After 40 Years, Time to Reflect

 

In a wide-ranging conversation with Colby editor Gerry Boyle '78, Dick Whitmore looks back on his life with Colby basketball

By Gerry Boyle '78
Photography by Chris Bennett
 

Whit online
How does it happen that players from 35 years ago are still your friends?
Through the years, it all began with the alumni game, and then I would correspond, in the days before technology, three or four times a year with the alumni group, just saying where we were. And then a lot of guys come to games when we're playing in different places. A huge number of guys come back for alumni games. And then when technology came in, I guess it was probably around the turn of the century, we started e-mailing after games. And that was, I think, the real explosion because it got me in contact with everybody.

It's interesting in that when I was saying-whatever mixed up things I might have been saying-people understood because they had been here and they had gone through similar emotions and similar events. The amazing thing is the feedback. I get feedback literally from 50 or 60 guys every game. When you add that to the things that I'm going to miss on an interpersonal basis, that's going to be the thing that's going to be very difficult.

How often do you see your former players?
Some guys I never see because geography intervenes. But I tried to count it up last year and I think I had seen a hundred and twenty-plus in the two-year period, whether it be at events or back on campus or at games or coming back for alumni games. … It's going to cause a withdrawal.

Do you talk about more than basketball?
When you go from being a coach to being a friend or a dear friend, whatever the level of friendship is, the universe expands. What's important then is what they're doing, if they're in a situation where there is any way I can help with what they're looking to do, or congratulate them on childbirth or marriage or whatever.

They also come to you at difficult times.
 
It's not a bed of roses for everybody. Especially in that downturn period when guys are running into difficulty. That's where the networking aspect of it is helpful.

Did they call after you announced you were stepping down?
What happened was I announced to the players up in the trophy room at 7:15 and I came back and had prepared some emails that I wanted to send to players and family and friends. I sent those out directly after that. Obviously for me it was a very difficult thing to do. By noontime I'd heard from over a hundred people. It's just gone on and on from there. I'm blown away by it, that aspect of it.

I had to get out to take my dog to doggy day care and I was riding down Washington Street and my phone rang and it was Matt Hancock. It was probably eight o'clock. He said, I'll be there by nine o'clock. I went back and he was there at nine o'clock.

What did you talk about?
We talked about a lot of things. Because I hadn't told anybody. My wife I obviously told. I hadn't told our family until the weekend prior, Sunday. So we went through everything. The most significant thing is that those guys who have played want the program to succeed, so that was what we talked about most of the time. How important it was that Colby basketball maintains its quality. Matt and everybody else is interested in making that happen.

When you started at Colby, forty years ago, did you anticipate that this is the way it would play out?
No. I was twenty-seven years old, I had two children and one was going to be born in October of the year I started. I was just so really inspired by the challenge that I didn't really know what to expect to expect nor what to do as far as goals are concerned. All of a sudden you've achieved a goal at that age. Now you're a college coach-what's going to happen from here? And the one thing you don't understand when you start the job is just how complex it is, and what the demands are and what you have to do in order to be successful at that. That consumed me for a long time and as the years progressed, you grow to love Colby more, you get absolutely stimulated by the players who come in who are different and they add dimension. You get sad at the players who leave. But as things progressed the opportunity to be able to be successful creates a wonderful feeling. It also creates the situation where there now become other options to take a look at. I think all the time I was here, one thing that sustained me was whether another opportunity would have a better situation for me than Colby. And that never occurred.

What was ideal about it?
The way the job is structured, you don't get to see much of your family. And so it was most important for them to be in a good place. Colby was a great place. I think in the times that an opportunity came up, I think that the family consideration-that this was a great place for the family-was paramount.

So that always trumped whatever else was on the table.
Yes. That's a good way to put it. And then in the middle of everything I was asked to be chair and A.D. and that created such an imposing challenge, in order to be able to do that, I think the time from when that started until now has just sped by at mach speed. It's just been a really mesmerizing time.

Has 40 years really flown by?
The thing you don't get a chance to do is sit and reflect. It wasn't a situation where I had a lot of time. Between the recruiting and the summer camp, there wasn't a whole lot of time.  Responsibility here, the department-when I became A.D. the time was just frenetic. So all of a sudden you're looking and the kaleidoscope version you see, it's very difficult to pick out things because things went by so fast.

If you had to pick, what are the highlights?
When we won the ECAC championships, it was a great time here. … The spirit that was here at Colby during the course of those times, when the seats were filled an hour before the game and they had to shut the doors and all that stuff. It was a very, very special time.

But one of the real special times was one of our teams that started out horrifically and ended up finishing at .500 because they just willed themselves to do it. That was an experience I'll never forget. That's why I say, when it comes down to it, everything comes back to the players. They're the ones that created the opportunity to be able to be part of something good. And of course, I had a chance to coach my son.

So you never lost your love for it?
Right up until the last game. Our team came back and won the last game that I coached. And that was special.

