Larry Holley Continues to Coach the Game He Loves After 40 Years at William Jewell
There are times that Larry Holley admits it’s felt like longer than 40 years since he accepted the job as head basketball coach at his alma mater, William Jewell.
“Sometimes it feels more like 73 years, which is my age,” Holley says. “There’s days that with the aches and pains I can tell I’ve been out here for a while. But most days I don’t know where the time has gone, quite candidly.”
And what a time it’s been for the native of Jameson, Mo. This is Holley’s 51st year in coaching, and in his 48 seasons as a head coach at Central Methodist, Northwest Missouri State, and William Jewell, he is one of the winningest coaches at any level of college basketball. His 914 total victories rank ninth on the all-time list, and in recent years he has passed such names as Adolph Rupp, Dean Smith, Jim Calhoun and Bob Knight.
Holley’s teams at Jewell have reached the NAIA Final Four on four different occasions, and last year’s team reached the 20-win plateau for the 25th time in his tenure with the Cardinals.
Just how did a kid from northern Missouri become an icon in college basketball circles?
He was surrounded by the game through his dad, Lawrence Holley, who was the superintendent of schools in Jameson and a basketball coach himself. “From the time I can remember,” Holley says, “I was in the gym with him watching his players who were my heroes.”
After an illustrious high school basketball career that saw him win first-team All-State honors, Holley would then choose William Jewell to continue his athletic pursuits, doing basketball, track and cross country all four years. But it also allowed him to cultivate a love for music by being in chapel choir, concert band, pep band, and brass ensembles. The similarities between music and basketball aren’t lost on him.
“You certainly have to be dedicated. You have to follow the instruction of your coach or teacher,” Holley says. “Just taking that instruction, applying it, practice time, and then obviously when you’re in an ensemble or in a band, you’re working as a team, and making sure you’re ready for your part to play, and encouraging others.”
While he was playing at Jewell, Holley remembers the conversations he would have with his teammate in the backcourt, Homer Drew, while traveling during road trips.
“Homer was a year older than me, a three-time honorable mention All-American,” Holley says, “and we would talk about coaching on the way back, both of us dreaming that maybe one day that we’d have a chance to be the head coach at William Jewell.”
Drew would later take the Valparaiso basketball program to new heights with seven NCAA Tournament appearances. And after one year of coaching high school basketball, the 23-year-old Holley would begin his path to fulfilling his dream by accepting the head coaching position at Central Methodist in Fayette, Missouri.
“Central didn’t have much in the way of scholarships back then. I wasn’t very smart, but I knew that was going to be a challenge,” he says. “And I thought the advantages outweighed the disadvantages, and they certainly did. It gave me an opportunity to get my feet wet. I thought I’d buried myself a little bit, because six years later I’m 61-93.”
After his tenure at Central Methodist, Holley coached at Northwest Missouri from 1977-79. But then there was an opening at William Jewell, the job he’d always wanted. Though it wasn’t like he didn’t wrestle with it.
“We had come off a really good year and we had a good recruiting class coming in. It was the right decision, but it was a tough decision,” Holley says. “I love Maryville, love Northwest Missouri State. But when you have a good experience at your alma mater, there’s just something about that. When I arrived here from Northwest Missouri State back in the fall of ’79, one of my religion professors said, ‘Welcome home.’ And it was home. And obviously it’s been my home from a coaching and teaching standpoint – and family-wise – for the last 40 years.”
It’s also where he built his reputation as one of the finest small-college coaches in the profession. By his second year in Liberty, the Cardinals were already a force in the Heart of America Athletic Conference. All told, Holley has led Jewell to 11 league championships, 14 NAIA Tournament appearances and 830 wins to date.
Through all these years of success, Holley has known just how to connect with his players. Senior guard Keith Hayes, who is Jewell’s leading scorer this season at slightly more than 21 points a game, played a year at UMass-Lowell and another at Panola College in Texas before his arrival last year.
As a history major, Hayes loves hearing his coach’s stories from a lifetime in basketball. He also says that Coach Holley is old-school in many respects, right down to tucking your shirts in at all times. The “hit, find and get” technique of rebounding is a staple, and Hayes says that Holley is a stickler for high hands, positioning on defense and footwork. But for Hayes, it’s the life lessons that are growing in importance.
“Really I think the most important one is he always talks about perfect possessions. And to me, it extends out more than basketball,” Hayes says. “When he talks about perfect possessions, he’s talking about control what you control at this time in the game. And I feel like he applies that to life, and he expects us and tells us to apply that to life too. I think that’s the biggest thing that he’s taught me, is just to basically stay in the moment and never take anything for granted.”
Retirement is something that Holley has admittedly discussed with his wife, Linda, over the last couple years. Some friends and colleagues have urged him to stay, and others have advised him to enjoy retirement. It’s “probably about 50-50” for him, he says. But for right now, he’s focused on this year’s team, which is off to an 8-11 start that does include a six-game winning streak with two games that have tied the Jewell record for points scored (123).
“These guys just come with great work ethic. It’s a lot more fun. It’s no fun to coach effort,” Holley says. “It’s a really good group, but our defense and rebounding needs to get better if we’re going to be special the rest of the way.”
For someone who says he feels every bit of his 73 years sometimes, it sure doesn’t seem that way to his players. From Hayes’ perspective, it’s clear what makes Holley a great leader.
“I think it’s his ability to always be positive and always be energetic and young,” Hayes says. “He’s always upbeat. He’s always positive. He’s always happy. And he’s always got energy. And sometimes, he has more energy than us. And I want to be like that when I’m his age. Someday I want to be like him as a coach.”