WINONA LAKE – His office isn’t cluttered, but strategically busy. Overseeing him on a daily basis are the glares of 40 years of guidance, memories, skill and love. As Jim Kessler prepares to wrap up his 42nd and final season on the court that bears his name, it will be more than just pictures that have their eyes on the Hall of Fame basketball coach.
Kessler announced in February this season would be his last as head coach of the Grace College men’s basketball program. With that announcement came the usual and blatant outpouring of sentiment and emotion from those whom Kessler has impacted in over four decades of time in Winona Lake and beyond. Social media was on its ear that Monday as former players, coaches, media members, friends, family and neighbors all chimed in with congratulations and words of encouragement. Walking through the halls of the Manahan Orthopaedic Capital Center a week before the NCCAA National Championships are set to begin, Kessler joked his Facebook had never been so busy.
The MOCC will be the scene of Kessler’s final games as a Grace coach, as the Lancers are set to be the host team for the NCCAAs starting Wednesday. Grace will play on opening day at approximately 5:15 p.m. against Bluefield and look to do something Kessler has never done, win an NCCAA title. Kessler has guided Grace to four runner-up finishes in the NCCAA National Championships, including a loss in overtime, but no championship. Among a laundry list of accomplishments in his four-plus decades on the sidelines, winning this tournament is how he truly wants to go out.
“I’d like to think that I can come out and just coach one game at a time, just to treat each one as a stand alone,” Kessler said, who will technically have one more game to go after the NCCAAs, chosen as coach for the NAIA All-Star Game on March 26. “We just want to be 1-0. Four times I’ve coached us to a runner-up finish in this tournament. Four times we’ve lost. This one has some meaning.”
Kessler’s résumé reads like most legends who have coached for four decades. Already a member of the NAIA Hall of Fame, his 786 wins to move him into a tie with Lefty Driesell and Jim Smith among all coaches in men’s basketball. Among the ride this season, Kessler passed hallowed names like Lute Olson and Lou Henson on the all-time list. 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. He 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.
This year’s roster is primed for a run, and has the motivation to make one. A brutal schedule had the Lancers take on 11 ranked teams, all of those matchups in the Crossroads League. Kessler noted that while his club didn’t win any of those contests, Grace is 16-4 in the other 20 games and was 5-2 in its final seven games. Thankfully, none of the other Crossroads teams will play in the NCCAAs. The Lancers are aiming to turn their fortunes around against the nationally regarded.
“It’s truly an honor and has been a great influence and role model in my life these last four years,” said senior team captain Logan Godfrey. “I’m very fortunate to have played for him all four years. It just gives me motivation to compete to my best ability for him.”
Win, lose or draw, Kessler is at ease with his decision, and as he jokes, one his wife, Susanne, made for him two years ago. He found his successor without having to look in assistant coach Scott Moore, who has checked off all the boxes to keep Kessler’s basketball mind at ease. The Hall of Fame coach points to the relationships, not wins and losses, as what matters most. Whether it was with John Wooden, to whom Kessler got to closely know, or taking humbling cues from Dean Smith on how to coach the right way. Kessler admits some players stuck out more than others in the red, white and black, but all of them mattered. To which all 42 of his teams are hanging on the walls of his office. Each with a place, each with an equal amount of value.
“I don’t know how this is going to end, that’s part of the reason you coach, it’s what makes it exciting,” Kessler said.