For Gregg Nibert and Ron Cottrell, basketball isn’t the legacy which lasts

We recently wrote about coaches who have devoted their lives to college basketball. These men are over 50 years old, and they haven’t yet made the NCAA tournament at their current coaching stops despite being on the job since the previous calendar decade (2009 or earlier).

We also wrote about coaches who reached their postseason tournaments at other classifications — NAIA for some, NCAA Division II or III for others — but have not yet reached the Division I NCAA Tournament, the tournament college hoops coaches dream of.

Spending years — which bleed into decades — in pursuit of that One Shining Moment can take its toll on coaches. This is not a low-stress profession. Yet, part of the beauty of college basketball is that the vastness of its landscape does allow some coaches to spend extended time at schools. For some members of this profession — far removed from the spotlight — one can practice one’s craft without a ruthless insistence on having to make the NCAA tournament… or else.

In some corners of Division I college basketball, the game is a vehicle for bigger truths. It’s a gateway toward legacies which matter far more than tournament berths.

Two accomplished coaches — both searching for a first NCAA tournament (at the Division I level) — show that this notion of “legacy” doesn’t have to be about basketball.


Let’s first say that Gregg Nibert of Presbyterian College and Ron Cottrell of Houston Baptist University are quality coaches. They established themselves in the NAIA (both, but mostly Cottrell) and NCAA Division II levels (Nibert) before their respective programs made the jump to D-I ball. They’ve both coached at their schools for just over a quarter-century. Their schools take Christian faith seriously… and clearly, they do in their own lives.

A coach and a coach’s wife will often open up their home to recruits. Team-building can come from the act of inviting players into a family home. Of greater value, though, is the ability to put players at ease. Offering the comforts of a nurturing family environment can have a profoundly soothing affect on an athlete as he adjusts to entirely new surroundings. For most coaches, this is the meaningful way in which young people other than their own children enter their lives.

The idea of opening one’s house to foster children is daunting enough for anyone. That a D-I college basketball coach and his wife would do the same is rather remarkable.

Gregg and Peggy Nibert are remarkable people.

The Cauldron wrote about their story last year. You should definitely read every last word of this account. Gregg Nibert has turned a lengthy career at Presbyterian into a chance to open doors to young people — not just to recruits, but to those in need of help.

Watch this video for even more context and perspective from the Niberts themselves:

Church deacons might not be lead pastors, but they are certainly called to be pastoral. They might not be the first faces of a congregation, but they are pillars in a structure. The commitment to be a deacon is no small thing, not something to be pushed to the margins amidst the turmoil and clamor of a demanding life.

Ron Cottrell of Houston Baptist University is up for the challenge.

A D-I head coach, Cottrell is also a deacon at Sugar Land Baptist Church in Houston. It is, in a certain sense, natural to envision the convergence of college recruiting and pastoral ministry. The two crafts aren’t necessarily about persuasion (though that’s a component of each); they’re more about transformation, about opening up a person to a sense of what’s possible. Uncertainty about college and uncertainty about one’s own ideas are always waiting to be molded into something more, something clearer, something firmer and more substantial. Seen from this vantage point, why wouldn’t a coach-and-recruiter also be a natural fit for ministry?

Here’s the splash of cold water which needs to be thrown onto this discussion: Coaching, at the “higher end” (so to speak) of Division I, is a dirty, dirty business.

The cutthroat tactics and ethical black holes in the power conferences make college basketball recruiting a slimy theater of activity. Many a coach over the course of time has soiled his ethical and moral compass in the pursuit of an NCAA tournament bid. If that was the legacy Ron Cottrell cared about, his life wouldn’t be what it is.

Salesmanship in basketball recruiting and personal presence in the realm of ministry are — from this other and more countercultural view — extremely different.

Cottrell is very cognizant of the need to put basketball — more precisely, basketball wins and losses — in their proper place.

You don’t need to agree with certain tenets of theology or spirituality to appreciate that Cottrell is focused primarily on the growth of the human person. That fundamental orientation comes through quite strongly in this video:

You can be a secular liberal and still respect a college basketball coach’s commitment to holistic development, to creating whole persons who — years after graduating from Houston Baptist University — thank their coach for lessons far beyond the basketball court. It’s what college athletics are ostensibly supposed to promote. We don’t see this at the big-ticket level of Division I, but it still emerges at places such as Houston Baptist and Presbyterian.

Legacies beyond hoops can and do matter in college basketball. You just need to look long enough and hard enough through the totality of a 351-school landscape to find resonant examples.

Gregg Nibert and Ron Cottrell would surely like to reach March Madness one day. They can live without the Madness, though — they’re very much at peace blending basketball with bigger callings.

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.