College basketball’s all-time wins leader has retired.
After 50 years and 1,300 wins, Three Rivers College men’s basketball coach Gene Bess announced this past season will be his last.
“I’ve been realizing the time was near for me to go. The bottom line is, I want to be here to make the players better,” said Bess, who has battled health problems the past few seasons. “I felt like I was just as effective, but I didn’t have the energy level to do what I need to do to excel as a coach.
“The time has come.”
Bess became college basketball’s all-time wins leader in 2001 when he surpassed North Carolina’s Dean Smith and Richard Baldwin of Broome Community College and he’s set a new record with every win since.
He was the first college basketball coach to reach 1,000 wins in 2006, the first with 1,100 four seasons later and 1,200 in 2015. His 1,300th win came in what ended up being his final home game on a court named in his honor.
Finishing with a career record of 1,300-416, Bess has 143 more wins than the NCAA Division I men’s basketball record holder, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski.
Bess, who turned 85 in March, has been the Three Rivers Athletic Director throughout his career and taught two classes each semester, as well.
“I hate to see Gene go, it has always been his decision, but it is a big part of the college to see him move into retirement. Gene has been an absolute icon of athletics here at Three Rivers,” Three Rivers President Dr. Wesley Payne said. “He is such an integral part of daily life at Three Rivers and Poplar Bluff and not just as a coach, he has been such a good person and such a good friend to me, that I hate to see him leave.”
Brian Bess, Gene’s son and an assistant coach for the past 27 years, will take over the program, Payne confirmed, with former Three Rivers All-American “Big Time” Bryan Sherrer staying on as assistant coach.
“We have high expectations and big shoes to fill,” Brian Bess said. “Most coaches would think a good job is replacing someone who won 30 games the year before, and I’m replacing a legend. So expectations are really high. That makes it tough.”
In 50 years leading the Raiders, Bess won 19 or more games in a season 43 times, including this past year when Three Rivers finished 19-12. His teams won 23 Region XVI titles, reached the NJCAA National Tournament 17 times and played for a national title four times, winning in 1979 and 1992.
Both his son and grandson played for the Raiders while granddaughter Kiley, who will play at Saint Louis University after a record-setting high school career, was a regular at his summer camps.
“I’ve been so blessed,” Bess said. “Couldn’t have written it any better.”
Bess was an early adopter of new science and technology. In the 1960s, he would take an 8 mm strip of film to the Greyhound bus station after games, send it to St. Louis and get a viewable version back the next afternoon. He later added weight training and nutrition before much of his competition.
The ‘79 national championship team practiced at the Sears Youth Center, played games at Poplar Bluff High School, slept in dorms downtown and traveled in station wagons. Now the Raiders play in a multi-million dollar facility with apartment-style dorms on campus.
The college built a basketball gym that opened during the 1982-83 season, a dozen years after Bess took over the program.
“This school has been the greatest thing imaginable in my life,” Bess said. “I will be here for them, but the team and everybody concerned are in good hands.”
Bess first considered retiring soon after Three Rivers won its second national championship in 1992, 499 wins ago.
His assistant at the time, Tom Barr, left to start a program at MSU-West Plains. Bess thought he had maybe five years left in his career.
Then he hired his son.
“I was having problems even in a game understanding everything that was going on. (Brian) really picked me up from that standpoint. One thing kind of led to another, and we’re still at it,” Bess said.
Bess recalls coaching an all-star game when Brian was about 12 years old. Bess didn’t have an assistant at the time and had to coach three teams in the event, so Brian helped on the bench.
Soon, Brian was telling his father who was sucking wind and needed to be subbed out.
“I thought he did a better job helping me than anybody I’d ever had around me,” said Bess, who has often credited his longevity to his son’s help.
During those games, Bess was coaching against longtime Mineral Area coach Bob Sechrest, who was elected to the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in 1990.
“He was serious about everything he did,” Bess said of Sechrest. “He walked up to me after the game and said, ‘Gene, that’s the best job coaching I’ve ever seen.’ I got to thinking that I had a lot of help.”
