50th. Landmark wins. Celebrations. Smiles.

In all, there were 1,122 victories, more than any other coach at a four-year school.

It was quite a run. It was more than an era. But it all came to an abrupt end Tuesday afternoon when Statham and the McKendree University administration parted ways.

Statham, who turns 81 in May, wanted to continue. Always an optimist, Statham believed McKendree could recover from five consecutive losing seasons.

Instead, Athletics Director Chuck Brueggemann and President James Dennis are beginning a national search for Statham's replacement.

Think about it. McKendree hasn't looked for a men's basketball coach since 1966. A gallon of gas cost 32 cents. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was under 800. Elvis Presley was a Hollywood star. Lyndon B. Johnson was president. Fighting raged in Vietnam.

There has been one constant at McKendree: Statham at courtside coaching the Bearcats.

I'll miss seeing Statham do what he loved. I don't like thinking that he's no longer the coach. It doesn't feel real.

Statham and I enjoyed a strong, respectful working relationship. We never enjoyed another lunch together, but we talked hundreds of times, mostly after games.

Statham was all about being upbeat, staying positive. He loved his players, and he took immense pride in recruiting talented guys who were solid citizens, too.

Like any coach, Statham was stung by losses. In the old days of the NAIA and the American Midwest Conference, McKendree's rival was Columbia College.

Those were competitive games, whether in Lebanon or Columbia, Mo. Many of them went down to the last minute or the final possession. A visit with the jubilant winning coach, Statham or Bob Burchard, was followed by a difficult conversation with the other.

I'll mostly remember Statham's dignity. He was, and is, a gentleman.

And he had a sense of humor, too.

Statham always has been fit and trim. No smoking. No drinking. A healthy, brown-bagged lunch, prepared by Rose, on most days in the office.

One night after a McKendree victory, I was writing the story in the athletics department when Statham and Rose went into Statham's office to get their coats for the ride home.

Someone had prepared brownies and placed them on a plate, a tempting postgame delight. Statham playfully reached for one, sensing Rose would object.

"You already had one," Rose said.

Harry looked at me and smiled. He saw it coming.

Harry and Rose. Rose and Harry. They have been everything to each other. Harry often has credited Rose for her knowledge of the game. She has been there all along.

So what's next for McKendree? Brueggemann watched the exciting Great Lakes Valley Conference Tournament last weekend at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville's Vadalabene Center. He hungers to see McKendree compete with teams like Bellarmine, Drury, Southern Indiana, Indianapolis and Truman State in what remains the best Division II league in the country.

There will be no shortage of interested, qualified, enthusiastic candidates. But how does one follow Harry Statham? His shadow is tall. His impact is lasting.

I will miss Statham. The metro-east will miss him. He's been a credit to McKendree, an institution, a trailblazer. His footprints are found all over campus. His contributions to the men's basketball program must never be forgotten.

It will be interesting to meet the new coach. Maybe we will have lunch together. My treat.