When Greg Leib describes himself as “a hillbilly from Clay County” he does so with great pride.
The Althoff High basketball coach is not only proud of his roots, he’s more than happy to poke fun at himself and his rural upbringing.
“My very first month of practice in fifth grade, I go to practice and I had my Chuck Taylors and shorts, a t-shirt and everything but I didn’t have a satchel (gym) bag,” Leib said. “I had to go to practice with a grocery bag, an old paper bag.”
After 21 years in basketball coaching at Althoff and Roxana, Leib now has access to top of the line equipment and has finally gotten a team to the pinnacle — the state tournament in Peoria.
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Althoff (29-3) will face Morgan Park (22-6) in the semifinals Friday with a coach that is perhaps as a tight with his players as some of their own relatives.
How does a coach from a rural area manage to connect so well with players from big cities, including some from the inner city? Leib is all old-school, quoting Hee-Haw and John Wayne movies, while he deals with players that spend most of their time on smartphones checking out Instagram photos and Twitter links while channeling the latest hip-hop lyrics.
Somehow, it all fits together nicely.
“He always says our job is to love each other and his job is to love us,” Althoff senior forward Rick Edwards said. “He really does a great at that. He really loves an cares about us individually and as players. He’s the type of guy that will call you to make sure everything’s OK.
“He’s like a kid at heart and I think that helps a lot.”
Althoff sophomore Jordan Goodwin, whose father played with Leib at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, will always be “Goody” to his coach.
“He helps me out with everything. He’s my guy, he’s always there,” Goodwin said. “If I need somebody to call on, I call on Coach Leib and he helps me get through it. He loves us and we love him.”
Leib knows how to deflect pressure from his team and keep the heat on himself. Don’t let the jokes fool you.
“He’s young at heart,” said Matt Lauber, who played for Leib and later coached under him. “He’s just a big kid, so even as he grows older he still think he’s a high school basketball player.”
Leib said being from small-town Flora or from East St. Louis isn’t a lot different because of the core values of caring about family above all else.
“He relates to guys like me and the type of kids who are like me,” said Althoff football coach Ken Turner, an African-American from East St. Louis. “It’s all the same, it’s inner-city but also in Flora, a small town. He has the greatest quotes I’ve ever heard from anybody in the history of coaches.
“He makes the game fun, he makes life fun for these guys. He relates well to adults and to kids, too. He understands what they’re thinking and he makes them feel more comfortable in this type of environment.”
Leib hadn’t been around a lot of African-Americans until playing basketball at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. While there his teammates included Tim Goodwin from Cahokia, Kenny Stanley (Madison), John Edwards, Anthony Webster (Cairo) and Clifford Bass (Lebanon).
“You just learn to accept one another,” Leib said. “We all had different backgrounds, but with different backgrounds there’s a lot of similarities. You treat people right. It doesn’t matter where you are from.”
Leib may be old-school, but he knows who Rihanna and Kanye West are. Not that he can quote their lyrics or name many songs.
“I know I talk like John Wayne, I don’t care,” he said. “I hear some of their terminology they come up with and I just wreck it whenever I say it. It’s just treating players right and trying to make them be the best kids they can be.”
Leib wouldn’t trade his coaching job for anything.
“I’m a blessed guy,” he said. “I get to do this job. I’d probably do it if I won the lottery and that’s no lie. We’re fortunate enough to win this year and if we didn’t win this year, I’ve still got a great group of kids to work with.
“Now we’ve got a little more icing on the cake and we get to take a team to Peoria. The trip to Peoria is for all the boys that have worked with us in the past.”
Younger brother Phil Leib, the basketball coach at Flora High, is enjoying every second of his brother’s success. Both have now taken teams to the state tournament.
“What helps him and helps us are our humble beginnings,” Phil Leib said. “I think Greg feels called as a minster of basketball, if you will. He teaches players life lessons, what it’s like to be a man and be a better person and along the way, teach them the game of basketball.”
During a 21-year coaching career, Leib has delivered more colorful quotes than practically any area coach in recent history. Where did he develop his innate comedic talents?
“Growing up listening to the guys around my grandpa’s mechanic shop,” Leib said. “Just listening to those old guys tell stories. I’m not any good at it compared to those guys, I butcher stories. You go back home and there’s some real good ones. I’m just a one-liner guy because I don’t have that big of a vocabulary.”
During an interview in his office, Leib’s phone kept ringing with requests for state tournament tickets, media interviews and other duties. After practice, his main priority was taking his young son to basketball practice and helping the family with their NCAA Tournament brackets.
“Somebody asked me are you tired and I’m like yeah, I’m just glad I woke up without a Mike Tyson tattoo and I had all my teeth,” Leib quipped. “I feel like those guys off ‘The Hangover’, but it’s a good tired.
“I’ll take this kind of tired any day of the week.”
Back at home
Leib’s first basketball coach was former New Athens High coach Jeff Burkett, in fifth grade at Clay City Grade School. From there he moved up the ladder to play for former Flora High coach Tom Welch, one of the most respected small-school coaches in the state.
“I didn’t like crowds and I didn’t like all the noise,” Leib said, “but guys like Coach Burkett made me love the game, made me believe I could do something. Coach Welch really hammered me out when I got to high school at Flora. It was a lot of fun stuff and guys you always appreciate.”
As the oldest of five siblings, Leib ruled the roost at home. Younger brother Phil Leib starred with Greg on a Flora team that reached the 1984 state tournament.
“I remember coming out of the locker room and listening to Providence St. Mel chanting about how they were going to kick the crap out of us, and then they did,” Greg Leib said. “It’s almost euphoric thinking about it.”
Phil Leib got to face his brother’s Althoff squad one year at the Effingham St. Anthony Thanksgiving Tournament.
“We won, I had a really good team that year and he did not,” said Phil Leib, who played college basketball for Northern Illinois. “But right now I’m 1-300 against him. He’d beat me at everything.”
When Althoff played Mahomet-Seymour on Tuesday in Springfield, Phil Leib helped load up a group of family friends in the local church bus and made the trip from Flora to watch big brother’s team clinch a state tourney trip.
“He does such a better job at enjoying the game than what I do,” the younger Leib said. “I’ve learned a lot from him. I’m proud knowing he’s been at it a while, you’re talking 20-plus years and now he’s gotten to the point that he can coach at state. His career has been awesome.”
After the super-sectional win, Leib’s cell phone overflowed with texts from former players, friends and family.
“That’s the best thing about the job,” Leib said. “You get to share in these struggled, then when you’re done you’ve got brothers for life. That’s what works for me. I tell the guys all the time your job is to love each other, my job is to love you.
“It serves us well.”