EVANSVILLE, Ind. — Not long after his team finished off a quarterfinal victory Wednesday in the Division II Elite Eight Men‘s Basketball Championship, Tarleton State had coach Lonn Reisman turned his attention to an important matter.
Finally finished with his postgame news conference, he walked down a hallway deep inside the Ford Center. Then he cut a corner and proceeded through another hallway and located the school’s cheerleading squad (coached by his daughter) and the school’s band members, thanking all of them.
And then he found 5-year-old Mayce Hamilton at the end of the hallway. His granddaughter.
He ran up to give her a kiss as sounds of “awwww” echoed down the hallway.
“That’s important,” he said. “That’s important over there.”
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It is what has kept Reisman in Stephenville, Texas, for more than 27 years now. That and a long line of basketball players who are now considered family.
“We’ve had players come back all year long to watch our games,” said Reisman, who has more than 600 career wins and coached former NBA star Dennis Rodman while the two were at Southeastern Oklahoma State. “I’ve got so many text messages I can’t even return them all tonight. But I will try. My players from all those years, they said they bleed purple and white, and they do bleed purple and white.”
There was no bleeding Wednesday because the Texans defeated Mount Olive 77-59 and advanced to Thursday’s semifinals against Indiana (Pa.).
While Reisman coached the Texans, standing just a few feet away coaching Mount Olive was another DII coach who has been true to his school. Joey Higginbotham is in his seventh year as head coach. Before that, he was an assistant coach. Before that, he was a player for the Trojans. His wife was coach of the school’s softball team for 12 years.
“It’s the place I raised my family,” Higginbotham said. “It’s a big part of me as a person.”
Reisman and Higginbotham are not alone in their stability. Stan Spirou, coach of Southern New Hampshire, is in his 30th year. Of the eight head coaches at the Elite Eight, none have been in this job for fewer than five years. Minnesota State-Moorhead’s Chad Walthall is the baby of the group, leading the Dragons to their first Elite Eight appearance in his fifth year.
“The people are just unbelievable,” Higginbotham said of Mount Olive. “It’s a special place. Hopefully we can continue to build what we’ve built and make another run at it next year.”
All this coaching stability does not go unnoticed. It is what draws players to their programs.
“For me, it definitely meant a lot,” said Tarleton State junior guard Michael Hardge, who scored 12 points in Wednesday’s win. “For the younger kids, I feel like it does, too, because they know he’s not going anywhere. Some people you never know, a coach can leave. He’s here to stay. It means a lot.”
Not that it started that way.
When Reisman arrived in Stephenville, Texas, for a job interview in 1994 at the request of a friend, the Texans had won just three games the previous season. It had been nearly 30 years since the team had a winning season, never mind contend for a NCAA championship.
One thought kept going through his mind: “One winning season in 27 years? What’s going on? What’s wrong?”
Reisman didn‘t walk. He examined the university and the community and saw possibilities.
“Something just told me, if I can turn this thing around at a young age, what would it mean?” he said. “Twenty-seven, 28 years later, I just believe that’s where God wanted me. I’ve had some opportunities to move up and I just never did.”
The Texans more than tripled their wins in Reisman’s first year, from three to 11. Those first two seasons were the only losing teams Reisman has had at Tarleton State. Last year, after the Texans finished 28-3, Reisman was a finalist for NABC National Coach of the Year.
Reisman’s message to his players is clear.
“He doesn’t recruit us just to be players,” Hardge said. “He wants us to be student-athletes and make sure we get our degree.”
Reisman’s son, Chris, is associate head coach and has been an assistant to his dad since 2001. He played four years for his dad at Tarleton. Lonn’s wife, Misti, teaches in the school’s kinsieology department.
“Isn’t that what it’s all about when you can have stability? I chose stability over money,” Reisman said. “I just felt that God had called me to do something. That’s what I chose and I don’t regret it. I chose division II and I’m happy with what I’ve accomplished.”
And then there is his connection with Rodman. The former Chicago Bull messaged Reisman before Wednesday’s game. And if the Trojans have a bad rebounding day, you can be sure that Rodman’s name will come up.
“Oh, man, he definitely does,” said Hardge, laughing. “Especially when we have a bad rebounding game. He’ll definitely bring up that. He coached Dennis Rodman and he’d go up for the rebounds. All it takes is heart.”
“One of the greatest players I’ve ever had,” Reisman said.