As the final seconds ticked off the clock on January 7 in Sesser, Rick Metcalf chalked up career win number 600, his Sesser-Valier-Waltonville girls basketball team cruising to a Black Diamond Conference West rout of Trico.
What was going through his mind at that point?
“Once you get it, it’s who’s next? I always go over what we have to do to beat the next team,” he said. “Been like that my whole life.”
Which might explain why he’s has suffered just one losing season in his career and why every player he’s coached in consecutive seasons since 1990 has won at least one championship before leaving a Metcalf program.
But how did Metcalf get to be this consistent and this respected? It’s a story that spans a couple of generations, includes a cameo from a southern Illinois football coaching legend, a detour to North Dakota, guest appearances by the late Jim Valvano and Danny Manning, and a switch from coaching boys to girls less than a decade ago.
Metcalf didn’t start playing organized basketball until his sophomore year at Bradley-Bourbonnais High School. Oftentimes, he would play non-stop at a local gym which would close at 10 p.m.
“You know the guy who would close that place down? Mike Rude,” said Metcalf, invoking the name of the coach who went on to win 217 football games after a stint as an assistant coach at Bishop McNamara in Kankakee.
From there, Metcalf played two years at Kankakee Community College for Denny Lehnus, the man he terms a father figure. Lehnus taught Metcalf discipline and structure. The coach who recruited Metcalf at Mayville State (N.D.) offered him a beer upon landing at the airport.
He also offered him a free rein offensively.
“His philosophy was he wanted to take 100 shots a game and make half of them,” Metcalf said. “He was fun to play for, but after playing for him, I realized that the discipline coach Lehnus gave me was the way to go.”
Metcalf actually considered becoming a state policeman coming out of Mayville State. “Then I put a gun in my hand and didn’t feel like it would be a good thing,” he said, chuckling. So he went with his first instinct and became a coach.
He started at Joppa and went 16-9 in 1983-84, then endured the only losing year of his life in 1984-85 at 2-16. Late that year, then-Goreville coach Jerry Qualls came up to Metcalf and gave him some career-changing advice.
“If you don’t get out of here now, you’ll never get a good job,” Qualls said.
Metcalf listened. He took a post under coach Steve Newton at Murray State as a graduate assistant and was part of one of the Racers’ better eras. They made two NCAA tourneys and an NIT when Metcalf was there, beating Valvano’s N.C. State in a first round game in 1988 and almost beating Kansas in the second round before losing on some late-game heroics by Manning.
There was a chance for Metcalf to become a restricted earnings assistant at South Carolina when Newton left Murray State before the 1991 season, but Metcalf’s wife had already bore a child and had a second one on the way. So with roots now firmly planted in southern Illinois, Metcalf stayed and cranked out 20-win seasons.
Win 20 games often enough, and you’ll get to milestones. The latest one now a week or so behind him, Metcalf keeps preparing for the next game, which in this case was to be Pinckneyville on Thursday in the West Frankfort Mid-Winter Tournament.
Like any smart coach, Metcalf has adapted as necessary to the times. His changes in coaching girls as opposed to boys were more subtle, such as adjusting his plays to set picks closer to the basket.
But when you’re winning 20 or more games every year and reaching milestones every fourth year, what does one really need to change?
“What you do is learn,” Metcalf said. “Take a lot of organized mayhem from one, discipline from the other … to me, I want to be prepared for everything. If I’m not, it’s like taking a test and not having the answers.”
And as his record proves, Metcalf usually has the answers.