CARBONDALE — Chris Carr had torn his meniscus during the high school playoffs of his senior year, and hadn't signed his scholarship papers yet.
He had an offer from SIU and coach Rich Herrin, but wasn't sure if it would still be there when he arrived for his official visit in 1992 on crutches, sporting a knee brace. It was.
"My mom was concerned, and I was somewhat concerned that I wouldn't have scholarship opportunities at the schools that had offered me, and he was, like, 'Nope. I'm a man of my word. I offered you a scholarship, and I believe you're going to be even better when you come back,'" said Carr, who led the Missouri Valley Conference in scoring in 1995, played six years in the NBA, and was inducted into the Saluki Hall of Fame in 2006. "And that just shows the character of the man himself, because he didn't have to do that, but he'd seen something in me that made me believe that he could. And that just speaks to the measure of the man that he was."
Herrin, the man who took SIU from the doldrums to the NCAA Tournament, died late Christmas Day at the age of 87. Herrin won 521 games at Benton High School between 1960-85 before taking over the Salukis, who had won 56 games their previous five seasons, combined. His first club went 8-20, but in his fourth season, he led SIU to the NIT, its first postseason appearance in 12 years. His 1992-93 club won the first of three straight MVC Tournaments, the only three-peat in league history, for SIU's first NCAA Tournament appearance in 16 years.
"I didn't realize the journey," Carr said. "I didn't realize the year they won 26 games, and got beat in the semifinals of the conference tournament, and didn't get an at-large bid. I wasn't a part of those heartaches, and so, I'll never forget coach Herrin putting his hands on his head and just crying whenever we beat Illinois State in the finals of the Valley Tournament my freshman year. 'Why is he so emotional? We just did what we were supposed to do.' I didn't quite understand everything that went into it."
Herrin's 225 wins at SIU between 1985-98 are second in school history behind William McAndrew (303), and rank seventh in Valley history.
Ron Smith, a Benton native like Herrin, coached for him for four years at Benton High School and from 1985-94 with the Salukis.
"We had a lot of support from the Southern Illinois community," he said. "They knew him, and I think the people here generally liked him, and wanted to have success. We were able to bridge the gap from Day 1 to get to that fourth season and get to the postseason, by getting the most out of what we had. We were fortunate to have some local players that knew him, their coaches knew him, and in the state of Illinois, his name was solid gold."
Chris Lowery, who came from Evansville, Indiana to play for Herrin, was one of several former Salukis who went on to coaching careers themselves. Lowery, the MVC Coach of the Year in 2005 and 2007, went 145-116 at SIU with three NCAA Tournament appearances (2005, 2006 and 2007). He is now an assistant coach at Kansas State under another Saluki Hall of Famer, Bruce Weber.
"He forever changed my life; taught me the importance of winning the right way," Lowery tweeted Saturday. "He won Big, but his lasting impact was the amount of his former players who became coaches themselves. There is no one who loved the game more than Coach Herrin. It showed in the way he taught the game & how much he loved practice. Thank you Coach for giving me the chance to be a Saluki, & the best times of my life happened in Carbondale."
Very sad day for the Saluki Nation - RIP to my college coach, Rich Herrin. He forever changed my life & taught me the importance of winning the right way. He won Big, but his lasting impact was the amount of his former players who became coaches themselves.— Chris Lowery (@CoachLoweryKSU) December 26, 2020
Herrin went 225-174 at SIU, with 111 MVC wins, the seventh-most in league history. He was inducted into the SIU Hall of Fame in 2000 and the MVC Hall of Fame in 2010. The Benton native won over 670 games in the high school ranks at Benton, Okawville and Marion, and coached Morthland College in West Frankfort before the school closed in 2018.
Herrin coached eight SIU Hall of Fame players, 1992 MVC Player of the Year Ashraf Amaya, Carr, Troy Hudson, Lowery, Sterling Mahan, Steve Middleton, Rick Shipley and Marcus Timmons. He sent four players on to the NBA (Amaya, Carr, Hudson and Tony Harvey), and coached Doug Collins at Benton High School.
Herrin is survived by his wife, Sue, and children, Rodney Herrin, Kyle Herrin, Randy Herrin and Kristy (Herrin) Allardyce.
SIU (6-0) hosts Evansville (2-4) in a game at the Banterra Center on Sunday and will observe a moment of silence in memory of coach Herrin. Tipoff is scheduled for 3 p.m. The game is scheduled to air on ESPN+.
On Twitter: @THefferman