Coach of Life
A Former Red Devil Reflects on the Life of Gene Evans ’49
by Bill Thornton ’83
April 1, 2010
Gene Evans ’49 coaches the Red Devils in 1980.
I feel like I have had a lot of good fortune in my life, but the “lucky break” that has made the most difference was the day in 1979 that Gene Evans ’49 came into the living room of my parents’ home and asked me to play basketball for Dickinson College.
Although I had never met him before and knew nothing of his accomplishments or reputation, he was a towering presence that day. He was tall, erect and athletic-looking, despite his already gray-white hair. His intelligence and genuine warmth as a person came through immediately.
From that day forward, I have had the great gift of having Gene Evans in my life. More than anything else, he was Coach. Not just basketball coach, of course, he was the real thing: “Coach of Life.”
Coach was the only man I ever met who was completely honest. He had the perfect combination of compassion and strength. He was intelligent, tough and fully wedded to his philosophy of life, but he was at the same time humble, eager to learn and the best listener I ever knew.
But Gene had a quality that set him apart from everyone else. I never recall him acting in his own self-interest. Not once. Not ever. He always put everyone else first.
It’s hard for me to talk about Coach without discussing basketball. It had been 60 years since Gene played forward for Dickinson on the 1949 team. But to understand Coach, it helped to know what kind of player he was. I asked those who played with him that question often over the years.
He was on the greatest team that Dickinson ever had. The starters were Johnny Hopper ’48, Wes Overholt ’50, Frankie Noonan ’48, Vince Schafmeister ’49 and Gene. They lost to Columbia, 48-46, when Columbia was hands down the best team in America. That was before Divisions I, II and III.
Gene spoke often of his good friends on that team and their coach, Chick Kennedy ’34. And as I got to meet or know some of the players from that team over the years, particularly Frankie Noonan, Wes Overholt and Jim Abbott ’50, their affection for Gene was very apparent.
Gene’s role on that team was best defender—and scorer when they needed someone. He was the guy who did everything right, everything the way it was taught, and the player who was like a coach on the floor.
As Dickinson’s coach, Gene was an effortless disciplinarian. I don’t remember anyone ever trying to cross him. I think the reason was because as even-tempered as Coach was most of the time, you always knew that underneath was someone definitely “man enough”—he could, and maybe even would, sock you right in the chops if he had to. Of course, he never needed to. Instead, he earned your total respect without trying. He made you want to fight for him, never challenge him.
Coach was as cerebral as Dean Smith, a better disciplinarian than Bobby Knight and had the intensity and integrity of Joe Paterno. These men were contemporaries of Gene’s and he admired them. Although they coached on a grander stage, I know in my heart that Gene was every bit as good a coach as they were.
One thing few people know about Coach is that, in 1961, he left Carlisle High School and interviewed for the head basketball job at Bucknell University. There were three candidates: Chuck Daly, Bill Foster and Gene. Daly would one day lead the University of Pennsylvania to the Final Four and win three world championships as coach of the Detroit Pistons. Foster became the head coach at South Carolina and then coached Duke University in the NCAA championship game. But the Bucknell job went to Gene Evans. And to all of us who know his coaching ability, that was no upset.
No one taught a better 2-3 zone. No one taught better positioning or footwork. No one taught teamwork and team chemistry better than Coach. Starting with the Xs and Os and continuing through the mental side of competing, Gene Evans was a coaching masterpiece.
As good a coach as he was, however, he always let his players find the important things on their own. He didn’t spoon-feed you. He expected you to be a man. He understood, innately, that the worst thing he could do for us as players was not to let us discover the important things on our own. That was the brilliance of Coach E.
Of course, while we were all thinking he was teaching us basketball, he was really teaching us about life.
Although there are dozens of stories of Gene Evans at his best that have danced through my memory, I’ll relate just two. One year at Dickinson, we had a player who was not a good team influence. His effort in practice was lacking, he rarely contributed in games, and he seemed simply not to care. He quit mid-season, and we were all relieved. We assumed that Coach was as well. Four or five days later, that player was back at practice. That first practice back was the best that player had ever had and from that point on he was different and a better player.
Of course, we had all assumed that the player had regretted his decision to quit, had gone to Coach Evans, begged to be back on the team and promised that he would be different.
Later, I learned it was Coach who had sought out the player, Coach who had spent many hours with him and Coach who had convinced him to return to the team.
