Lambert's Legacy

Building young men bigger concern than 500 wins

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By Stefan Cooper
Sports Editor
Blount Today

The Kelvin Richardson dunk in practice.

Randy Lambert didn’t have to think long when asked to name the single most memorable thing he’s witnessed from one of his players in 27 seasons as coach at Maryville College.

"We were practicing for the tournament," he said. "We had a lob play we ran for him. The passer threw the ball wide and it hit off the rim. He (Richardson) sort of hung there. It threw off his timing. So he dunked it with his elbow.

"I just went, ‘Practice is over,’ and they all ran out of the gym screaming."

As the years passed, Richardson gave way to Chris Housewright, who gave way to Brent Watts, who gave to Sidney Ellis, who, two seasons ago, became the first All-American in the history of the men’s program.

In the interim, the wins piled up. As the Scots (18-5) ready to host Tennessee Wesleyan College in a men’s/women’s doubleheader this afternoon at Cooper Athletic Center, Lambert is within three victories of 500, all of them coming at
Maryville.

The Maryville and Wesleyan women tip at 5:30, with the men following at 7:30.

"I’ve been able to live out my dream in Maryville, Tennessee," Lambert said. "I’ve always wanted to coach college basketball. Maryville College afforded me the opportunity to do it at home. Very few coaches can say they did it in one place."

The wins for Lambert at Maryville have come by way of varied teams. On his first during the 1980-81 season, more than half of the players were on academic probation. They would go on to finish the year at 15-11, igniting a run that would see only four Maryville teams during Lambert’s tenure finish the season below .500.

The last came with an 11-15 mark to conclude the ’86-87 season. Two seasons prior, the Scots had won the Old Dominion Athletic Conference, a team Lambert said he’ll always consider one of his favorites.

"To this day, I think that’s definitely one of the greatest accomplishments of one of my teams," he said.

Lambert drove the team bus to road games during those early years. Things were tight then. When the sky walking Richardson arrived in the early 1990s, they would loosen considerably.

Richardson signed with Memphis State out of Alcoa High School, leaving after a season to return home. He’d given up on basketball until Lambert spotted him during an open gym night at Maryville. When Lambert convinced Richardson to give basketball another try, Maryville’s fortunes changed for ever.

"Kelvin Richardson gave us credibility in the community because he was playground legend," Lambert said. "Anybody that played basketball knew him and respected him."

Richardson would lead the most successful Maryville team in school history, the 1991-92 Scots reaching the NCAA tournament’s Elite Eight, coming within a basket of the Division III Final Four.

It’s a near miss Lambert has never forgotten.

"I tell every one of our recruits (reaching the Final Four) is the only goal we haven’t accomplished," he said. "I’d like to do it for the college, just to prove you can do it here.

"We play by the rules, and I think it would be great to show you can do it that way. I don’t think I’ll ever be totally satisfied until we do it."

The ’92 Scots not only established Maryville as a national power to be reckoned with but help make the school a recruiting juggernaut as well. Players like the silky Housewright, Watts, arguably the deepest shooter ever to play at Maryville, and towering 6-foot-10 center Matt Ennen spurred the Scots to an unbroken string of 20-wins seasons beginning in the late 1990s. The run coincided with eight consecutive NCAA tournament appearances.

Ellis arrived five years ago from nearby Seymour High School, his athletic all-court game adding an All-American player to Lambert’s resume.

No shortage of star power has dawned Maryville’s orange and garnet during Lambert’s stay, but it’s the teams he remembers most, he said, teams like the ’86-87 ODAC champions, teams like the current Scots, whose destiny, it appears, it is to carry the school’s beloved coach over the 500 threshold.

Like the ’87 Scots, this season’s edition has made a name for itself more by what it can do as a group than as individuals. Seniors Bobby Golden and Bradley Blair and junior Bo Mason lead a squad that began the season the nation’s No. 7-ranked team. By Christmas, Maryville had fallen to 5-4.

Lambert points to decidedly more graying hair around his temples as to what the first month of the season was like.
"This side is Bobby," he said. "This side is Bradley."

Those weren’t fun times, Blair said.

"Coach challenged us," he said. "We had our backs to the wall. At that point, losing wasn’t an option."

"I that (the fourth loss) was a wake-up call," Golden said.

What awakened was a clearer sense of the team within itself, Blair said. They rallied each other and learned to depend on one another.

"We have a mentality to pick each other up," he said.

The result has been a Maryville team that’s won 13 of its last 14 games since that loss to Transylvania University back in December. The Scots only loss since then came at the hands of another NAIA scholarship school, Bristol’s King College.

"Ever since Christmas, this team has been focused on getting the wheels moving," Blair said.

With Golden setting the pace at 14.7 points per game, followed by Mason’s 13.7, Blair’s 12.3 and junior Alex Bowers’ 10.9, Maryville is a team gathering force and identity as postseason nears.

To get their coach to 500 this season, the Scots will need wins in their last two regular season games, with the milestone win then possible in the opening round of next week’s Great South Athletic Conference tournament.

"That’s huge motivation to have that be the legacy we left behind," Golden said.

"It’s good to give something back for all he’s done for us," Blair said.

Maryville is now steaming toward a ninth consecutive NCAA tournament berth at full power.

"Eleven-and-two on the road versus Division III teams is quite impressive," Lambert said. "Winning the tournament at (former national champion) Otterbein (over Christmas) was a real joy."

Reaching 500 is the least of his worries at the moment, he said.

"I’m not real concerned with winning my 500th game this year," Lambert said. "I’ll get it some day. I’m more concerned about what this group can accomplish this season."

And, he quickly added, beyond.

"If this team is representative of society’s young men," Lambert said, "then our future looks good."

In 27 seasons at Maryville, Lambert has graduated 96 percent of his players.

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