The official program for the National Junior College Athletic Association’s women’s basketball tournament listed the years of service for seven of the eight coaches who took their teams to the three-day event a few weeks ago in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. None of those seven were longtime veterans. Six years. Seven years. One year. None of those seven had even 10 years on the bench with their school.
For some reason, there was no listing of years for the coach of the Minnesota West Lady Jays, the two-year program out of Worthington, Minnesota. My uncle Mike Fury led the Lady Jays into the national tourney. It was his first appearance in nationals as coach at Minnesota West. His first appearance in 34 years on the bench. I’m not sure why the program didn’t list his years of tenure — perhaps Mike simply didn’t include the info or the person entering the data couldn’t believe anyone would last that long as coach at a community college. High school coaches last for 34 years. Coaches at four-year schools can last for 34 years. Rarely does a community college coach last for 34 years at one school. Monday, Mike made official what he’d known for awhile and what many of us in the family speculated about for months: The 2015 season was his last. My old boss in Worthington Doug Wolter wrote a really nice piece about Mike’s retirement announcement for the Daily Globe.
For anyone who’s gone to a Lady Jays game since the early 1980s it’s going to be a very strange sight walking into the gym at 6 p.m. on a Wednesday and not seeing gray-haired Mike seated on the bench, impeccably dressed in a suit, a towel in his hand, barking at the officials, his team operating crisply on the offensive end and in man-to-man on the defensive end. And for the Fury family it’s impossible to comprehend life without a family connection to the sports teams at the college. My grandpa Fury went there and in the 1930s played on the first basketball and football teams at the school, which has been known as everything from Worthington State Junior College to Worthington Community College to, now, Minnesota West Community and Technical College. My dad went there, my aunts went there, cousins went there, and uncles went there. I went there and played hoops from 1993-95. And in the early 1970s, a decade before he prowled the sideline as coach, Mike played there, starring at guard, becoming one of the college’s best ever as a member of the Blue Jays, leading the team to a pair of state championships and to the brink of the national tournament, back when there was only one class of JUCO ball.
Ever since Mike took over the Lady Jays, their games became family affairs. Mike’s wife, Karen, always sat right behind the bench, rocking in her seat for 40 minutes, violently clapping when things went good, burying her head in her hands when things went bad. Mike’s in-laws on the Henning side came to the game, especially this year when his niece became one of the team’s top players. Before he died in 1999, grandpa Fury attended countless games, always sitting in the top row. He remained mostly silent in the stands, saving his words for the offseason when he’d inevitably ask Mike, perhaps, on occasion, to the coach’s chagrin, “Recruited any players yet?” My uncle Jerry — who played baseball under Mike at the college in the 1980s — has been the longtime PA guy at the college. And, from the time I was six years old, I went to games with my mom and dad, making two-hour weekend trips to see games in Worthington and driving to Austin and Rochester and Mankato for Wednesday night or Saturday afternoon games. Being in NYC I don’t get to games like I once did, but my parents still make that long drive for plenty of them and eventually took over the top row where grandpa once surveyed the action. I’ll still watch the Lady Jays games online. This year the school carried them on YouTube, and you could see exactly how many people were watching. My cousin Gretchen joked that when it said “4” she knew it was probably her, Mike’s other daughter, Sara Jo, my dad, and me. Basketball at Minnesota West — or whatever you happen to call it — has been part of our family’s life for nearly 80 years. Something feels wrong about not having any involvement with hoops there, even if this was the right time for Mike to retire.
Before he became a coach, Mike was a superb player, during those two years at Worthington and then two more at Hamline, where he excelled on the first teams coached by future legend Don Meyer. Mike first starred at Fulda High School, a shooting sensation who averaged around 25 per game and on defense played with a possessed spirit that had him mopping up the floor and the opposition. After his Hamline career, Mike coached high school and then took over the Lady Jays for the 1981-82 season.
Mike’s official numbers in Worthington: 473-360, with nine Southern Division championships, 16 state tournament appearances and state championships in 1984 and 1992. And this year’s national tourney appearance after capturing the region championship. (There’s no longer a state tournament for the women, just one of the thousand changes Mike saw in his 34 years; the logic behind many of them at the community college level are so baffling it’s a wonder anyone lasts three years as a coach.)
