On the cusp of a major personal milestone, Kevin Gill opted to pass along the credit to everyone but himself.
That speaks to the essence of Gill, who will tip off his 17th year as the head men’s basketball coach at McLennan Community College on Thursday. He’s a humble, somewhat soft-spoken gentleman. He believes the beauty of basketball is best illustrated through the canvas of teamwork.
But make no mistake – Gill is as zealous a competitor as you’ll ever meet.
“He’s a super-competitive guy,” MCC women’s coach Ricky Rhodes said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s dominoes or spades or golf, whatever it is, he’s very competitive, a thinking man. That’s just who he is and who he’ll always be. He’ll take it to the grave competing.”
Hence the reason the aforementioned milestone has passed into Gill’s cross hairs. Gill’s next victory at MCC will push him into a tie with former coach Ken DeWeese as the No. 1 wins leader in program history. DeWeese compiled a 404-105 all-time record at MCC, while Gill sits at 403-104 as another season prepares to dawn. Two wins, and Gill will hold the record alone.
Well, not really “alone,” at least not in Gill’s estimation. He fully understands that he didn’t reach this summit without help, without getting a boost up the hill.
“The thing it would mean, I’ve had three assistant coaches and they’ve all been really, really good, and so they’ve played a big part in this,” Gill said. “Most importantly, it’s the players. Just being at a place so long and seeing those guys grow up and become husbands and fathers, maturing, and then come back and become really good friends of mine.
“Records are made to be broken, and somebody will probably break this one. To me, it’s just another victory. But I want to give the credit to the people that hired me, my assistant coaches, and especially my players, because they’re the ones that deserve it.”
Even as Gill laced up his kicks last week to engage the author of this story in a friendly game of 1-on-1, his inner teammate still shone through. “Whoo, 1-on-1 is a workout,” he said. “I’ve always liked playing with a team best.” (The author agrees wholeheartedly. Of course, that didn’t prevent the sweet-shooting Gill from making short work of the author, 11-1.)
On-court success has followed Gill wherever he has played or coached, and it’s no accident. His colleagues, his players, even his rivals, universally use the description “hard-working” – or some synonym thereof — to describe Gill.
“Kevin comes to work everyday and it’s been like that for the last 16 years now,” MCC athletic director Shawn Trochim said. “He love what he does, and it shows.”
Gill is a Waco guy. He has Brazos River water flowing through his veins. He starred as a student and an athlete at La Vega High School, then moved across town to Paul Quinn College. He was part of the last graduating class of Paul Quinn in 1990 before the school left Waco for Dallas.
Gill flat-out loved to play basketball. Still does, in fact. Back in his playing days, however, he never gave much thought to coaching. It took his coaches to enlighten him to that career path, to inform him that he’d already been filling that role on the court anyway.
“I can say I did (have that mentality playing), because I was one of the leaders on the team, and for some reason I was always vocal and tried to put people in the right places, told the coach what I saw on the floor,” Gill said. “That kind of helped me become a coach on the floor, in a way. But I never thought I’d be a coach.”
But he listened to those voices that he respected, men like George Dixon and Duane Silver. Gill’s first job after college came at his old stomping grounds La Vega Middle School. For some ambitious coaches, the middle school gig can feel like a prison sentence, or like some sort of menial position shepherding kittens.
But Gill not only embraced it, he loved it. He viewed middle school as the perfect classroom, as well as an integral farm system for the high school program.
“It was really fun, because you get them at a young age, and if they listen, they become really good team players and they know how to compete,” he said. “You can teach them the fundamentals at an early age, which makes it really fun.”
Here’s how much Gill enjoyed his time coaching middle school ball – the next year, he moved over to La Vega High School to coach the junior varsity boys’ team. But after a season of that, he asked Silver, the La Vega head coach at the time, if he could return to the middle school. Too many missed left-handed layups led Gill to realize that he had a passion for instructing the fundamentals of the game, and he felt the fundamentals were best imparted to the younger, impressionable seventh and eighth graders.
Gill took his first high school head coaching job in 1996, landing at nearby Hubbard. The Jaguars were mired in a long postseason drought when Gill arrived. They were 8-21 the year before he took the job and hadn’t made the playoffs in a decade.
But Gill quickly determined that Hubbard wasn’t without talent, merely direction. His first season there, the Jaguars won 25 games and snapped that playoff skid. The turnaround put Gill on the radar of plenty of neighboring superintendents, and Mexia ISD came calling after the season to inquire of Gill’s interest. At the time, the Blackcats were oozing with basketball talent, with the likes of Jesse Kimbrough and Ricky Huckaby on the rise. They’d eventually win state championships in 1999 and 2001.
Gill, however, decided to stay put.
“They had some really good players at Mexia, but I’m kind of a loyal guy,” Gill said. “I had some really good sophomores (at Hubbard) who were going to be juniors that year, Marcus Simmons, Deon Slade. I elected to stay there until at least we graduated. I did, and we had a really good run. I was really proud of those guys. Both of them teach and coach now. I’m reaping the benefits.”
After a three-year run at Hubbard which resulted in a 75-22 record, Gill considered the timing right to take another leap. He returned home to his alma mater at La Vega, and in the process launched one of the sweetest periods of his life.
