By Paul Black
LEBANON – McKendree University Coach Harry Statham, who with 1,122 wins over a storied 52-year career became the winningest men’s basketball coach among four-year colleges and universities, was dismissed from his post March 6.
McKendree Athletics Director Chuck Brueggemann announced March 6 that Statham, 80, will conclude his current appointment, which expires May 31. A national search for a new coach will begin immediately.
"For more than half a century, Harry has represented himself, his student-athletes and McKendree University with the utmost professionalism and class," Brueggemann said in a statement released by the university. "Harry built a winning culture by attracting talented student-athletes who excelled on the basketball court and in the classroom. He also prepared them for life after basketball, as scores of his players have gone on to give back and teach the game and life lessons that Harry bestowed upon them.”
McKendree has extended Statham the opportunity to continue his current faculty appointment as assistant professor of physical education for the 2018-19 academic year.
Statham, a popular figure with fans and alumni, said that he did not resign or retire. “I want to make that crystal clear,” Statham said in a Facebook post.
Ironically, the college’s initial announcement of the coaching change has been taken down from both the school’s Facebook page as well as the Bearcats athletics page. While the post was live, numerous posts criticized the move.
Statham said he was given an ultimatum – to resign or retire in less than 24 hours and that the school was “going in a different direction.”
In a letter to Brueggemann and McKendree President James Dennis, Statham wrote, “I have built a program on integrity, academics, and success. We have won over 1120 games. Our program is superior in every area.”
Statham acknowledged that the 2017-18 season, in which the Bearcats finished 12-16 overall with a 3-15 mark in the Great Lake Valley Conference. It is the sixth consecutive season where the Bearcats have finished below .500. The last winning season was the 2011-12 season when McKendree posted an 18-12 record – its last season in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. Beginning with the 2012-13 season, McKendree became a Division II school in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).
“Our conference wins are admittedly sub-par, but three of our four top recruits missed a large portion of the conference season this year,” Statham said. “Several losses were very close and we defeated (nationally-ranked) Drury on the road early in the season.”
Statham said he also made some coaching decisions this year that wasn’t popular with several of his players. “It probably costs us some wins, but I would do the same thing again because it was the right thing to do. Sometimes, integrity is not popular with everyone.”
“If the only reason to go in another direction is not enough conference wins, I am very disappointed in that philosophy. Evidently, past successes and local/national publicity for McKendree mean nothing,” he said.
Statham finishes his career at McKendree with a record of 1,121-512, a winning percentage of 68.6 percent, including 46 seasons above .500. It included 40 NAIA post-season appearances, 15 berths in the NAIA national tournament, 12 conference championships, eight-time Conference Coach of the Year, 12-time NAIA-IBCA Coach of the Year and NAIA National Coach of the Year in 2001-02.
Brueggemann has said a national search will be conducted for Statham’s replacement. St. Louis area media and some McKendree fans’ Facebook posts have already speculated that Trenton native Paul Lusk, who was fired as head coach at Missouri State University March 2, as a possible successor.