But while the numbers will probably be never be matched at the school — the program started in 1975 and went through three coaches before Mike took over for the next four decades — they’re certainly not what I’ll remember about Mike’s time with the Lady Jays. Instead, I’ll remember…some of the theatrics, the one-liners, the memorable victories, the heartbreaking defeats, the players, the fun games in near-empty gyms, shooting baskets as a little kid after the men’s game ended, long nights on ice-covered roads, and the technicals. So many technicals. He told Wolter for the Daily Globe story, “We’re not gonna add those up,” and I’m fine with that, because, as my grades in math classes at Worthington Community College proved, I can’t add that high.
Mike had a reputation as someone who attracted attention from officials, who, throughout those 34 years, often found themselves blowing a whistle, stopping the action, turning to the bench and putting their hands together to form a capital “T.” Mike was unlike so many coaches who also earn the ultimate penalty from the refs. He wasn’t a tyrant in practice; he didn’t rule through fear or intimidation. Off the court he’s quiet, calm, completely laid-back, belying his on-court reputation and that last name. So here, a few of the more colorful moments from Mike’s career on the sideline:
* During a game at Bethany Lutheran in Mankato, one of Mike’s fiercest rivals before the school became a four-year college, Mike left his seat in the middle of the action and sat in the first row behind the bench, right next to my young nephew Brock. It was a brief trip, though I’m not sure if the look of surprise on Brock’s face has ever left.
* Community College games are often played in front of friends, family, and a handful of others. Worthington drew better than probably nearly every team in the country — at the national tournament this year, folks involved with the event marveled at the number of fans who made the trek from Minnesota and points between. But, during one game when the less-than-capacity crowd sat silently in the stands while Mike called timeout, everyone heard him talk to a player who had taken a series of ill-advised shots, each more baffling than the last. The player defended herself and said, “Coach, I was feeling it.” Mike’s response, heard by all? “Michael Jordan feels it. You do not feel it.”
* Mike sometimes had trouble holding on to water bottles, damn slippery things. In a game at Fergus Falls, he casually flipped a bottle backward, about 10 rows to the top of the bleachers. Witnesses can’t recall if someone actually caught it or if it hit the wood. Another time at Anoka-Ramsey — another fierce rival and often a house of horrors over the years — the water bottle magically went from one end of the court to the other, coming to a halt after a long slide in front of the Anoka bench. The other team, not surprisingly, screamed for the ref’s attention and wanted a technical. But the refs didn’t actually see how the bottle got to that end of the court — could have been because of a miracle or a kick. And, with Mike now sitting innocently on the bench, the game simply continued.
* Frozen water also proved problematic. One game Mike gripped a bag of ice and when he threw it down on the floor in disgust, white beads went all over the floor and a mad scramble to get them off the floor followed.
* Mike’s ever-present towel — think of Tark gripping one except Mike thankfully didn’t chew on the thing — once landed on the court after a decent toss from the Worthington coach. The radio guy said the throw wasn’t necessarily what the refs took issue with, only that it eventually had to land and hit the floor inside the lines.
* For many years Mike carried an official rulebook, because you never know when it can come in handy. And on several occasions he brought it out of his pocket after calling an official over to the sideline and relayed the relevant information. Remarkably, officials still didn’t always see it his way.
* A friend of mine played for the Bethany men. He once told my dad that the men’s team stopped by the women’s state tournament to watch the Bethany women and “the first thing I saw when we walked into the gym was your brother lying on his back on the sideline,” apparently, we can guess, shocked at a call that went against the Lady Jays.
* After getting a technical one game, the official who handed out the T refused to talk to Mike, who didn’t know what he’d exactly done to earn the infraction. Was it something he said or how he said it? A word or a gesture? He finally went to another ref and asked, kindly, “I know I am a jerk sometimes, but can you find out exactly what I did?”
