Several Stoddard County athletes witnessed first-hand the genius of coach Gene Bess.
Bess announced his retirement as the Three Rivers College men’s basketball coach recently, a position he held for 50 years.
Dexter’s Mark Guethle and Bernie native Anthony Beane were members of Bess’ two most successful teams, helping the Raiders win national championships in 1979 and 1992, respectively.
Former Bernie and Dexter boys basketball coach Paul Hale was a member of Bess’ first team at Three Rivers and witnessed Bess’ coaching in high school and college.
Hale played for Scott County Central during his high schools days, only a few miles down the road from where Bess coached at the time, Oran.
Before arriving at Three Rivers, Bess coached high school basketball for 12 years, spending stints with Lesterville, Anniston and most notably Oran. The Oran High School graduate won 237 games as a high school coach, including leading Oran to a second-place finish in the MSHSAA Class M tournament in his final season (1968-69).
Hale graduated in 1969 and played for Bess during his first season at Three Rivers — the year Bess assisted Bob Cradic — and on his first team as a head coach in 1970. The Raiders finished fourth in the national tournament that season.
Hale recalls how he introduced his coaching philosophy at Three Rivers.
“He brought his team in from Oran, three of them,” Hale said. “(Donald Evans, Fred Johnson and John Johnson) showed the way.”
Hale was a little surprised by Bess’ announcement.
“I thought he would coach forever,” Hale said. “I played against his teams when he was at Oran. He was a good coach then, too. He was hard to beat. I can say I played for the winningest coach in America.”
Bess won more games (1,300) than any college coach in the nation, and that includes all levels of play.
Guethle could see it coming.
“I went over there last year and watched him coach a couple of games,” Guethle said. “You could see it was wearing on him. I was kind of surprised but really wasn’t. You could tell he was tired. He’s had health problems the last couple years.”
Beane, who played for Hale at Bernie High School, wasn’t surprised by the announcement.
“I had talked to him and (his son) Brian (Bess). I knew it was coming,” Beane said. “I think it’s great. He’s done so much for that area. He’s truly a jewel. … He touched a lot of lives. He helped guys become better players and better people. He’s an even better husband and father.”
Guethle felt sad about Bess’ retirement.
“But like he said, it was time,” Guethle said. “It’s time to let Brian to take over and see what he can do.”
Brian Bess, who assisted his father since 1993, was named the next head coach.
Words like character, dedication, fair and integrity have been used to describe Gene Bess.
“He’s a dedicated person,” Hale said. “He works at it and believes in what he does. … He was dedicated and fair with everybody. If you played hard, you got to play.”
Bess was known for teaching his players discipline and for his intense conditioning regimen. He would use his well-conditioned players to wear down opponents with full-court pressure defense.
“We practiced really hard, more so in his younger coaching days,” Hale said. “You were in shape. It was all good. It was hard to take at that time but looking back, you are glad you got to do it.”
Guethle and Hale recalled running in Poplar Bluff’s Bacon Park before the season started.
“I think every Raider that’s come through there, Bacon Park is the first thing that jumps out,” Guethle said. “We had to run the 6-minute mile to get to go in and practice basketball. Everybody had to run the 6-minute mile. Not just some of us. You still had to run even though you made it. You still have to run the next time with the other guys who didn’t make it.”
Guethle said all that hard work paid off, especially during the 1979 championship season where the Raiders held off Mercer (New Jersey) 60-59 to win their first national title.
“You worked that hard all year and it finally pays off,” he said, “(and) have a little divine intervention. The guy missed a free throw at the end of the game. It’s great. It was exciting more so now than what it was at that time. At that time, you’re just kind of living in the moment. You don’t really realize what it took to get there. It was exciting and something to be proud of forever.”
Beane’s fondest memories of his days at Three Rivers were from the 1992 NJCAA national tournament. Besides winning the national championship, he recalled the national semifinal the day before when the Raiders rallied for a 76-74 victory over Southern Idaho.
“I remember we were down (21) at half,” Beane said. “I remember thinking in the locker room before coach came in (that) he was going to be upset or mad at us, but he used a different approach. He said, ‘you’re down. I told you this team is a special. You have one half to turn this thing around.’ That seemed to motivate us. He knew what buttons to push and when to push them.”
The next night, the Raiders beat Butler County (Kansas) 78-77 for their second national championship.
Guethle said Bess wanted to get the most out of you.
“There were times where I just wanted to walk out the door to tell you the truth,” Guethle said. “I stayed and when you get done with it, it’s like you realize how he pushed you to be better.
“Of course, he’s always been known for pushing to be a better individual, achieve other stuff like going to classes. We’d get in at 2 o’clock in the morning and I’d have 8 o’clock classes. It was hard to get up and go but I knew I had to go. It was like the discipline thing I was telling you about.”
Beane said Bess’ character was a big reason behind his success.
“Integrity is what he believes in,” Beane said. “He believes in working. His character, his approach with every person (he meets). He’s very professional and personable and he cares. Put all those ingredients together and that made him really successful.”
He really cared
Beane, who recently completed his first season as an assistant coach at Northern Illinois, still remembers his first day as a Raider in 1990.
“Coach Hale let me know about coach Bess,” Beane said. “Every player who played for him had tremendous respect for him. There’s a certain mentality you have to have to play there. I remember my first day. In the back of mind, I was nervous and excited. It surprised me how much he really cared about me as a player and a person. You come into the program and you respect him. Once you meet him in person, that trust becomes automatic.”
Guethle said, “You could tell he cared about you and wanted you to do the best you could do. After you get out, you really realize that. Of course, he became a good friend. He’s good friends with my sons. They didn’t play over there but they went to his basketball camps.”
Guethle believes Bess won’t be a stranger in the coming years.
“Of course, he’ll still be around,” Guethle said. “I can imagine he’ll still be there when he’s not watching Brian’s daughter (Kiley) play at Saint Louis U.”
Kyle Smith - Dexter Statesman