Mo. College Coach at 1,208 Wins and Counting
Bess Completes 45th Season at Three Rivers College
Gene Bess got his 1,000th win back in 2006, minus all the fuss and fanfare when Coach K hit that milestone earlier this season.
There is no trace of jealousy from Bess that his achievement failed to register on the national stage because he’s coaching at the community college level. Forty-five years ago he put down deep, deep roots at Three Rivers College in Poplar Bluff, Mo., and there are no regrets.
“I had a few chances to leave,” said Bess, who turned 80 on March 3. “I always liked the challenge here and I loved the community. I just stayed here from one year to the next.”
And the next, and the next. After Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski won his 1,000th game in late January, the career retrospectives flowed like gravy. Two weeks later, Bess notched his 1,200th victory.
Coming off a 23-8 season that ended a brief down spell, Bess has a career mark of 1,208-352. He says it’s his call whether to return for a 46th season and coach on the court that bears his name in Poplar Bluff, 150 miles south of St. Louis. His wife, Nelda, says that would be fine if it makes him happy.
“After I won my 1,200th game, the president and Board of Trustees said, ‘Well, you can stay as long as you want to,’” Bess said. “When I can’t do the job, I’ll leave. I haven’t retired yet and don’t know yet what I’ll do.”
The evidence shows, simply put, that he lives to coach.
Before taking the Three Rivers job, Bess piled up 250 high school victories at three stops in southern Missouri. He has won 30 conference championships, 21 region titles and made 17 trips to the national tournament with titles in 1979 and 1992, molding players who are all two-and-done. He guided Three Rivers to the national tournament his first season, has never had a losing season and has missed only two games due to illness.
“He’s not slipping any,” said Pat Smith, coach and athletic director at state rival Moberly Area Community College. “Mentally, he’s still so sharp. He’s still on top of his game.”
Typical of the game at the lower levels, the job description carries additional duties. Bess also teaches a full load of classes. One of them, appropriately enough, is Lifetime Wellness.
One of Bess’ biggest runs of success featured a future NBA All-Star. Latrell Sprewell, class of 1990, still holds several school scoring records.
In a seven-season stretch from 1978-84, Three Rivers won at least 30 games per season and had an 83-game home winning streak. Moon McCrary, class of 1980, was a standout at Missouri and was drafted by the Phoenix Suns.
Future NBA players were regulars at Three Rivers summer camps growing up, brothers Tyler and Ben Hansbrough and Otto Porter Jr. among them. Numerous players ended up with careers in Europe, some wound up coaching.
“My favorite thing is to see players be successful,” Bess said. “Our slogan is, ‘Once a Raider, always a Raider.’” Not surprisingly, John Wooden and Bobby Knight were role models. The closest he’s come to meeting Krzyzewski was attending coaching clinics “within reasonable distance” and “to stay up with the times.”
Another influence works both ways. Son Brian has been his top assistant the last 22 years, and Gene Bess refers to him as cohead coach.
“I was joking with Brian the other day,” Moberly’s Smith said. “I said, ‘Shoot, you might retire before he does.’” Re-visiting that topic, Bess still skirts the issue.
How much longer? “Things happened so fast, I can’t really believe it,” he said. “I’m thankful for everything that’s happened, it’s a lot more than I ever anticipated.”