* My uncle Jerry related the story of something he saw one day when he stopped by a Lady Jays practice. When Mike told the team to shoot free throws, a player wondered, “Shoot 10 or make 10?” Mike replied, “Aren’t they the same thing?” Once a shooter, always a shooter.
* A few years ago, in the region title game, the Lady Jays’s best player busted her nose. Blood flowed. No foul was called. A few weeks ago, a ref from that game did another Lady Jays game and another player took another shot to the nose. Again, no foul. Mike asked the ref, “How come every time you do one of our games there is blood on the floor?”
* For a decade, Mike shared countless bus rides with my coach at Worthington, Mike Augustine. Mike and Mike made a great pair, entertaining each other on the neverending bus trips, holding court in each other’s tiny coaching offices, sharing war stories about the world of community college hoops, and sharing drinks after home games. They weren’t related by blood, but became family. On April 30, 1999, Mike was by Grandpa Fury’s bedside when he died in a hospice in Slayton, Minnesota. He called Augie — who’d coached many men’s games with grandpa in that seat in the top row — and told him the sad news. A short while later, now back at his home in Worthington, where all of us had gathered after Grandpa’s death, Mike took a call. It was Augie. He had just learned that his father had also died that morning. The two terrible events brought them even closer, a friendship that lasts, 13 years after Augie left Minnesota West.
* Mike came from the Phil Jackson school of timeouts: He didn’t always call them when people thought he should. Sometimes his own daughters thought he should call them when he didn’t. A 6-0 run by the opposition didn’t bring an automatic TO. But this year at Anoka, one of the games I was able to attend in his final season, three straight defensive breakdowns — the breakdown being no one had gotten back on defense — led to three straight timeouts in the span of a minute. By the third one he finally got the players’s attention and they got back on defense.
* Mike carried an old-school competitiveness on the court. He was friends with few rival coaches. What’s the point? And, much to my amusement, he shunned the annoying modern habit of standing at midcourt and shaking the hands of the opposing players in pregame warmups. As I once railed about, this is one of the trends that confuses me. Many a Minnesota West game the opposing team would get introduced, wander over toward midcourt and then realize, oh, there’s no coach waiting to shake my hand before we try and kill each other out on the court. Mike also didn’t like his players going over to shake the other coach’s hand so you had a similar sight, with an opposing coach waiting near midcourt for a handshake that never came. Then, at the national tourney, in the final two games Mike’s players, incredibly, inexplicably, ran over to the other side and shook hands! I was baffled, and I also caught Mike looking surprised as he stood near the huddle. I’m not going to say this is why he retired…but perhaps he saw it was a trend that even he could no longer fight. But Mike knew one important thing: Pregame optics have nothing to do with actual sportsmanship during the games. In his 34 years as a coach, Mike’s teams earned reputations as being disciplined, well-coached, competitive, tough, but, yes, classy. At the end of the national tournament two weeks ago, the Lady Jays were awarded the Sportsmanship Award, which honored the team that showed the most “heart and integrity” at the event, two qualities Mike’s teams displayed in nearly 800 games, even if they rarely displayed friendliness before any of them.
The Lady Jays went 1-2 in the national tourney, including a tough, tight loss in their final game of the tournament, in the final game of Mike’s career. At the end of it, Mike guided the team from the sidelines and across the court to the bleachers, where he led the team in applauding the dozens of fans who made the trip to Bethlehem, acknowledging the crowd that traveled across the country and left everyone at the event talking about the dedication in admiring tones. It was a way for the team to say thanks to the fans for their support in one memorable season and for three memorable games at nationals.
So now, two weeks later, I can return the favor. Thanks for 34 years, Mike. Thanks for the victories, and the titles, and all of the late nights, and all of the nights in the stands watching the men’s game after the women’s game, and all of the entertainment. And thanks for making the Lady Jay family a part of the Fury family for all of these years. I can’t really comprehend Minnesota West without you. But, it’s a good time to take a seat and have a break. Relax. Savor retirement, and your accomplishments. To quote so many refs over the years in the seconds before they brought their hands together and delivered yet another technical: You deserve it.