ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
As a man with deep Christian convictions, Rusty Allen has always believed God can make good things come from a bad situation.
During the past four months, Allen experienced the truth of his convictions through his abrupt transition from being the boys’ basketball coach at Hesston High School to being named head coach of the women’s team at Tabor College.
“If you had talked to me a year ago, the likelihood of being at Tabor College wasn’t even on my mind,” said Allen, whose appointment was announced last week.
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In early spring, Allen was leading Hesston to one of its best seasons in years. Ranked at or near the top of Class 3A for most of the season, the Swathers just missed a state tournament berth when they were upset in the regional finals.
A few weeks later, Allen was out of a job-dismissed for what most onlookers felt was a case of petty parental politics run amok.
Allen declined to address the details, but he did say the incident has had a profound effect on him.
“What it has taught me is just to make sure I’m examining my own heart, and not allowing the sport to become larger than life itself,” he said.
That isn’t easy for Allen, who readily admits competitive sports has been a love of his life “from the time I have memory.”
“The way I show it is that I let it consume me,” Allen said. “It becomes a higher priority in my life than it should.
“Another thing I’ve been forced to do here is to find out at what level I am able to forgive people.” he said. “I’ve always felt I was a pretty forgiving person by nature, but I’ve been tested and stretched here.”
When the opening for the women’s job at Tabor came around in late spring, the timing was right for Allen. It represented a chance for him not only to leave what he calls “the element of bureaucracy and politics that small-high-school coaching has,” but also to link up with a college he has admired for some time.
“That was easy,” Allen said about choosing Tabor. “We’ve had players attending Tabor from teams I’ve coached for quite a while. Every one of them has called it one of the best experiences of their life. I couldn’t ignore that.
“Also, I’ve met a lot of people who graduated from Tabor, or are working there, through my six-year affiliation with the Hesston Mennonite Brethren Church. Every one of them, to a person, has claimed it was one of the best experiences of their life.”
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Coaching women, though, will be a new experience for Allen.
“I have several good friends who coach women and they like it,” he said. “They see advantages of it over coaching men and some disadvantages. It’s a give and take, I think.
“But for me, what I’ve arrived at is that basketball is still basketball. The strategies are either going to work or not work, depending on the personnel you have.
“Really, I don’t think the adjustment to women is as big a challenge for me as the adjustment to the 30-second shot clock will be,” Allen added. “That’s the thing I’ll probably give a lot of thought to. I think it will have a pretty significant impact on the way we coach the game.”
Another new challenge will be recruiting his own players, but that part of the job doesn’t intimidate him at all.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” he said. “I’m sort of a high organizational type of person and I think a lot of recruiting is organizing things in a way that leads to success -keeping good files, making contacts, and keeping those connections recorded in such a way that you’ve always got a handle on what’s going on out there.”
He plans to do some recruiting of his own before the fall semester begins. Contacts made during his 15 years of high school coaching will give him an advantage in Kansas.
“At this point, for lack of a better way to put it, it’s a little bit of a shot in the dark,” he said. “Maybe there’s somebody out there that God has in mind who has just been waiting for the phone call. I’m going to beat the bushes and find out.”
Coaching at the college level has been part of Allen’s dream for a long time. His earliest years were spent in Wichita, where his father introduced him and his two brothers to baseball and basketball. His brothers stayed with baseball, but Allen opted for hoops.
“I just fell in love with the game and started playing it as often as I could,” he said.
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After his family moved to Bentley, Allen played and studied at Halstead schools and McPherson College. He graduated from the latter with a mathematics and education degree in 1985.
He began coaching youth teams while still in high school.
“I think I was about 16 when I realized I wouldn’t have a career in the NBA,” he said. “One of the things I was faced with was that I couldn’t imagine not being involved in the game. So what do you do if you don’t have a career in it? Well, you coach. I decided when I was 16 years old that I was going to be a basketball coach.”
After two years of coaching middle school teams in Clearwater, he coached high school basketball for eight years at Sabetha, then moved to Hesston in 1995 to become director of the city’s recreation program. He started coaching at Hesston High a year later.
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For all his success in high school coaching, a high winning percentage isn’t what keeps him in the profession.
“The first thing is just the ministry opportunities there are in coaching,” he said. “You face a lot of adversity and emotion, so it’s sort of a model of what it’s going to be like as you move into adulthood. It’s a real opportunity to minister to young people.
“Beyond that, competition has always been something I’ve thrived on,” he added. “It’s just fun to me. In particular, attempting to win is fun. It presents challenges that I really enjoy.
“What I’ve found is, intense competition has the potential to bring out the very worst or the very best in people,” he added.
“Unfortunately, the tendency is that it often brings out the very worst, so that’s a real challenge. But that’s when you step back into the ministry aspect of it. You can help people learn to deal with very difficult circumstances.”
Allen isn’t afraid to say that winning will be a key goal at Tabor.
“I told the players that in two to three years, we want to be at a point where people are going to say Tabor College’s women’s basketball program is a legitimate contender for the championship every year in the KCAC-which also makes us a legitimate contender to get into the national tournament.”
Allen and his family-which includes his wife, Debbie, and three children: Jordan, a high school freshmen, Whitney, a seventh-grader, and Jesse, a second-grader-plan to move to Hillsboro as soon as they can make the arrangements.
Allen said he is excited about the future and his new community. He feels that, in time, he might even develop a different perspective on the spirited rivalry that existed between Hesston and Hillsboro teams.
“You become pretty devout to wherever you’re at,” he said. “It probably won’t be long before I become a pretty devout Trojan fan.”
As for his stay at Tabor, Allen said he has learned his lesson about making firm projections into the future.
“No one knows what tomorrow brings, but my intention right now is to build the program to a place where, whether I continue to lead it or whether someone else does, there’s been a tradition established that the whole town and the college community want to see continue,” he said. “That could take a few years to accomplish that.”