FORT WAYNE – The kid was too short and too slow. No rocket science in that, right?
And so the assistant came to him one day and said, look, son, we need a point guard, and you’re not it. You love the game like food, but this is Marist, and we’ve got titles to win, and you’re not good enough to win ’em. Might as well give up basketball now.
So the kid did what a kid does when, yes, he loves the game like food, and he’s as stubborn as a stump in concrete. He went over the guy’s head.
Went to Ron Bell, his head coach, who’d had both of Henry Aaron’s boys at Marist and would one day be in the Georgia Athletic Coaches Association Hall of Fame. Asked if it was true he should just quit.
No, no, no, Bell told him. He doesn’t know how much heart you have and how much you love the game and what you’re willing to do to play the game. If you work hard, you can be successful here.
You can probably guess what happened next.
Jon Coffman took that and ran with it. And ran. And ran some more.
This begins around a campfire.
IPFW men’s basketball coach Jon Coffman sits in his office this June afternoon – downstairs, his basketball camp is in full cry, the fieldhouse filled with the shriek of whistles and the drumbeat of running feet – and suddenly he’s 24 again. He’s in Alaska.
A big-money business job in San Francisco is dwindling in his rearview mirror.
I’m an avid fly fisherman, so I went up there and fished and skied and mountain-biked and had a good time for two months, he recalls. And I said, You know, here’s an opportunity, let’s figure out what you really want to do with your life.’
He already knew San Francisco wasn’t it. His mom, a former schoolteacher, had sussed that out before he did; when he told her about the job with an international management firm, all she asked was, But how are you helping people? And Jon couldn’t really tell her.
All he knew was he wasn’t like everyone else in his office. They were the sharks, the Windsor-knotted samurais. He was the guy filling out NCAA brackets every March. Business had his mind; basketball, which he’d played for four years at Washington and Lee, still owned his heart.
These other guys were always going to be better than me, because they were passionate about it, Coffman says. I’d always be thinking about something different.
Fast forward to that campfire. Coffman’s sitting around it, and so is his old high school coach, Ron Bell, another avid outdoorsman. And as they sat and talked, Bell, who remembered how passionate Coffman and another former player, Derek Waugh, were helping out with the Marist basketball camps, suggested Coffman talk to Waugh, who’d just left a law practice to go into coaching.
Coffman wasn’t quite ready to do that. Then he went back home and started shipping out résumés, eventually landing a job as an assistant at Emory and Henry, where head coach Bob Johnson had a picture in his office of his father, who was Army chief of staff during the Vietnam War.
Coffman learned leadership skills from him. He learned organization from John Kresse at College of Charleston. And he wound up with Derek Waugh at Stetson, where Waugh was then the youngest Division I head coach in the country, and he and Coffman built a summer camp that eventually encompassed 1,500 kids.
Then Colgate, where he spent two years with Emmett Davis, the winningest coach in school history. Then Tony Jasick called from IPFW.
What I was looking for, I wanted to find a guy who had multiple experiences, Jasick recalls. We wanted somebody who had been around, had seen ideas that worked, had seen ideas that did not work. Jon did a great job of bringing that experience to our staff.
He also brought a tenacious work ethic that came a lot from his father, a civil engineer who’d stuck with the same company for 47 years. And he brought an effusive personality and giving nature that came mostly from his mother, who never met a stranger and, when Jon and his sister were growing up, regularly opened the Coffman home to exchange students.
It was very obvious to me, that he’s incredibly analytical. He’s not going to miss something, IPFW athletic director Kelley Hartley Hutton says. But it was also very clear to me he was very concerned with the entire person and not just the athlete. He really cares about these guys.
And he has big plans for the program. Continue to build the basketball camp, for one. Reach out to the community. Grow IPFW’s profile after its success last season – and never, ever forget what he’s learned most across 16 years as an assistant: That somehow the game will always give more back to you than you can possibly give it.
My mom couldn’t have been more excited when I got into coaching, Coffman says. Just because she could see now, OK, you’re going to be a mentor to young people, and you’re going to help people on a daily basis.’
But I think there’s also a lot of value for me in getting in really deep with 13 guys every year. I have unbelievable relationships with former players. It’s a great profession from that standpoint.
The kid was too short and too slow.
But Marist is down again and Ron Bell is looking at him, and so the kid forgets how hard he’s gasping for air. He says, yes, Coach, I’ll stop ’em. My man won’t touch the ball. We’ll get the steal or the five-second count, and we’ll win.
And somehow Marist does.
They go 26-2 and get to the final eight in the state tournament in a year when they were picked seventh or eighth in their region, coming from behind in the fourth quarter in 14 of their 26 victories. And the kid goes on to be team captain at Washington and Lee, a college assistant, a Division I head coach.
He ran with it, in other words. Jon Coffman ran and ran and ran some more.