Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Don Horwood to be honoured later this month

Coach Horwood is being given a very well deserved send off by U of A. I had the chance to spend considerable time with Coach Horwood over the past few years, including authoring this profile from a couple of years ago and he was always gracious with his time and thoughts. Best of luck in retirement Coach. Click here for the Horwood Toast and Roast invitation

Coach Horwood to get his day in the sun

Long before becoming Edmonton’s mayor, Stephen Mandel was a high school hoops coach who regularly attended Alberta Golden Bears games, marveling as Don Horwood built the Bears into a Canadian university basketball powerhouse and didn’t look back.

So when a request to proclaim a day honouring Horwood came across his desk, Mandel likely didn’t hesitate before giving his stamp of approval.

Sept. 18 in Edmonton will be Don Horwood Day, a celebration of the legendary coach who retired in February after 26 seasons at the University of Alberta, with nearly 600 career wins, seven Canada West championships, three national titles, and three CIS coach of the year awards to his name.

“Don, in my humble opinion, was one of the really great basketball coaches in the history of (CIS),” says Mandel. “He was able to put competitive teams on the floor year in and year out.”

Usually, Mandel says, days are proclaimed recognizing organizations that have made great contributions to Edmonton. The only individuals having recently received such tribute are Edmonton Oiler hall-of-famers.

An unsuspecting Horwood was “flabbergasted”.

“I watch and you read about Mark Messier Day or Wayne Gretzky Day,” the 63-year-old says. “Who in their right mind would have even considered that such a thing would happen to me? That’s so far out there that wouldn’t even be in the realm of possibility.”

The proclamation request came from Bears alumni via some helpful university staff, to coincide with a Sept. 18 “toast roast” for Horwood.

“We think it’s important to say a good proper ‘thanks’ and ‘enjoy your retirement’,” says Murray Cunningham, a Bears forward from 1991 to 1996.

When Horwood arrived at the U of A in 1983 and took over a team five years removed from a winning season, no one could have imagined the impact the former high school coach would make.

The Bears won Canada West in Horwood’s second and fourth seasons, advanced to the national tournament in his seventh year, and finally captured the school’s first CIS basketball championship in 1994, a decade into Horwood’s tenure. National championships came again in 1995 and 2002, and the Bears never finished below .500 in his final 15 seasons.

“Don Horwood put basketball on the map in Edmonton,” says Mandel, recalling how Horwood’s tireless promotion of basketball turned poorly-attended Bears games into a hot ticket.

Cunningham, MVP of the 1994 CIS championship, says he’s only recently come to fully appreciate Horwood’s efforts.

“Don has put in a ton of time that he probably didn’t have to, but he wanted to because he knew it would make things better, he knew it would improve his chances of winning” says an appreciative Cunningham.

“That just gives the players a better experience as you go through, and I don’t know if you see that as a player.”

“He always treated his players with great respect,” echos Mandel. “I don’t think ... I’ve ever heard players critical of his coaching, his style, or commitment to his team.

“I’ve never heard the university say anything (suggesting) that Don Horwood wasn’t the highest-calibre coach, one of tremendous morale fibre,” continues Mandel, whose politics don’t always jive with Horwood’s, but the two have long shared a basketball bond.

“He didn’t do the kind of thing that some coaches try to do. Everything that’s good about basketball is Don Horwood.”

Horwood is easing his way into retirement. He just finished cleaning out his office early this month (current Canadian junior team coach Greg Francis is tabbed as the successor) and last week was working a basketball camp in Canmore.

There’s no itch to get back into coaching, Horwood insists.

“I’m looking forward to watching some games and not having to worry about wins and losses, and how the teams performing,” says Horwood, who plans to follow both the Bears and high school hoops.

“I still like the game, I still enjoy watching it, I still like the players, so from the point of view of enjoying it and not having to be responsible for anything, it’s going to be a pleasant change.”

Always one to deflect praise, Horwood is humbled, honoured, and “any other word you can think of” by Don Horwood Day. The city hasn’t yet figured out how they will mark the occasion, but whatever happens, it’s going to be pretty hard for the unassuming coach to duck the spotlight this time.

“This is a direct shot, isn’t it?” laughs Cunningham. “He can’t really deflect this. This is Don Horwood Day.”

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