WINONA LAKE – Grace College men’s basketball coach Jim Kessler, in his normal humble manner, says he has nothing to get the big head about when he looks at his record.
The man, affectionately and respectfully known as “The Godfather” on the campus he has called home for the past 37 years, sure does have plenty to be proud about though.
The selfless Kessler is set to join some elite company come as early as Friday night.
Kessler begins his 38th season in charge of the Lancers with 699 coaching wins. A victory in the season opener Friday night in the Manahan Orthopaedic Capital Center versus Concordia will make him just the 45th coach in men’s college basketball history to win 700 games.
Kessler, a man known for his commitment, consistency, character and class, has one simple goal for Friday night.
“I just want our team to be 1-0,” said Kessler earlier this week. “It happens to be 700 and that’s terrific. I’ve lost a lot of games too. I have nothing to get the big head about. I’ve been doing this a long time.”
Kessler, for whom the court in the fabulous MOCC is named, is about so much more than his 699-526 record in 37 seasons at Grace.
The man who epitomizes the title of teacher and who has molded so many young men over nearly four decades that his impact is hard for Grace College Director of Athletics Chad Briscoe to even put into words.
“You would need to write a book to tell what coach Kessler has meant to Grace College,” said Briscoe. “The biggest thing I think is that is he is so consistent in every sense of the word when it comes to everything; his faith, his integrity, his commitment.
“He lives his Christian faith and just has a desire to shape the lives of the young men who come here to play for him. He has a desire to make sure they are good fathers and good husbands after they leave here.
“He’s just a man of faith and a man of character. He’s a blessing to our campus and to our entire community. We’re thankful for him.”
Kessler, the father of four and grandfather of 11 (with another on the way), admits that he didn’t expect to coach for nearly four decades.
“I told my wife (Susanne) when I took this job to give it 2-3 years and then I would sell cars,” recounted Kessler.
“But, you get the right people and I get on the right bus with them and it’s a good ride. The 700 wins never crossed my mind. The wins are just a by product of doing things the right way and getting the right people.
“The players are the ones who win games. I’ve just been with them and tried not to mess them up along the way. I really coach to minister.”
Kessler will join some rare air when No. 700 does come. The list includes the likes of Dean Smith, Bob Knight, Adolph Rupp, Phog Allen and Mike Krzyzewski. Also in the current 44-member 700-win club is Bethel College coach Mike Lightfoot.
“I’m still learning,” said Kessler. “You have to be willing and able to change. You have to listen to your assistants and listen to your players.
“You have to learn to enjoy the journey, the challenge and the battles.”
“The highlight of my day is going to practice. I look forward to the challenge of it every day.”
Kessler, a 1970 Grace College graduate, had his crowning moment in 1992. That Lancer team, led by current Grace women’s basketball coach Scott Blum, won the NAIA Division II National Championship.
“You lose track of the wins and losses, but it’s the players, the terrific young men that I’ve been able to coach that I remember,” noted Kessler. “My job is to serve the men I coach and help them achieve the goals they have.
“I just want to be known as a servant of Christ. Grace gave me an opportunity and has been so supportive and I’m very grateful for that.
“It’s all about getting those good people on the bus with you.”
It’s also all about having the right driver/coach to guide that bus.
Something that the Grace College men’s basketball program certainly has been blessed to have for the last 37 seasons.