Steve Tussey thought he was headed into a leisurely winter for the first time in 25 years.
At age 48, he spent his first Thanksgiving holiday weekend without directing scrimmages and practices since he was in his early 20s. He’d even gone deer hunting for the first time in years, and purchased some new ice-fishing equipment, after resigning his post as head boys basketball coach at Orient-Macksburg last year.
Still working as a counselor at O-M, Tussey had time off after school for a change.
That all changed when Southwestern Community College came calling last month. Now, he’s enjoying the challenge of being interim women’s basketball coach for the Spartans, after the sudden resignation of coach Brett Gilcrist after the final game of the first semester on Dec. 13.
Returning from that road trip on a Thursday night, the players were called to a meeting the following Sunday to receive the news from Bill Krejci, SWCC athletic director, and Dr. Matt Thompson, dean of student services.
“It was a surprise,” said sophomore center Brittany Clark. “Everybody was shocked. They told us coach had resigned for personal reasons, and that they would find us a coach because they still wanted us to play the season.”
What they found was a member of the 300 win club. Tussey accumulated a 23-year record of 317-202 as a head coach, including two state-tourney trips as Woodbine coach and a record of 163-69 at O-M.
Krejci called Tussey on Monday morning. Later that day Tussey met with the players to discuss the possibility of taking the position.
With his wife, Terri, employed in the SWCC bookstore, son Thad a former player and coach at SWCC, and daughter Tara a former volleyball player at SWCC, the family already had a tight connection to the college. Thad, now a counselor at Woodward Academy, may periodically help his father in the women’s program.
“I talked to them about my background and my family’s background,” Tussey said. “After we met, I went home and talked to Terri about it. Then I called Krejci and told him I would do it.”
There has been no discussion yet about next year, from either party. There hasn’t been much time to do anything but try to get things on track for Saturday’s game at Southeastern CC in Keokuk, followed by a road game the following Saturday in Boone against DMACC. Both opponents have been nationally ranked this year.
The players had one practice before heading home on the holiday break, then resumed workouts this week. Before the game, Tussey will have a grand total of six practices to install his system and have the 10-member squad ready to play for a new coach.
“We have six practices and a game, then five practices and a game, so we have 11 practices and one game compared to high school when you have 11 days together before your first game,” Tussey said. “So, it’s not that much different. It’s teaching and coaching.
“We have the basic offense and defense, three out-of-bounds plays, three ‘specials’ and a sideline break in,” Tussey said after Wednesday’s practice. “All you need is the basics. It still comes down to fundamentals like rebounding and passing.”
A loyal brigade of former O-M Bulldogs have come to Tussey’s side to help him quickly install the system they are familiar with. Adam Pool, track and cross country runner at SWCC, is the designated student assistant. His brother Andrew, a SWCC player last year, has also helped while on break at Northwest Missouri State.
Another former Bulldog, Nick Ray, is the boys assistant at O-M this year for Drew Dornack, but has also made it to a few SWCC practices to help Tussey during the holiday break. Former O-M standout and Central College player Michael West has also chipped in.
It’s been helpful to have more than one person on the floor to answer questions and make corrections about the system.
“I made some calls and two hours later I had three guys showing up to help me at that first practice,” Tussey said. “That says a lot about those guys. It’s great to have the help.”
There was no assistant coach on the staff, nor a manager, when Gilcrist resigned.
“The hardest thing is knowing what he’s talking about, because half of the time we haven’t heard the same terminology,” said sophomore guard Kaley Folkerts of Bedford. “He’s definitely a good coach. It’s just a matter of understanding what he wants.”
“To have a quality coach like Steve is such a bonus for us,” Krejci said. “I know it’s going to be a smooth transition.”
Armed with a roster, a DVD of one game from the Kansas trip and season statistics, Tussey learned more about his team during the holiday break. He was ready to get to work Monday. His message to the team was simple — “Trust me.”
“The first thing I did was make a list of all the defensive stuff I do, all the offensive stuff I do, and all the team and individual drills,” Tussey told the team. “I have five days to put that stuff in. We’re gradually building in more of the offense and defense. Then on Monday, after we play a game, we’ll go back to cleaning up all that stuff, and gradually build back up to the next game. So, hopefully you see how it all comes together. We’re at the point where we need to all be on the same page. Two more days, and we’re rolling.”
Tussey was known to employ a deliberate, ball-control style at O-M, especially when they were ahead. He smiles when reminded women’s college basketball in the United States uses a 30-second shot clock.
“Yeah, that’s an adjustment,” Tussey said. “We’ve put in some quick specials we may need at the end of the shot clock. At Orient, we were basically shooting layups or free throws at the end of the game, if we had the lead.”
Yet, Tussey said 25 years in education have left him with the philosophy that teaching is teaching, and coaching is coaching, regardless if it’s high school or college, male or female.
“I love coaching and working with young people,” Tussey said. “I never used the term ‘retire.’ I just didn’t know it would be this soon.”
In their limited time together, Tussey said the team has shown to be cohesive with no discipline problems. He’s excited about helping the 0-14 squad improve for the bulk of the conference schedule.
“We still have 15 games, and we’ve only played one conference game so far,” Tussey said. “They’ve been in some close games, so hopefully in practice we and get over the hump, and they can finish some of those games.”
Ice fishing, meanwhile, may be postponed for awhile.