SPORTS: When character trumps talent

JACKSON, Tenn. (BP)--When the Bearcats of McKendree College stepped onto the court last night, they were playing much more than an ordinary basketball game.

They were making basketball history -- not for themselves, but for their coach, Harry Statham.

Going into the game, Statham was tied with legendary North Carolina coach Dean Smith for the most career college basketball wins at a four-year school. Now in his 39th season at the small college in Lebanon, Ill., Statham had a career record of 879-336 and, with a win over Maryville University, it became 880.

To surpass Smith's mark, Statham relied on a group of players who weren't even recruited for their athletic abilities.

No, you won't find many basketball superstars on a Harry Statham team. You won't find many showboats, and you won't find many with big egos. Those types simply won't do for Statham, and they never have.

"I always recruit the right kinds of players," Statham said. "We do not want thugs that play good basketball. We want them to be good, solid people. We don't want people that are going to flunk out. We want good people, good students and good basketball players -- in that order."

Those priorities result in a smaller pool of players from which to recruit, but Statham prefers quality over quantity.

The way Statham figures it, recruiting someone with discipline who works hard and gives everything he has will translate into success on the basketball court, even if that person doesn't have the natural ability of a blue-chip prospect. Put a team of players like that together, and they're more willing to function as a unit rather than as a group of individuals.

It's a strategy that has worked remarkably well for Statham. It's an approach that has earned him a place in basketball history.

"We do things consistently well," Statham said. "Our program is sound. We're very team-oriented, and we've tried to sell that from the very beginning. When you play hard and play together and do things fundamentally sound, you're going to be competitive. Our primary focus is to play hard, play well and try to do it as a team."

Consistency is a key in Statham's playbook. His teams play man-to-man defense and an up-tempo game. Although he's never won an NAIA national championship during his career at McKendree, Statham's teams are competitive season after season.

Some may suggest that Statham's record isn't as impressive as Smith's. Whereas Smith coached at the highest level of college basketball and earned his wins against the top teams in the country, Statham has succeeded in relative obscurity against smaller schools and less-talented teams. There's some legitimacy to that argument.

But 880 wins is still an outstanding accomplishment, regardless of the level at which it was achieved. It's a testament to Statham's ability as a coach, to his judge of talent and to his dedication to his players.

And Statham's emphasis to his players on the importance of strong character puts him in elite status among basketball coaches at any level, no matter how many wins he's amassed.


Tim Ellsworth is a regular columnist for BPSports, online at www.bpsports.net. Visit his weblog at www.thewinningspirit.blogspot.com.

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