By Jason Elmquist
STILLWATER, Okla. —
Twenty years after making a name for himself on the basketball scene in Oklahoma, Steve Hesser has become a national name.
Hesser, a Stillwater High graduate and 1980 graduate of Oklahoma State University, coached the Drury (Mo.) University men’s basketball team to the NCAA Division II national championship Sunday with a hard-fought 74-73 victory over Metro State (Colo.) in Atlanta.
“I had the opportunity to be a part of three state championship teams and one runner-up (at Bartlesville) and those were special to me, as well,” Hesser said by phone from Atlanta Monday. “I’ve been blessed to have great players wherever I’ve been. And I’ve got a great group of guys here with a couple of seniors who are very special. They took me and the university on a great ride.”
The past few months leading to Sunday’s shining moment has been tedious for the SHS alum.
On the court, the Panthers had dropped out of the national Top 25 after losing four of five games in a midseason stretch. In February, the 55-year-old coach spent a weekend in a Quincy, Ill., hospital with pneumonia — which led to the discovery that he had bacteria in his blood — and he was forced to miss a game.
After Sunday’s victory he deemed himself “at about 85 percent” since his health scare. While Hesser received recognition for his squad’s victory, he gave most of the praise to the work of his assistant coaches Ja Havens — whose father was a coach and athletic director at Stillwater High — and Steven Gum, and graduate assistant Brandon Kimbrough, for the team’s success down the stretch.
“I’ve got a great staff. I was limited for some weeks ... but I was able to come back, but my staff was very good,” Hesser said. “Ja Havens has been with me for eight years and he understands what we do and did a great job of filling in the gaps in my absence.”
There was plenty of success, too.
With the six wins to win the national title, the Drury squad finished the season on a school-record 23-game winning streak under the ninth-year Drury coach.
Hours after his Panthers squad mounted the comeback to claim the crown, Hesser was named the National Associated of Basketball Coaches National D-II Coach of the Year at the NABC Awards banquet Sunday evening.
“It’s a great honor. What I tell me guys, though, is that when teams accomplish things, individuals get rewarded and I was the recipient of that award because of the success our team had,” Hesser said. “It’s just very gratifying.”
Hesser won three state high school championships while a coach at Bartlesville and later coached the Pioneers to four conference crowns and two trips to the state tournament in his six years as the head man at his alma mater. In 2007 he was elected to the Oklahoma Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame. In his one year at OSU, Hesser met his wife, Patti, and he still has family living in Stillwater — including a sister who works in Oklahoma State University athletics department.
“Stillwater was very good to me. Very good to me,” Hesser said. “I love going up there and it’s a good place to be from.”
Hesser’s Panthers got the opportunity to attend Monday’s D-I national championship game between Louisville and Michigan in a suite as guests of the NCAA. The team was recognized on the court during a second-half media timeout at the Georgia Dome.
“The way we’ve been treated as a Division II school, here at the Final Four and everything has been first class,” Hesser said Monday afternoon. “To be able to have the opportunity to walk out there in front of 75,000 people on national TV as the Division II national champions will be something our guys will never forget.”