Yesterday, a true legend of college basketball passed away. Jud Heathcote, a national champion coach, died at 90. The basketball world is currently in mourning.
Before Coach Heathcote turned the Michigan State program into a basketball powerhouse and before he coached Magic Johnson, he actually was the head men’s coach at the University of Montana from 1971-76. With that context, let me tell my story.
One of the first big tasks in my professional career came seven years ago. At the time I was the assistant marketing director in the athletic department at Montana. During the early summer of 2010, I was asked to organize that year’s Grizzly Hall of Fame induction banquet. In order to make this come to frution, I had to complete tasks such as choosing a venue, selecting the meal, coordinating audio/visual equipment, securing hotel rooms, and of course corresponding with the inductees. Who were the inductees, you might ask?
In 2010, we enshrined both an athlete and a team. The athlete was a man named Ed Anderson, a former three-sport Griz star who dominated the Skyline Conference in the 1950s. The team was the 1974-75 Griz basketball squad that advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament, narrowly losing to basketball giant UCLA for the right to play in the Elite 8. The head coach of Montana was no other than Jud Heathcote.
I corresponded with the players, mostly through mail and phone, to get as many of them as possible to Missoula for the banquet. A couple members of the team proved especially helpful to me, doing all they could to reach out to guys I didn’t have contact info for and putting the pressure on the ones who were on the fence about making the commitment.
Of course, the big question mark was whether Jud Heathcote would attend. Living in Spokane and 83 years old at the time, it wasn’t a sure thing that he would be able to make it. Whenever I would talk to a player or assistant coach on the team via phone, they would all ask me the same thing: Is Jud coming?
That question was answered one day when I received a phone call.
Me: Grizzly Marketing, this is Brent.
Voice: This is Jud Heathcote.
I was on the phone with Coach Heathcote! He didn’t have someone else RSVP for him, he decided to call me directly. He confirmed that he would attend the banquet and then went down the entire roster asking me if each player would be attending. He was to the point and brief.
The night of the banquet I was incredibly nervous. The event would be attended by donors, athletic department administrators, community big shots, and current Grizzly Hall of Fame members, not to mention the people we were celebrating that night, the 2010 class. Would my organization skills and attention to detail pay off? Or would I embarrass myself?
Throughout the evening, the pieces fell into place. Venue, food, equipment, crowd, etc., all proved satisfactory. With most of my personal questions now answered, there was a prevailing BIG question that everyone at the ceremony was asking themselves: Would Coach Heathcote speak?
Ah yes, Jud spoke.
Some thought he might leave it to an assistant coach or player to address the large crowd that had turned out, but the celebrated leader himself took the podium.
I don’t remember word for word what Heathcote said. In fact, to be honest, I don’t really remember the theme he centered his speech around. However, I can clearly recount three of my observations from listening to him speak:
1. He was gracious – Coach Heathcote spent a considerable amount of time praising his fellow inductee, Ed Anderson. He was not about to let Mr. Anderson’s amazing accomplishments become overshadowed by himself or his team.
2. He was funny – With a sense of humor drier than the Sahara Desert, Coach Heathcote slipped in jokes and references that had the place howling.
3. He was sharp – Using uncanny precision, Coach Heathcote remembered seemingly everything from his Montana days: games, statistics, plays, etc. It was incredible to hear him recount so many details from 40 years ago.
After the ceremony, I can’t even remember if I shook his hand or not. However, I did get to greet him prior to his entrance into the banquet hall. With that said, I didn’t get an autograph, selfie, or intimate conversation with the coaching legend. But it wasn’t that important to me. I had our phone call and I had the memory of his speech. I send my condolences to the Heathcote family and I hope Jud rests in peace. Don’t Blink.