“Like Dorothy said, there’s no place like home,” Gill said “I knew the kids, I knew their parents, uncles and aunts, I went to school with a lot of them. Just to have a good group of kids, and when you’re fighting for your alma mater that makes it a lot better. The support that we received, to this day, this is my 22nd year as a head coach, and that’s the best team I’ve ever been around.”
They became known as the “Showtime Pirates,” and did those Gill-directed La Vega squads ever put a show. Led by Wesley Pendley, Don Hooks and slick-handling point guard Mario Kinsey – who Gill dubbed “one of the best athletes ever to come through Waco” – the Pirates became a must-see attraction.
“I think people liked watching them play because they played with so much fire and passion, but they played together as a team,” Gill recalled. “If you miss the game, somebody’s going to tell you, ‘Hey, you should have been there. You missed something.’ That’s why the games were so packed.”
In his first season as head coach, La Vega went 36-4 and not only reached the UIL state tournament for the first time, but the Pirates also finished the job by claiming the school’s first-ever state championship as well. In fact, they never trailed in either their state semifinal or state final games.
“The style of play, and just the kids, the community, it was a fun ride,” Gill said. “We played on the biggest stage all year, and finally you get your program’s trip to Austin and they go down there and perform, never trailed a game. It was awesome. That’ll always be one of the best years of my life.”
In Gill’s eyes, life couldn’t have been much sweeter. He was back home, doing what he loved and having a load of success in the process. He and his wife Suzette, a teacher and coach at La Vega, had started a family and were in the process of raising their two girls, Chelsi and Kobi. Plus, even on his off nights from coaching the Pirates, he typically made his way to a basketball game somewhere.
That’s where he was in the spring of 2002, sitting in the stands at an MCC game, when opportunity knocked.
“And I’m just in the gym watching them play, and at halftime I go to the concession stand, and the AD at the time was Wendell Hudson,” Gill said. “He came up to me and said, ‘Have you started working on your master’s?’ And I said, ‘I already have it.’ And he said, ‘Well, you need to apply for this job.’”
Gill said that he was “dumbfounded” by the suggestion. He was happy, wasn’t looking to go anywhere. But as he had so many times in the past, Gill thought it would be prudent to seek the counsel of his own coaching mentors.
“I went and talked it over with one of my mentors, George Dixon, a guy I really look up to,” Gill said. “He just told me, you’re young enough that if you don’t like it, you can always go back to high school. And one positive thing was that you don’t have to move, uproot your family. I thought about it, prayed about it, and did it, and we’re still going.”
Naturally, it was different, though. Gill went from trying to take the roster he’d been dealt and figuring out how it would best coalesce to getting out on the road and recruit a roster of his own. His first season of 2002-03, he had only two sophomores returning, and went out and signed 13 freshmen.
Among that group was forward Eric Dawson, who went on to become one of the better players in MCC history before playing several years of pro ball, including a couple of brief NBA stints. Gill also signed Jesse Kimbrough, the former Mexia star who had walked on to play football at Texas A&M but wanted to return to his passion for hoops.
“Going out, you have to go out and see what you want, and you really don’t know. This is your first time,” Gill said. “I took a lot of Central Texas kids and got a lot of kids who were referred to me by some really good coaches. Then going and watching them play, and having them come in, because I wanted to get the type of kids who were going to fit with what we do, I had a blast.
“One of the hardest things, everybody wanted to schedule us, because they said, ‘All right, we’ve got a high school coach coming.’ But the kids I had had a chip on their shoulder, and that made it really good for us and bad for the opponent.”
MCC wasn’t picked to reach the postseason in Gill’s first year. But the Highlanders stunned eighth-ranked South Plains in the first game of the season, and went on to finish 22-10 and take second in the conference.
In junior college ball, the faces change constantly. Heavy roster turnover is a way of life. But what has remained constant over the past 16 seasons is the expectation.
Gill wants players who are fundamentally sound and will play within a team construct. He wants guys who will play with energy and passion, and who will give their right arm for a victory.
Essentially, he wants players like himself.
“When these kids leave here and they go to that next level, sometimes the light bulb goes on and they say, ‘Man, Coach Rhodes, Coach Gill, MCC was really a great place,’” Rhodes said. “We try to treat them right and teach them right. And we’ve had kids who have said, ‘If MCC were a four-year school, I’d stay there all four years.’”
Under Gill’s direction, the Highlanders have won 79 percent of their games. They’ve reached the regional tournament every year, and have claimed eight conference titles. In 2016, MCC scratched its way through the always-rigorous competition of Region V to reach the NJCAA National Tournament in Hutchison, Kan. It marked MCC’s first trip to nationals since 1998.
It’s not necessarily commonplace for a basketball coach to remain in the junior college ranks, at the same school, for going on two decades. But Gill has stuck and stayed, and he remains perfectly content with his view from The Highlands.
“Our administration here is really, really good. Our athletic director is awesome,” Gill said. “So, I’ve had opportunities to leave, but the grass is not always greener. I’ve checked with some of my mentors about jobs, and I’ve talked to other guys who have said, ‘Man, I left here and I should have really stayed. It looked good at the beginning.’
“But in the end, as long as you’re happy and doing what you love to do, enjoy your job, that’s what it’s all about. If the right opportunity presents itself – it has to be the right one – we may think about it. But as far as enjoying my job and doing what I love to do, I’m as happy as anybody.”