SEATTLE — His teams won more games than those of any other Seattle Pacific men’s basketball coach.
Yet, when Les Habegger first took the job, he wasn’t even sure he was ready to be a head coach.
“How does one know if you’re ready?” said Habegger, who served as an assistant to Ken Foreman for one season (1956-57), then moved up to the head job when Foreman, who went on to establish his legend as a track and field coach, left to begin working toward his doctorate.
“If you get a job offer, they [school and athletic officials] think you’re ready.
— Les Habegger
“So I guess you’re as ready as anybody could be.”
From a humbling start — his first team went 6-20 — Habegger would spend another 16 years on the Falcons’ bench after that, and tally another 261 victories. That total of 267 still ranks as the most in school history.
Habegger’s coaching knowledge and style eventually went all the way to the pros — including his role as lead assistant to head coach Lenny Wilkens when the Seattle SuperSonics won their first and only NBA championship in 1979.
For all of the accolades Habegger earned through the years — including a place in the Falcon Legends Hall of Fame in 2004 — another very meaningful one came his way this past March when he was inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame.
“Probably the best word would be ‘unbelief,’ ” Habegger, now 89, said of his reaction upon getting the news. “I don’t know if I ever gave any specific thought [to being inducted].”
This hall’s distinguished members include former Indiana State star Larry Bird and former Indiana coach Bob Knight.
“Well you know,” said Habegger, a native of Berne, Indiana, located in the upper northeast portion of the state, “growing up in Indiana, we think basketball was invented by us.”
Home from the war, off to college
With his World War II service as a U.S. Army medic in Europe at an end, Habegger was ready to get on with his life. That meant college — in the classroom, with an emphasis on history and physical education and, of course, in the gym on the basketball court.
After two years at Northwestern College in Minneapolis, he transferred to Wheaton College in Illinois. Then, instead of taking a break after completing his undergraduate work, he immediately went on to grad school at the University of Minnesota.
“I wanted to get my masters, and I didn’t think I would ever go back if I didn’t do it right away,” he said.
While studying at Minnesota, he also served as an assistant coach at Northwestern College — and the idea of pursuing coaching as a career started to take root.
“At that time, I thought I wanted to be involved in working with young men and helping them develop,” he said.
“And I wanted to do that in the framework of a Christian college.”
Acting upon that, Habegger began a letter-writing campaign, reaching out to numerous Christian schools around the country.
Seattle Pacific wrote him back — and it wasn’t from just anyone.
“I got a response from the president,” he said of hearing from C. Hoyt Watson. “So the president and I, we began to negotiate. I finished my [masters] degree in June of ’56 and came out here at the end of summer in August.”
Planting Northwest roots
Habegger had been to Seattle once previously.
Well … kind of.
“Way back in 1943, I was sent from Indiana to Oregon for [Army] basic training,” he recalled. “We came through Seattle.
“But I never got off the train.”
This time, Habegger stayed awhile — more than a quarter of a century with his tenures at Seattle Pacific and then the Sonics.
“I was surprised when President Watson told me he had offered the [assistant’s] job to a man from the Midwest,” Foreman said. “Les and [wife] Anne came to our house, and our wives hit it right off. But I needed more time to know if we were compatible.
“Les had to earn my respect — and he soon did,” Foreman continued. “I knew my knowledge of basketball was limited, and soon realized that Les had a very good basketball mind. And he had a love for the sport.”
While his first season in charge of the Falcons (1957-58) was a struggle Habegger, who was just 33 years old and one year out of college when he took the reins, was far from discouraged.
“The most important thing I learned the first year is that losing is no fun,” he said with a laugh. “There weren’t many basketball players here at the time, so I began to do some recruiting, and we went from there.”
Habegger also did his part by watching the powerful University of Washington and Seattle University teams practice and play, and picking the brains of their coaching staffs.
“It’s trial by error. You just learn a lot,” he said.
Things did get better. The Falcons improved to 11-14 in 58-59, then went 17-10 the following season and earned a trip to the NAIA tournament.
Along the way, the young head coach from basketball-crazy Indiana began to stamp his own style and philosophy on his players in Seattle.
“I was able to instill in them that this is a team game, not an individual sport,” he said. “You play together, you work together, and no one individual is good enough to carry the load — that was really the impetus to my success.
“If anyone didn’t want to play a team game, he didn’t stay very long.”
His Falcons take flight
The team-first emphasis gradually took Habegger’s squads further and further.
In 1965, Seattle Pacific hosted and won the Pacific Coast Regional, and went to the NCAA quarterfinals for the first time. While the trip to Evansville, Indiana, ended with a 97-83 loss to North Dakota, the Falcons still finished at 22-7.
“That was a very, very good team,” Habegger said. “What was different about those teams was we played teams that now are big-time Division I — San Diego State, Fresno State, Sacramento State. The following year [1965-66] we had a team that I don’t know was better, but it was still a very good team with a great record (23-5). And that year, we beat Seattle U in the Coliseum [85-83] when they had a very good team.”
By the time Habegger stepped down in 1974, the Falcons had been to six NCAA tournaments and put together three seasons of 20 or more wins. In the spring of 1977, he got a call from Bob Hopkins, newly elevated to head coach of the Sonics, with an offer to be his assistant coach.
Habegger, who had done some scouting for the Sonics, was interested. He had been highly successful at the small-college level, but always had the question in his mind of if he could find success at a higher level.
And find it, he did
Hopkins lasted just 22 games into the 1977-78 season, fired when the Sonics were 5-17. Lenny Wilkens took over, kept Habegger as his top assistant, and Seattle went on to consecutive NBA Finals appearances against the Washington Bullets, losing in seven games in 1978, but beating them in five in ’79.
“When the opportunity came and I got that job, I found out that I can coach at that level, even though I was an assistant,” Habegger said. “Lenny was a very good guy to work with. He allowed me to do a lot of things. Some of the offense that I ran at Seattle Pacific, I put in with the Sonics. We ran it, we had some success, and it was just verification for me that I can coach at this level.”
Habegger eventually spent nine years coaching in Germany, winning three pro league championships there.
“Les was/is a great basketball coach because he loves the game, he studies the game, and he knows the game,” Foreman said. “He had the ability to challenge his players to utilize their energies for the good of the team.”
Now living in Gilbert, Arizona, Habegger plays golf, rides a bike and does plenty of reading and socializing.
“There are a lot of things I do — but not coaching,” he said.
Which isn’t to say he doesn’t think about it from time to time.
“You’re working with guys, and you think you have an influence on their life to help them become something of worth,” he said. “There are lots of ups and downs. Defeat has a terrible sting, but victory is its own euphoric feeling.
“The idea that you’re working with other people together for a common cause is a tremendous feeling, and is very, very rewarding.”