Soaring beyond that crossroad: Muse’s stay at Connors one win from 700

Soaring beyond that crossroad: Muse’s stay at Connors one win from 700

Bill Muse remembers the day about 10 years ago where another veteran college basketball coach like himself, sitting next to him while watching a game at the Bedouin Shrine Classic prep basketball, nudged him with a question.

Ken Hayes was that coach. He's long since retired from a career that went from Northeastern State to Tulsa to New Mexico State and Oral Roberts.

Muse was far from retirement at that point. He had spent 11 years at the Division I level as an assistant and two decades as the head coach at Connors State, eventually adding the title of athletic director. He'd had three trips to the NJCAA Final Four in that time.

"Ken looked at me and said 'Bill, you're the crossroads of your career.'" Muse said. 

That he was. In the neighborhood of 500 wins at the time at the helm on the Warner campus, he was conceivably within range of being one of the winningest junior college coaches ever, as Hayes made a point of saying. 

"Who knew then Gene Bess would coach as long as he did," Muse said, laughing.

No joke. Bess would coach another decade at the place he called home from 1971 on, Three Rivers (Mo.). He retired in 2020 at the age of 85 with 1,300 wins and is alone at the top of the all-time list.

A week from tonight (Thursday) on the court named after him in 2014, the 64-year-old Muse will go for career win No. 700 against Redlands. 

He stands at 699-248.That's eighth among active coaches, 22 from being fourth on that list.

The road Muse chose at that point of the conversation is obvious. He bypassed any thought of moving on in the direction of a NCAA Division I job — all except one he got a phone call about, but just weeks after Connors put his name on the court seven years ago.

When asked last week about that job, Muse didn't want to name the school or the position publicly.  But it was a lesson from the Division I coach who helped launch his career that got him and kept him in Warner, that being Coastal Carolina's Cliff Ellis. More on that shortly.

Muse is a New Jersey native. His father, H. Rogers Muse, coached football, basketball and tennis at various schools before taking over at Glen Rock, N.J., as athletic director. He died in 2003 and is an member of the New Jersey State Coaches Association Hall of Fame.

Bill Muse was a 1975 Glen Rock grad, a 6-2 wing who played a year at the University of Mississippi before a knee injury shortened his career. He graduated with a bachelor of science degree in recreation administration in 1979.

Ellis hired Muse as a graduate assistant during Ellis' tenure at South Alabama. There, Muse earned his masters in physical education and became a full-time assistant, then when Ellis went to Clemson, Muse, who would also be part of the staffs at Morehead State and Georgia State, was summoned to be part of Ellis' staff at Clemson.

"That's where I wanted to be, at the Division I level," Muse said. "And I interviewed for a few in that time. They all kept saying I needed head-coaching experience."

His only such shots at head coaching was with the title of associate head coach at Georgia State and with the Georgia Peaches, a women's pro team.

Connors State became that true proving ground. Three years from a national title, the program was going through a rough patch with several coaches following Ed Stepp's run to the top before Muse came in.

The new coach landed what would be five Division I players in his first two seasons. Sammie Haley and Simeon Haley were a pair of 7-foot twins that wound up at Missouri. Frank Harris (Stanford), Cyrus Jones (West Virginia) and Paul Banks (Texas-Arlington). His first year he just missed the NJCAA national tournament. The second season his team reached the final four.

"Those two teams were probably the best two I had," Muse said.

But not the only ones.

Muse has been to the national tournament 10 times, the last being 2018. the 2017 NJCAA National Tournament was special for the fact his son, Bill, Jr., a ball boy for previous trips to Hutchinson, made this one as a player.

"His sophomore year we started out 1-3," Muse Sr. recalls.  I remember riding down the road with him and saying  'hey, you know, going to the national tournament and playing at Hutch, I know it's been a goal of yours to play there but if we don't, it's not a big deal. If we get there, we get there.'

"Then we won like 23 straight, win conference, win regional, win game in nationals and finish in the Sweet 16 and he got two games there."

In actuality there were strings of 14 consecutive immediately after that 1-3 start, then 11 consecutive until their elimination in the Sweet 16.

Now son is coaching alongside father.

"I look back how things happened on my path and I don't regret a minute of it," Muse Sr. said. "I met my wife (Connie) here. My son not only played but is coaching with me. I don't know if things were all programmed this way but it just happened to all happen here. If you're at a place as long as I've had, you have to take ownership of it and that's what I did."

And it's brought about the sense of loyalty in relationships he learned under Ellis. Now 76 and having reached the 800-win plateau, eighth all-time in Division I, Ellis benefited from a player Muse sent him, Josh Cameron, who helped them win a conference championship and get into two NCAA tournaments.

