July 25, 2011
MADISON, Wis. -- At the end of a two hour phone conversation, Gary Close had no idea what he was getting himself into but he said “yes” anyway to the offer. That’s how badly he wanted to be a basketball coach.
If you could put this moment in Close’s life to song – the New Jersey-bred UW assistant is a fan of Bruce Springsteen – he was not only “Working on a Dream” but “Dancing in the Dark” on this move.
Sight unseen, he took a job at Fenster School of Southern Arizona, which was located in Tucson. “My goal was to be a college coach,” Close said. “But I knew I had to start at the high school level.”
A week or two before the start of classes, Close sat in the office of the person who hired him.
“Can you show me the gym?” Close asked.
Close was instructed to look out the window.
“It’s right there, Gary.”
Close looked for a few seconds. Puzzled, he said, “I don’t see anything.”
Did they have plans for building a gym? If so, he wanted to know more.
Before he could follow-up on his thoughts, he got his answer.
“See the court, Gary? It’s right over there.”
Close looked out the window again. All he saw was an outdoor court.
“That’s where you’re going to practice, Gary.”
Before he could say anything, he was assured, “In Arizona, the weather is beautiful.”
It dawned on Close that he had just become the coach of a basketball program without an indoor basketball court. Fenster School of Southern Arizona rented the YMCA for home games.
Undaunted by his surroundings, he went to work. He coached basketball, baseball and women’s volleyball. He was also the Fenster athletic director and taught six classes, including biology.
Close had the coaching itch and nothing was going to stop him from realizing his dream, which began taking shape during his playing days in high school in Moorestown Township, N. J.
After enrolling at Arizona State, he eventually tried out for the team as a walk-on. But he was one of the last cuts. He liked the coach – the late and legendary Ned Wulk – and the coach liked Close.
Wulk was a Cheesehead – a Marion native who went to La Crosse State. “He asked me to help out,” Close said. “I was not even a grad assistant. I was below that. I did whatever they asked me to do.”
Once at Fenster, he got to know Henry Horn, the Dean of Admissions, who played college basketball for Tom Davis at Lafayette. Close was always intrigued by Davis and the way he coached.
(Insert Springsteen’s “Born to Run”)
Specifically, he remembered watching Davis lead Boston College to the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament. Through Horn, Close got to meet Davis when he brought his Stanford team to Tucson.
One thing led to another, and Davis invited Close to work his basketball camp. Davis lost one of his Stanford assistants that summer and Close saw his opening. “I told everyone I was going to apply for the job and I was going to get it,” he said. “They laughed and said, ‘You’re crazy. Go ahead and do it.”’
So he did. Close went up to Davis and said, “Coach Davis, I want to be on your staff. You don’t even have to pay me. Just give me a job and let me go to work.”
Davis first wanted to see how Close handled things in the camp. A week later, they talked again, and Davis told Close to go home and write a letter on why he wanted to be college basketball coach.
“I wrote this long, handwritten letter,” Close recalled. “I wrote how it was my sole ambition to be a coach. I sent him the letter and a couple of days later, he called and he said, ‘You’re on.”’
Close was almost speechless at the thought of it all. Rightly so. “That’s a pretty dramatic jump,” he said. “I went from no gym (at Fenster) to Stanford and coaching in Pauley Pavilion (UCLA).”
Davis turned out to be a friend and mentor.
“All great coaches are great teachers, and that’s what he considered himself to be, a teacher of basketball,” Close said. “He had a great demeanor in terms of getting things across to his players and seeing things that maybe other people didn’t see.”
Davis was a Cheesehead, too – a Ridgeway native, who went to UW-Platteville. Davis was always doing something for his alma mater. That included extending an invitation to an up-and-coming coach. His name was Bo Ryan, and he spent a week with Davis and his Stanford assistants.
Ryan and Close hit it off right away. Philly guys, though Ryan is from Chester and Close is from Jersey and Moorestown, an eastern Philly suburb. Close enough. They spoke the same language: hoops. “I had Bo over to the house and we’d have dinner and talk basketball all night long,” Close said.
That one week together in Palo Alto was the start of a budding friendship. Close went on to coach 13 seasons for Davis at the University of Iowa and, of course, that brought him into even closer proximity to Ryan, who was winning all those national championships at Platteville.
At Iowa, Close never stopped learning from Davis. “I learned how to treat people the right way,” he said. “He would treat a star player the same way he would treat a scout team player who never played. He treated everybody – from the custodian to the secretary – with a lot class.”
Close got out of coaching for one year after Davis was fired by the Hawkeyes. But he couldn’t stay out for long. Close took a job at Regina High School in Iowa City. “People were shocked,” Close said. “All of a sudden, I went from a high D-1 program to a very small private school.”
But he was following his heart. “I just wanted to coach, I missed it,” he said. “I wanted to get back to the college level. But, quite frankly, I didn’t know if I’d get back or not. It’s a tough profession to get into, and a tougher profession to get back into after you’ve been out for a year.”
Three years and two state tournament appearances later, Close called Ryan to ask about a Division III job. Ryan called back and offered him a spot on his staff. “It was a no-brainer,” Close said.
Since then, Close has interviewed for head coaching positions at Drake and Cornell. He felt like he was the perfect fit for Drake. So did many others. But he didn’t get the job. He thought Cornell would be ideal, too, especially since his dad went to school there. But that didn’t work out, either.
Close stills aspires to be a head coach, but he’s realistic. He’s 54. “And that does narrow the number of jobs that might be available in terms of what they’re looking for,” he said. Don’t get him wrong. “A lot of people would love to be in my shoes, let me tell you that,” he stressed.
Coaching is about building relationships. “And that’s what makes my job special,” said Close, who along with his wife Kellie, always have the “Welcome” mat out for former players at their home. “You get those same relationships whether you’re a head coach or an assistant coach.”
You also get labeled in this business. During his tour of duty in Madison, he has been tagged the “Shot Doctor.” To be honest, he’s not really comfortable with it. But he’s too nice to say anything.
“To be an effective coach, you have to find your niche and that was my niche – I felt like I could teach shooting,” Close said. “Obviously, you can get a connection with kids because they all want to learn how shoot. From the very beginning, it’s something I’ve gravitated towards.”
Same with the Boss.
Close figures that he’s been to 50-plus Springsteen concerts. Getting back stage is on his bucket list. At that, he may still have a “Hungry Heart” to be his own boss, but these are the “Glory Days” for the Badgers with yet another NCAA tournament on the horizon. And he’s glad to be a part of it.
Especially since all of the practices are indoors.