Alan LeForce says he never imagined he’d still be coaching basketball — and coaching women, no less — well into his 70s.
Of course, he never imagined quitting either.
The former East Tennessee State coach finally called it a career last week after 55 years in the business. He did so reluctantly, at 78, after sitting out most of this season with health concerns.
“I got sick, just got wore out, and missed the last 15 or 16 games,” LeForce said Thursday from Conway, S.C., where he’s spent the last 16 years as the Coastal Carolina women’s coach. “I went five or six weeks and never slept more than a couple of hours a night. I finally went to the doctor and, bottom line, he said I was totally exhausted.”
LeForce was sent home for a long rest while his team carried on. He talked to Bobby Cremins, a friend who went through similar issues that cut short his coaching career at College of Charleston. He planned to come back strong.
It just never happened.
“All that time I had at home, watching TV and reading … I always hoped I’d know when it was time,” he said. “I’ve been wore out before; I got wore out at East Tennessee. But after a couple of months, my batteries were recharged. This time was different.
“I’m getting much better but still not back to full blast. And there are periods now where I realize I’m not coaching anymore and I get a little depressed.”
LeForce will forever be the classy Kentucky gentleman.
As a basketball coach, he’s one of a kind — reportedly the only head coach with at least 200 college victories on his resume in both the men’s and women’s game. He also had 200 more at the high school level.
It’s been a long, rewarding journey that has taken him through more gyms and made him more friends than one can count.
“I never thought I’d get old, never thought there would be a time when I wouldn’t be coaching basketball,” said LeForce. “One of the things that has always helped me is just being around young people. They’ve kept me young.”
The Williamsburg, Ky., native, began his career in 1958 as a high school coach at his alma mater. Thirteen years later he got his first job as a college head coach at the College of Charleston, when it was a struggling NAIA program.
LeForce went on to become a central figure in ETSU’s basketball heyday of the late 1980s and early ’90s, serving as Les Robinson’s right-hand assistant for five years and then taking the reins of the program himself in 1990 after Robinson headed off to N.C. State.
The Bucs had been Southern Conference champions in Robinson’s last two seasons, and they extended their reign in LeForce’s first two in charge. The 1990-91 team finished 28-5, a school record for wins that still stands. The next season the Bucs won 24 games and broke through at the NCAA tournament in Atlanta, knocking off Arizona as a 14-seed before losing to Michigan and its Fab Five.
“Those were great times,” said LeForce. “I like everywhere I’ve ever worked — it’s just my nature — but East Tennessee … what a place. I guess being raised in the mountains up in Kentucky, I just felt at home there. I loved the people, loved the university, loved our team.”
The table for success had been set, of course, with the recruiting class of 1987 — Mister Jennings, Greg Dennis, Alvin West, Major Geer, Michael Woods. The addition of guys like Calvin Talford, Marty Story and Rodney English kept the momentum going.
During that era, the Bucs won on the road at Tennessee, Cincinnati, Xavier, BYU. They swept three games against N.C. State, the last two with Robinson leading the Wolfpack.
“Those guys were special. They just loved to play together,” said LeForce. “I was old school and Les was old school, and we might practice 3 ½ or four hours. We’d go up to our offices and come back down later, and those guys would still be playing. We had to run them out of the dadgum gym.
“There was no jealousy on those basketball teams. We had some very, very good players, but they hadn’t been heavily recruited and all they wanted to do was win. I still talk to one or two of them every month, sometimes more.”
LeForce also stays in touch with Robinson, who is in semi-retirement down the coast at Sullivans Island, S.C. The men have always had a great chemistry, on and off the court.
“I first met Alan in ’76, I guess,” Robinson said Friday. “I was at Citadel and he was at College of Charleston; they were a low NAIA and he had really brought them up to a new level. We became friends then, and his son Jeff ended up playing for me at Citadel. He was a team captain as a senior.”
LeForce would leave the College of Charleston after nine seasons and coach at two high schools in South Carolina before another college opportunity came up. Robinson was about to offer him a job at The Citadel after assistant Richard Johnson left for Wofford in 1985.
“I went to our AD on a Monday and said I wanted to hire Alan,” said Robinson. “He said fine, but Alan never signed. On Tuesday I got involved with East Tennessee State, and by Friday he was coming there with me.”
Robinson quit coaching at age 52 but says the burnout factor tends to take its toll with most basketball coaches soon after they turn 60. He marvels at LeForce’s longevity in the sport.
“First off, it’s his roots,” said Robinson. “Kentucky produces great basketball people. And Alan just loves basketball. I mean, to do what he did in the men’s game and then coach a women’s team for 16 years … that says it all.”
Unfortunately, the magic ran out for LeForce at ETSU, with declining wins each season until he resigned after a 7-20 campaign in 1995-96. His record over six seasons was 108-70, which still stands as the third-best win total among ETSU coaches. (Robinson had gone 78-70 in his five seasons.)
Instead of looking for another men’s job, LeForce went the unthinkable route and took over a women’s team that had won just seven games the prior season. He stepped away from the Chanticleers last week with an overall record of 228-227.
“It was a good move for me at that time in my life,” he said. “I was 62 and thought I’d do it two or three years and then just live at the beach. It turned into 16 years, and if I hadn’t gotten sick I don’t know how many it would have been.”
What has LeForce learned from coaching both men and women at the Division I level?
“I’ve learned that winning makes men happy, and that happy women win,” he said. “Everybody has asked me for a hundred years what is the difference between coaching men and women. I tell them the main thing is the women’s huddle smells better.”
LeForce is going to miss that smell — and most everything else about coaching.
“I’ll miss practice, I’ll miss the competition,” he said. “I’m afraid I won’t get that adrenaline that coaching gives you, win or lose. I don’t think I’ll get that at home.”
After he’s gotten his fill of golf, or after wife Shirley has gotten tired of him hanging around the house, LeForce knows he’ll still have something left to give back to the game. There will be summer clinics and consultations with coaches who value his wealth of basketball knowledge.
In fact, he was sitting in the Coastal Carolina gym when contacted on Thursday, helping men’s coach Cliff Ellis with some recruiting matters. The sweet sound of basketballs bouncing off hardwood was evident in the background.
“What this game has meant to me, I can never do enough for it,” said LeForce. “It gave me everything. It made my life.”