It must have been sort of a bittersweet victory. You have your last game and then you tell the community. How did that feel?
The interesting thing when you ask that question what really swirls in my mind is-I tried to figure it out the other day-I must have had, between cards and emails, close to a thousand contacts. The amazing thing is what people can bring in memory of something that they were part of that was there in my subconscious. They brought it out. That's one of the things that has been the stimulating part of the past few weeks. This is why the players are so special. They each have the place that they're coming from. Because they're so intelligent and because they're so committed, that they focus in on things that really mean something to them. I can't tell you want that means.

What do you think you taught your players?
Some guys would say I didn't teach them anything. … I would think that teaching them to compete, and understand the value of competing at the highest level. And finding out what that would mean for them within their own growth process. So that they could find out that they could compete on any level. This is the thing that really was important for me and it was something that maybe I was overzealous in my younger years. That calmed down over the course of time.

And the other thing is how much joy there is in playing well. This is what the players gave to me. When they played well it was just so much fun. There were countless games that I coached in where we didn't win and our players played well and it was still a lot of fun.

You had big teams and some players didn't get a lot of playing time.
Historically we did keep a large team. I didn't like to cut players, especially at the level of commitment that they had. We tried to get as much opportunity for them to compete on the practice level, and be able to prepare themselves, if they were underclassmen, to be able to be ready to play in another year. I think that went exceedingly well for a long period of time.
And those players are part of your circle of friends?

Some of the best friends I have are guys who hardly ever played. That is something that means something special.

Did you inform your incoming recruits of your decision?
Yes. Extremely difficult. The whole process of creating an opportunity to come into the Colby community that I had a big part of in those cases. It's just a very difficult opportunity. I guess the one thing that is critical, … is that it's fine because basketball and me being part of their lives for four years was important and was what I was stressing. But when the final decision comes down to come to Colby, the base love of Colby is the thing that overrides everything, I think. I think that part of what is the recruiting process is the thing that makes the decision.

You're a Bowdoin guy. Was it hard at first to be at Colby?
I guess you'll always be grateful to the place that allowed you to grow from adolescent to young manhood. But I was a Colby coach and I was a significant competitor. It didn't take long. I was Colby from the first game I coached.

Now, you had some years there where you were particularly energetic on the bench.
I'm not sure I ever grew up. I'm not positive of that. The energy that I brought to the games never lessened but the demonstration of that energy changed over the course of time. Obviously there were times, in the early years in particular, when I was probably overzealous in the coaching. But I would never change a thing. That was the thing I wanted to do, which was coach Colby basketball, the games were the piece de resistance in that. I just had so much fun.

I think you deal with the differential pressures that occur during the course of coaching a game but the most important thing is that you're able to communicate and you're able to get the players to be in position to be able to do the best job they possible can. That never changed from day one.

Have players changed?
I would say that the physicality changed, the modern approach as far as strength development changed things. The rules changed. Shot clock, three-point line. I guess the thing I would say perpetually is that the Colby basketball player, which is essentially the Colby student athlete, never changed. You had people who were intelligent, who were committed, who understood how hard they had to work in the classroom to achieve what they wanted, or how hard they had to work on the basketball court to achieve what they wanted. I would say that the guys who were playing in the Seventies could play today because they'd be bigger and stronger. They'd lift weights, too. The guys playing now could play in the Seventies because they can shoot, they can dribble, they work hard. From that perspective I'd say that any change is minimal at most.

Your philosophy of the game changed at all?
When the rules changed you had to change with the rules.
I think it made it more exciting. Our teams flourished during that period.

What's distinctive about this program?
I guess I'll go to back to some of the e-mails that I got from different players who played against us over the years. The common thread in that was that whenever they played against Colby, they were going to play against a team that was going to play hard for 40 minutes, that wasn't going to give in. If I could have marketed that phrase from the beginning, that would have been what I wanted as a coach. I was very pleased and proud to have people point that out.

So now you'll have time for family.
I have seven grandchildren, six girls. One of the benefits of stepping down is seeing them more. One of the hardest things was that I got the chance to see my own children play very few times. Because of the nature of the job and then when they were going into high school years, I became A.D. With the exception of Kevin, there wasn't a lot of chance to see them. My wife was amazing. She was able to be mother and father a lot in those situations.  We'll get a chance to see the grandchildren play now.

So at that last game, on the road at Conn College, you were the only one who knew?
Yes. The players come first. There had to be a process set up so that when I talked to them I wouldn't just say I'm leaving but this is how the process is going to go and give them some idea about timing.

Was it hard watching that clock run down?
It was a tight game. We came from behind. It was a fitting conclusion in the fact that our guys really played hard and really took control of the game near the end. Those are always the proudest moments, when you know that your team had taken control of the game.

You try to create the atmosphere of what is necessary to win a game that is close at the end. Impose your will. This year's team might not have had the best record but it became a team that was very good in close games. This was product of the players knowing the control factor. Last three games they won, two were in overtime, the one at Conn., they came from behind.

What are you going to do with this time?
Well I think after August I'm going to take some time and do some visitations to places he always wanted to visit, as far as college basketball programs. Hopefully do a little bit more work for Colby at some point. And then try and sit down and decide what's going to happen and what I want to reach for. I think I have a lot of energy left and I want to be able to use that positively. We'll see.

Part of a what I want to be able to do is I want to be able to enjoy, in some way, stay connected to the people I love most, beside my family, which is the Colby basketball people.

 
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