Looking back on the career of Don Horwood

    Three-time CIS championship coach to be celebrated on Saturday

    By Peter Boer on January 24, 2014

    Rick Stanley loved wearing his green blazer 

    The former member of the Golden Bear’s men’s basketball team, like every other player on the team during Don Horwood’s 26-year tenure as coach, was required to wear the blazer whenever they travelled. 

    Stanley is certain that, if you surveyed every single person who ever played for Horwood, almost all of them would say they still had theirs as well.

    “I absolutely was a fan [of wearing the blazers],” said Stanley. “We had to wear shirts and ties and the green jacket. That was mandated and there were no exceptions.”

    But Stanley sees it as more than just a dress code. He sees so much value in it that he requires the boys on the basketball team he coaches at Paul Kane High School in St Albert to follow a similar dress code on game days.”

    “I felt that was one of the things that helped me become more of a man and more of a gentleman,” Stanley said of the dress code.

    Horwood admits his rules on dress and decorum for his players sometimes rubbed the young men who played for him the wrong way. He even called some of the standards he put in place, upon reflection, naive, but all were a key part of creating the winning culture that reined in the locker room for the men’s basketball team from 1983 until Horwood retired in 2009.

    “I felt it was important to build that atmosphere,” said Horwood, one of five inducted into the Sports Wall of Fame last fall. “Some rules were in place to build that culture of winning and that was very important to me.

    “Winners don’t just happen.”

    Yet for someone who was named CIS Coach of the Year three times, who won three national championships and who appeared in 14 CIS National Championships, basketball was pretty obscure growing up in Carbonear, NL. Horwood’s first ever exposure to the game was when he and a friend decided to fill a pig’s bladder with air and use it and an improvised hoop to shoot some baskets.

    “It was something we automatically did,” Horwood said. “It was the original basketball.”

    Horwood went on to play basketball as a small forward for Memorial University. When he graduated he realized that coaching basketball was what he wanted to do with his life. He spent one year coaching at Brother Rice High School in St. John’s before deciding to send out a blast of resumes to schools in B.C. He was promptly hired by Oak Bay High School in Victoria.

    Coaching in B.C. was everything Horwood had imagined. In his first year he took his squad to the provincial finals and would do so for five years between 1973 and 1978, winning the provincials three times. 

    “I decided afterwards, ‘well I’ve done that. So I would like to try and do it at the University of Alberta,’” Horwood said.

    He enrolled in a master’s program at the University of Alberta and spent one season as an assistant coach with the basketball team under then-head coach Garry Smith. He returned to Victoria for another four years, coaching high school basketball before being hired in 1983 as the head coach of the Golden Bears men’s basketball team. 

    Without even consciously trying, Horwood immediately set out raising the profile of the sport in Alberta.

    “Alberta, unbeknownst to me, had a fairly good, rich tradition in basketball,” Horwood said. “It was never my intention to promote basketball throughout the province.”

    Yet that’s what Horwood did. Whether it was his weekly radio interviews with John Short on his radio show, where his opening line of “B-b-b-b-basketball” become a part of local legend, to the hundreds of young athletes that attended basketball camps at the University of Alberta, Horwood helped raise the profile of both the game and the university. There were approximately 150 high school students attending camps every summer when Horwood started. When he retired 26 years later, there were 650 coming through each year.

    “I would think quite a few of them wanted to be a part of that program,” Horwood said. “The whole thing just kind of snowballed.”

    Stanley saw that happen first-hand when he played for the Bears from 1987-1993. He watched from the floor as the profile of the basketball program grew exponentially.

    “When Don arrived not a lot of fans came to games, the crowds were very sparse,” Stanley recalled. “Through homegrown talent and his ability to influence community members and his ability to build sustainable relationships and foster those relationships, the fan base grew, the corporate sponsorships increased and the awareness and media was far greater than it ever was.”

    And winning three national titles, the first coming in the 1993-1994 season, helped increase that profile as well.

    “It’s more relief than joy,” Horwood said of winning his first title. “It’s mixed, of course. It’s extreme happiness but most coaches put so much pressure on themselves to reach that ultimate goal that when they finally reach that goal, it’s more of a relief that you finally got where you wanted to go than the actual joy of getting there.”

    From the day Clayton Pottinger first arrived to play basketball for the Golden Bears, Horwood talked about winning, something Pottinger says was a little frightening at first.

    “It was scary for a lot of the players,” Pottinger said. “It seemed like such a tall task to win a national championship but he put it all out there and as the days and months went on it became less scary and it became our standard.”

    But Pottinger found that Horwood’s words inspired him to work harder than he felt he really had before.

    “I had always listened and thought of myself as coach-able, but that year I felt I wanted to buy in the most, more than ever,” Pottinger said. 

    The 1993-1994 season was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Golden Bears. Instead Pottinger and the rest of the squad finished the season 18-2 and went on to win a national championship.

    “For us it was seeing the fruits of our labour, the last few seasons where we slowly but surely built this groundswell of work ethic,” Pottinger said. “It was just nice to see it come to fruition.”

    Horwood’s expectations were high as a result, Dave Youngs, who played from 1985-1990, remembers getting called into Horwood’s office at the end of his first season with the Golden Bears. Horwood bluntly told Youngs he could either work on his game over the summer or he could play for another school.

    "I worked my butt off that summer because I wanted to play for him,” Youngs said. “He cared about you as a person and he wanted to make you a better player and he wanted to be part of a successful team so it was like you were a part of your family.”

    Stanley called his time with the team some of the best years of his life.

    “That’s one of the more memorable times in my life that I would not trade for anything, win or lose.”

    It is that family atmosphere, creating that winning culture with successive groups of young men that Horwood says he remembers most. No one writes their own legacy, Horwood said, but he hopes he will be remembered for what he did for his players and the university.

    “I gave everything I had to my job, outside my family,” Horwood said. “I did everything I possibly could for the university and the young men playing in our program. We established a program of excellence.”