WINONA LAKE – It's the end of an era at Grace College.
In a conference room overlooking the court where he has coached more than 1,300 games, Lancers men's basketball coach Jim Kessler announced Monday that he would be retiring at the end of this, his 42nd season at the helm. Grace will be handing the job to associate head coach and former Lancers point guard Scott Moore beginning next season.
Kessler was reflective and emotional at the podium as he addressed a room full of his family, players and the media.
“I sit out there on that big 'G' (at center court), I've done this for years, and I think, 'Do I want to do this again?'” Kessler said. “All of us have to realize we do have mortality. I'm 70.
“A friend of mine, Ralph Hodge, who coached at Olivet (Nazarene) for many years told me last summer, 'I want to coach a couple more years, I have Cardinal tickets, I want to go to all the games.' He died in (November). He coached too long. I don't want to coach too long.”
With 780 victories since he began in 1977 coaching the Lancers, the only team he ever led, Kessler is the active leader in wins among NAIA Division II coaches. He coached Grace to the national title in 1992, the Lancers' only NAIA championship, and won 10 conference championships.
The NAIA and National Christian College Athletic Association Hall of Famer will coach the rest of this season, culminating in the NCCAA Tournament in mid-March, which Grace will host. The Lancers are 15-15, 5-13 in Crossroads League play this season.
After the season, Kessler will transition to semi-retirement but remain employed at the school as a special assistant to athletic director Chad Briscoe. He joked that he'll be in charge of “trash cans and toilet paper replacement” and will try to spend a lot of time with his 14 grandkids.
“Even a marathon has a finish line,” said Kessler, dressed in a red sport coat. “And that's it, I'm at the finish line.”
The main theme that emerged from the four speakers at the news conference – Kessler, Moore, Briscoe and college President William Katip – was that Kessler always cared more about his players as people than he did winning and losing.
Thus, it was not surprising that when he was asked to pick the high point of his career, he eschewed the 1992 national championship and instead chose being able to pass on the job to Moore, his longtime assistant and former point guard.
Moore, 33, a Columbia City graduate, played for Kessler from 2004 to '08 and is sixth in program history with 555 assists. He has been on the Grace coaching staff since 2012, and Kessler said he's been handing more and more responsibility to Moore as the transition approaches.
Moore thanked his family and then struggled to get through thanking his mentor. He had to pause several times to compose himself as his voice broke.
“The third-most important decision in my life (behind giving his life to Christ and marrying his wife) came in April 2004, when I committed to play basketball at Grace College for a man named Jim Kessler,” Moore said. “It's difficult to find the words. (He's) taught me more in 15 years than I could ever imagine.”