Ten years later and just a couple years removed from playing college basketball on his dad’s team, Brian got the job as the new assistant coach. He wasn’t the only applicant and received accusations of nepotism.
“He has a tremendous ability to focus. He can go to a game now and sit there for 10-15 minutes and tell you everything you need to know about that team,” Bess said. “He’s always been around the game. He had the most natural coaching talent that I’ve ever been around.”
In Brian’s first season on the bench in the 1993-94 season, the Raiders finished second in the nation.
“That answered a lot of the questions or whatever,” Brian said. “I was just fresh out of school, and I was coaching. So how does someone, who is a peer, have someone be a coach and figure out how to run through a wall? Somehow my dad created an atmosphere that we were all in it together.”
NEARING A DECISION
Bess considered retirement again in 2018 when he was struggling with knee pain. It was then that he missed just the third game of his career because the bus ride would be too painful.
He tried several different treatments before ultimately having his knee replaced.
Bess credits his wife, Nelda, for him sticking around as long as he did and said it was easy for him to tell her his decision.
“She’s been super about this whole situation. She’s allowed me to keep coaching even though for the last 20 years, I haven’t made any money coaching. My retirement reached the top, so I have been actually donating my time for the last 20 years and she has been real understanding about that. I’ve known a lot of wives down through the years where when the family was having financial difficulties, the coach ended up getting a job that made more money. She’s never tried to tell me when to leave or anything. I’m blessed,” Bess said. “I want to spend more time with my family and my grandchildren. We have four grandchildren and they are all really special, and of course my son, daughter and their spouses. I delight in spending time with them, I’m kind of excited about not having to go to work and being able to do what I want to do.”
After working every day for more than 60 years, Bess hopes to spend more time reading, hunting, fishing, working in his garden, and being involved with First Baptist Church of Poplar Bluff, where Bess is a deacon.
“The spiritual ramifications in my life are really where it is at. I’ve seen the good Lord do so many wonderful things in my life. I’m a student of God’s word, but I don’t spend as much time in it and haven’t over the years as I should. I hope to spend more time reading His word. I think that is probably the most profitable thing a human being can do, is spend time in the Bible,” Bess said.
As Bess aged, he dodged constant questions about how many years he had left. When Three Rivers finished second in the nation in 2010, people kept asking if he was going to ride off into the sunset if they won. His go-to answer was always that he wanted to continue as long as he felt like he was effective.
“I’ve been realizing the time was near for me to go,” Bess said. “The bottom line is, I want to be here to make the players better, and I think that time has come.”
Earlier this week, he made it official.
At least 42 former players for Bess have gone on to coach all over the country.
One of the first limbs of the Gene Bess Coaching Tree was Robert Kirby, who played for the ‘79 championship team and is currently an assistant at Georgetown University. Anthony Beane, a member of the ‘92 championship team, is an assistant coach at Northern Illinois University.
“It has been a great honor for coach to be at Three Rivers as long as he has been. I know he is a humble, humble, humble person, but he deserves everything,” said Dominic Okon, a former player and assistant coach for the Raiders who is now the Director of Operations of Basketball at Wichita State University.
“Personally for me ... there is no way I could write my history and my being without Coach Bess playing a big role in my life.”
Closer to home coaching high school basketball, there’s Gene Deckard of Naylor, who is also retiring this year, William Durden at Poplar Bluff, Chad Allen at Dexter and Jordan McGowan at Gideon. Lennies McFerren, Paul Hale and Danny Farmer, each in the Missouri Basketball Hall of Fame, played at Three Rivers.
Farmer retired following this past season with over 750 career wins. His replacement, Jamarcus Williams, also played at Three Rivers under Bess.
Durden said he wanted no part of coaching after helping the Raiders reach the national tournament in 2003. But he returned to Three Rivers to be an assistant coach before taking the high school job.
“You’ve really got to care for your players,” Durden said when asked what he learned the most from Bess.
“I felt like he always cared for the guys he coached. As a team and as a player we would run through a wall for him.”
Scott Borkgren - Daily American Republic