Several years later, when I was coaching alongside Gene, I asked him what had happened. He didn’t want to talk about it, but he did tell me this: “As a player, you’ll never regret the decision to be a part of a team, to give your best and to know that, in the end, you gave what you had, no matter the success you achieved. But I believe a player will always regret a decision to quit or a decision to give less than his best. As a coach, sometimes you can’t do anything about it, but sometimes you can, and it may be a turning point in that player’s life.” Those words signal the real essence of Gene’s coaching philosophy—he wanted our time as players to be a springboard for our personal development and, ultimately, our achievement in life. That was his real goal.
In fact, the reason Coach E had the ability to influence our lives, to impart great lessons, was because he always cared more about the player as a person than he did about his ability to help win basketball games. He never let personal pride stand in the way of his deep-seated care for our well-being.
The second story is about a game against Muhlenberg in 1981. This was before the 35-second-shot clock. We had a very good team, and Muhlenberg had a young squad with a young but crafty coach. They came to our gym, won the opening tap and proceeded to stall the ball to try to get us out of our patented zone defense. But Gene never budged. Not once. He would not leave the 2-3 zone. The entire first half, Muhlenberg held the ball without taking a shot. With one second remaining in the half, they made a desperation long-bank shot. The first half ended with Muhlenberg ahead, 2-0.
In the locker room at halftime, we were in shock. We knew we were better. Why didn’t we just play man-to-man defense and challenge them?
Coach, of course, was focused on something beyond our understanding.
The second half of the game started the same way. But with about five minutes to go, Muhlenberg made a mistake; we got a steal and a foul and went ahead 3-2. Once ahead, the rules did not allow Muhlenberg to stall the ball, and a few minutes later, the game was over, with us winning 15-6.
If there ever was a game that defined Coach Evans, it was that one. And that’s because of the lessons it taught. Patience. Relying on your strengths. Discipline. Readiness and excellence when an opportunity presented itself. These were his lessons, and anyone who applied them to life would be as successful as our team had been that day.
The Evans family holds a spot dearer to my heart than any other except my own. I grew up, like Gene and Dot did, in Wyoming Valley, part of the coal regions of Wilkes-Barre, Pa. I was one of Gene’s first college recruits, and during the 11 years Gene was head coach at Dickinson, I played four and coached alongside Gene for four others. Those years were a special treat and honor. For the last 20 years, Gene and Dot have spent their summers at scenic Penn Lake, where they were just a short canoe ride from my parents’ own summer cottage.
The Evans’ home in Carlisle is a second home to me. I’m proud to say I’m one of the few people who know where the spare key is kept. I’ve never had to knock on their door to enter. Coach always told me—just walk in. There is nothing in life I cherish more than the many, many, special times I shared with Gene and Dot in their living room, sharing the stories that Gene loved so much.
In the Evans family, Gene was the rock, but Mrs. E (as we all called her) is the fertile ground out of which the flowers grew. Dot is all class—the perfect complement to Gene, the consummate Coach’s wife. While Gene was reserved, Dot was outgoing. When Gene was sometimes unapproachable, Dot was always accessible. Dot is the substitute mother we all needed as college students away from home. Fiercely loyal, always ready with a home-cooked meal, more knowledgeable about basketball and football than any woman you have ever known, Dot did what none of us could ever do—she made Gene an even better coach and man. The best team Gene ever coached was the one he had at home with Dot and their children, Debbie, Lisa and Davey. And he had great love for, and took great pride in, his grandchildren, Brett, Lindsay, Shaelyn, Eric and Sarah and great-granddaughter Madison. Dick, Ron and Allison are the cherished spouses of his children.
The last two years were tough ones for the Evans team. Coach suffered, and it was so hard for those of us who loved him to see it. It was especially tough on Dot. True to form, Coach never complained. I visited with him just before Christmas, when the end was very near. Although he had his eyes closed often and struggled even to sit, he was still regal. I was telling him about my son’s basketball season and commented that he was shooting well but had slow feet. With his eyes closed, Gene said to me, “You were pretty slow yourself.”
Gene had a great sense of humor, and I loved to hear him laugh. And he just loved life’s stories. That was another lesson he taught me—laugh heartily and remember the funny stories.
Everyone in this beautiful church today shares one thing. We all had our lives made better by Gene Evans. Whether husband, father, grandfather, coach or teacher, he was so special to us. Thanks, Coach. You gave us what you humbly asked of us—your very best.
Bill Thornton ’83 is an attorney at Stevens & Lee in Reading, Pa., who played for and coached with Gene Evans ’49. He delivered this eulogy at Coach Evans’ memorial service Jan. 23 at the First Evangelical Lutheran Church in Carlisle.