Born: March 3, 1935
To some, maybe it raised eyebrows. A successful high school basketball coach leaving to become an assistant at the junior college in Poplar Bluff? And after just leading the Oran boys to within a whisker of the Class M state championship?
In March 1969, it made perfect sense to Gene Bess.
“I’d been in high schools for 12 years, and I did what all I could do,” Bess said. “I really wanted to get into college and, once I got here, I never really wanted to leave.”
What may have appeared to be simply a nice hire became much more. Bess took over the Three Rivers Community College men’s basketball program in 1971 after one year as an assistant, and now look. In November 2016, he entered his 47th year at Three Rivers as the winningest coach in college basketball history.
The reward is that Bess is now a Missouri Sports Legend, the highest honor bestowed by the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame. The award means that a bust of Bess, specially cast in bronze, lines the Hall’s Legends Walkway, home to bronzes of greats such as Stan Musial, Len Dawson, Norm Stewart, Whitey Herzog, Ozzie Smith and George Brett.
Bess’ record entering the 2016-2017 season stood at 1,231-360, a 77.3 winning percentage.
Along the way, his program won a pair of national championships (1979, 1992) in the National Junior College Athletics Association. Even better, when other schools came calling, Bess stayed put. He was happy to help young men begin their dreams on a campus that sits on the southeastern edge of the Ozarks and near the Mississippi River.
“I felt like I understood college basketball, and I loved junior college basketball,” Bess said. “It’s the best form of basketball I know. You can spend time coaching the team. I’ve had a few Division I coaches say that 88 percent of their job was just in P.R.”
Bess grew up in Oak Ridge and graduated from Southeast Missouri State in 1959, and then channeled his passion for basketball through coaching. He was 250-90 in a 12-year stretch combined at Lesterville, Anniston and Oran high schools – with a state runner-up finish at Oran in 1969.
Around that time, then-Three Rivers coach Bob Cradic was seeking an assistant, and tapped Bess. Some 12 months later, Bess was holding the keys to the program, and his first team reached the NJCAA Tournament in Hutchinson, Kansas and finished 27-10.
That marked the first of 17 such trips to Hutchinson for Three Rivers, which also won the Missouri Region 16 Tournament 22 times and won the Missouri Junior College Athletic Conference 36 times.
“There were veteran coaches in our region. To be able to compete against them and go to the national tournament was an absolute miracle,” Bess said.
Along the way, Bess adjusted to his team as much as players adjusted to his coaching style.
“I would tell them that they were going to have to adjust to me,” said Bess, who is 33-16 at the national tournament. “But deep down, coaching is about trying to bring out the best in your players. So you’ve got to make a lot of adjustments. Every year is different.
“I was just really blessed with having good players. A lot of them were great athletes.”
Bess was the first college basketball coach to reach 1,000 wins and 1,200 wins. He has been inducted into six sports Halls of Fame, including the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in 2006. The others are Poplar Bluff in 1983, NJCAA in 1989, Region 16 in 2011, Southeast Missouri Amateur Baseball in 2005, and the Missouri Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame. The MBCA honored Bess in 2015 with the Gary Filbert Lifetime Achievement Award.
Over the years, he has had only five assistants: Gary Holland, Roger Patillo, Tom Barr, son Brian and recent hire Bryan Schear. Brian has been on staff now 24 years.
“l always tried to pick an assistant who was better than me,” said Bess “And I was blessed to have assistants who were loyal. That’s why we were always really good.”
Never has the program had a losing season.
“I just feel like the luckiest human being imaginable,” Bess said. “I’m still coaching. I just enjoy getting up and going to work. And I enjoy it now as much as I ever have.”