"One of my memories of Bill was when we were at South Alabama and Gene Bartow and UAB were coming in for a game downtown," Ellis recalled. "Bill would go out and put flyers on cars downtown that we had a game. He was good about promoting the program.

"You can't have the success that he's had through the years, through the grind, through the ups and downs, if you're made of plastic. Plastic breaks. He's a very strong-minded, strong individual who has been able to manage the times. His kids as a rule have done well coming through there. He's a Jersey kid who has coached in the South all his life and he made that transition."

Ellis had Muse Jr. as a player.

"(Muse Jr.)  studies the game. He's lived it all his life and he got out on his own and got different perspectives from here and also at Southern Miss," Ellis said. 

That, in turn, has helped Muse Sr.

"Some of my thinking is a little old school still, and he's been able to bring me up to date on what is actually taking place at a four-year school," Muse Sr. said of his son. "He's got some real perspective on the current college culture, whether it has to do with rooms, facilities or game management. He's seen those things up close and he tried to add to our program from that. 

"Recruiting is where he's changed my mind some. Him coming out of two D1 schools. He's seen that talent and he's been able I'm to convince me of kids that weren't ready yet or ones I thought were ready and they weren't."

Junior had a chance to join Chris Beard's staff at Texas Tech as a graduate assistant but chose to join his dad's staff. Beard left Texas Tech last year to take the Texas job.

"You wonder how that might have turned out," Muse Sr. said. "I knew Chris when he coached at Seminole State. I'm glad my son got these different perspectives. I also think junior college coaches are the best training grounds because you have to do everything from laundry to weight training to promotions to marketing to academics to game set up and management. He looked at that hard and decided he wanted to be here. I think he loves it more than I do."

To hear Junior, the best thing is learning from the guy he was once ball boy for.

"Coming to the office every single day and getting to work alongside him. Learning from him on a daily basis to great. Seeing how dad does it and wanting to learn from him every day is awesome.

As athletic director, the elder Muse would have some significant input into who follows him, even perhaps if he gives up that job and basketball simultaneously.

"Maybe he can get out on his own. I've kind of encouraged that," Muse Sr. said. "I was 34 when I got here, He's 25. Following me might not be the best thing for him at that point. Maybe getting a few years as an assistant here, then getting out on his own, carving his own identity."

First, there's 700, a win they'll enjoy together.

"I guess I've coached a long time, had some really good players and really good assistants that have put this together," Muse Sr. said. "Seven hundred is a special milestone because I don't know if I'll be around to get 800. I'm 64, I'm still in good health, but there's other things I want to do."

Per its record book, career wins among active NJCAA Division I coaches with current school listed only (total schools in parenthesis):

Jay Harrington, SW Illinois, 926-523, 45 years (1) 

Bill Carlyle, Walters State 917-411, 45 years (1)   

Pat Smith,  Moberly, Mo., 784-412, 37 years (8)

Steve Schmidt, Mott, Mich., 765–197 in 31 years (1)

Dennis Gibson, Garrett, Md., 721-372 in 36 years (1)

Kevin O'Connor North Platte Neb., 716-410, 37 years (1)

Jerry Burns, Monroe, N.Y., 707-213 in 31 years (1)

MUSE. 699-248, 30 years (1)

Steve Green, South Plains, Texas, 693-186, 29 years  (3)

Jay Herkleman, Coffeyville, Kan., 28 years, 692-204 (1)

The all-time NJCAA record belongs to Gene Bess, 1,300-416 at Three Rivers, Mo. Twenty-eight are ahead of Muse all-time, 21 inactive.

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Bill Muse's favorite career games or moments:

1. First game at CSC, Nov. 2, 1992 vs Central Baptist (won, 101-51). 

His dad, Rogers, flew down from New Jersey for the game.

2. Connors 93, Rose State 81, March 8, 1994

Muse's first Region II Championship, March 8, 1994. Game at the Mabee Center came in a snowstorm, had to spend night in hotel at Tulsa unable to get back to campus. 

3. Knock off of No. 1 NEO, Jan. 27, 1994

The 91-82 win came in front of a packed Melvin Self Fieldhouse.

4. Connors 96, Spartanburg (S.C.) Methodist 90, March 20, 2017:  Getting there after a 69-64 Region II championship over Northern-Tonkawa, this win was special because Bill Jr., was a starter on the team. The Cowboys reached the Sweet 16.

5. No. 1 national seed captured, 2015

Connors beat Redlands 90-80 for the Region II championship which propelled them to a No. 1 national seed for the first time in school history. The team finished 32-2 with 30 consecutive wins and an Elite Eight finish.