WINONA LAKE – Coach Jim Kessler has finally found the right time to say ‘when’.
Kessler announced Monday morning in a press conference in the Grace College Alumni Room high above the court which bears his name that he will retire at the end of this season as the head coach of the Grace College men’s basketball program.
Grace just concluded its regular season, and will begin preparation for the postseason, which the Lancers will host the NCCAA National Championships and perhaps a regional play-in game. Kessler spoke about his time with the program, but more about the relationships he carried in his four-plus decades with Grace College. Those mean more to him than the wins and losses, which is what he has preached as the leader of the basketball program and as a face of the institution.
“I never had a goal, it’s about goals and purpose. My purpose has exceeded the goals I had for myself,” Kessler said at the press conference. “I’m serious when I say, if you look at my walls, it’s covered with all the team pictures with every team I’ve coached. That’s really been my purpose, to see these men grow and mature as young men. I really think, everyone says ‘did you have a good season this year?’ and honestly, I don’t know. Ask me in 20 years and I’ll tell you what’s happened with these men. That’s been my purpose.”
Kessler’s résumé reads like most legends who have coached for four decades, now into his 42nd season. Already a member of the NAIA Hall of Fame, his 785 wins to date rank him in the top 30 among all coaches in men’s basketball. Kessler led Grace to 18 20-win and three 30-win seasons, including a 32-5 team in 1992 that won the NAIA Division II national championship, which is Grace College’s only NAIA national championship in any sport. Grace volleyball’s 1995 NCCAA title is the other at the school.
Kessler has guided Grace to five runner-up finishes in the NCCAA National Championships, is a three-time NAIA/NCCAA Coach of the Year, is in the NCCAA Hall of Fame, and the 1970 Grace College graduate played four years for the Lancers before taking over the program in 1977.
“When you can slip out of the door, and what you started is in good hands, that’s a real thrill,” Kessler said, eluding to current Grace assistant Scott Moore taking over as the new head coach next season. “Scott has been one of those guys that I saw him as a rugrat as one of our campers…when you were watching him you could tell he was a good one. He was the one up in the bleachers shaking everyone’s hands and meeting people. God’s gifted him with those skill sets to do better than I have.
“He’ll do better than I have. If I have done my job, that’s the way it should be.”
Grace College athletic director Chad Briscoe appointed Moore as the heir apparent to take over the program, just the fifth to be tabbed coach for the Lancers.
Kessler will stay on staff as an special assistant to the college, and continue to serve as an ambassador to the athletic program and the school.
“The legacy coach Kessler has left at Grace is one that will continue to impact lives for many, many years to come,” Briscoe said. “I think coach K for his leadership in our athletic department, his incredible work ethic, his consistent positive attitude and his approach to life everyday.”
Added Moore away from the crowd that came for the press conference, “I’ve only felt nervous when I’ve been unprepared. Sure I’m anxious, but I’m also excited. I’m not Jim Kessler, I’m never going to be him. I’m a completely different person. I tell my guys that a lot. I’m a lot closer in age to the players than he is, he’s 40 years older than me. I’m 12-13 years older than the guys. I think what you’ll see is that our foundation won’t change, we are Grace basketball in what we believe in will remain. It will look a little different.
What’s good for me is that I get to take the good of what Jim Kessler and I get to mix that in with all the coaches I’ve been surrounded by and kind of make it my own.”
Grace will finish up its 2018-19 season with a possible regional play-in game ahead of an appearance in the NCCAA National Championships that begin March 13 at Grace.